Is Israel's Nuclear Ambiguity Worth Preserving?

The Israeli left-wing Meretz party is calling for an end to Israel's "nuclear ambiguity policy." Adam Raz writes that such a move is likely to actually step up the nuclear arms race in the Middle East — and to induce other countries to join in.

al-monitor Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu draws a red line on the graphic of a bomb used to represent Iran's nuclear program as he addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the UN Headquarters in New York, on Sept. 27, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.

Topics covered

zahava gal-on, nuclear, israel, deterrence

Oct 30, 2012

Since the 1960s, Israel has maintained a "nuclear ambiguity policy" under which it will not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East. This policy, according to which Israel refrains from declaring what it does and doesn't have is a "diplomatic fiction," and it isn't for nothing that it was deemed by some to deserve the Israel Defense Prize. It is a "fiction" since it is no secret that, according to foreign sources, Israel is a nuclear state, as even a child can discover reading Wikipedia. It is "diplomatic" as this fiction plays an immeasurably important role in the international arena.

The "nuclear ambiguity policy" has not been conceived as a ploy designed to lead astray the gentiles in the United States and in our own Middle Eastern region. Rather, it forms an integral part of the Israeli policy that is aimed at forestalling the nuclearization of the Middle East.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the question of whether Israel was indeed in need of a military nuclear project was under dispute in the Israeli defense and political top echelons. Figures like Yigal Alon and Yitzhak Rabin were of the opinion that the nuclearization of the Israeli-Arab conflict would be a most dangerous move. They argued that, given the limited range of military action in the region, a "balance of terror" that would provide a stable nuclear security net of checks and balances (like that maintained between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was itself rather precarious) would not only be infeasible, but could actually tip the scales to the detriment of Israel. Thus, for instance, Egypt, a far larger country than Israel, would not have to build up too vast an arsenal of nuclear weapons to wipe out Israel, while Israel would have to keep up a huge nuclear arsenal (at an exorbitant cost that would heavily weigh on its economy) to deter its rivals.

The most outspoken opponent of the "nuclear ambiguity policy" was Moshe Dayan in his capacity as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and later on, as Minister of Defense, who more than once called for substituting the policy of ambiguity by open and explicit deterrence. The rumors of the proposal by current Israeli President Shimon Peres to conduct a nuclear test on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War or of Dayan's suggestion to send "nuclear signals" on the third day of the 1973 Yom Kippur War have long since become a part of the thriller-like diplomatic lore of those days. As known, the Middle East has not been nuclearized, and this should be attributed to the credit of Israel, which, to all ends and purposes, is not a nuclear state.

The "nuclear ambiguity" policy is needed primarily because of the parallel dispute held on the Arab side over the advisability of developing a military nuclear project. It's Israel's policy of ambiguity that enables those Arab statesmen who oppose the notion of a military nuclear project in their country to argue that Israel does not have nuclear capability either. As a matter of fact, hadn't it been for the differences of opinion over the nuclear issue in the Arab world, this policy of ambiguity would have been uncalled-for.

Over the years, the overwhelming majority of Israeli statesmen accepted the policy of ambiguity and unanimously agreed to settle any disagreement on the nuclear issue far away from the public eye. However, it transpires that this implicit agreement has been violated lately. The only one in the current Israeli political establishment who openly opposes the policy of ambiguity is Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On. She argues that since it's known to all and sundry that Israel has nuclear weapons at its disposal, it should be explicitly admitted and the ambiguity policy discarded. It seems to me that the position voiced by Gal-On is not that far removed from the prime minister's stance on the issue. Netanyahu already stated on past occasions that once Iran came closer to acquiring military nuclear capability, Israel would have to dispense with its policy of ambiguity. Former Prime Minister Sharon said at the time with reference to Netanyahu's statement that "he [Netanyahu] would be liable to face trial the same way [Israel's nuclear whistle blower Mordechai] Vanunu was."

We should thus contemplate the possible implications of Gal-On's recommendations in case the State of Israel decides to adopt them. We may expect, first, that the revocation of the ambiguity policy would enhance the legitimacy granted to Iran's nuclear aspirations and push other states in the region into joining the nuclear arms race. Second, it would undermine Israel's relations with the United States, which is leading the efforts to stop as far as possible the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world. What's more, it would erode Israel's ability to forestall the nuclearization of other Middle Eastern countries, whether by means of sanctions or by force. And last but not least, Israel would lose its conventional military edge over its neighbors with the evolvement of an unstable system of checks and balances. The international Social-Democratic movement has been acting for over half a century now to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons globally. Gal-On, who chairs the Israeli Social-Democratic Meretz party, seems to have wandered far afield, away from her true political home, embracing the most conservative and reactionary trends possible.

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