Israel’s Security Challenges for 2014/ Nuclear Precedents
Dec 6, 2013
December 6, 2013
Number 12/13 #02
This Update features two topics – a new assessment from Israeli intelligence on the Jewish state’s security situation at the start of World War II, and two articles dealing with the history of nuclear proliferation and non-proliferation in various countries – a topic highly relevant in the wake of the interim Iran/Geneva nuclear deal.
First up is top Israeli security correspondent Ron Ben Yishai summarising the findings of the latest annual evaluation by Israel’s intelligence of the Israel national security situation. Ben Yishai reports that the overall tone of the report was relatively optimistic, concluding that even though terror groups are multiplying and spreading across the region, the threat from them has not increased because they are currently both pre-occupied with other issues and deterred from tangling with Israel. The deal to disarm Syria of chemical weapons is also seen as a positive for Israel, but the report warns that Israel does not see Iran giving up its current status as a nuclear threshold state despite the Geneva deal. There’s much more and to read it all, CLICK HERE. Barry Rubin also has some interesting comments on the same report.
Next, Israeli arms control specialist Emily Landau examines past cases of WMD proliferation and non-proliferation and the lessons they offer for the Iran negotiations from here on out. She focuses especially on North Korea, Iraq, Syria and Libya and one lesson she draws is that successful efforts are instances of compellance, meaning leverage, not confidence-building, is the key to success. She also notes that, in the past, when a proliferating state designed to change course – as in Libya and Syria – the process was usually quick and did not involve extended negotiations over months or years. For her analysis in full, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Max Fischer of the Washington Post looks at the history of Israel’s nuclear program in an attempt to answer the questions always asked about it in the context of the Iranian nuclear crisis. One thing Fischer makes clear that most people do not realise is that it is not the case that Israel created its nuclear capabilities in defiance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – in fact Israel already likely had a nuclear weapons capability in 1970 when the NPT was signed. He also focuses on US policy towards Israeli nuclear efforts in the 1960s – which was strongly opposed to Israel’s nuclear efforts – but which culminated in a 1969 agreement to reluctantly tolerate them providing Israel did not publicly acknowledge its capabilities or do any nuclear testing, a policy which has been upheld by Israel ever since. For this important piece detailing what everyone should understand about the history of Israel’s nuclear program, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- The death of Nelson Mandela – one of the most inspiring human beings of the last century – is being marked around the world and among the many marking his passing are the World Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Commitee, and Israeli President Shimon Peres and PM Binyamin Netanyahu. Some remembrances on Mandela’s relationships with Israel and the Jewish people are here and here.
- Some new details on Hezbollah’s increasing efforts to prepare for the next battle with Israel. Meanwhile, reports say Hezbollah has over 200 UAV/drones it plans to deploy.
- AIJAC’s Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz on what the Australian media is getting wrong about Israel’s controversial plans to improve the lives of the Negev Bedouin – which involves evacuating some smaller, remote unrecognised villages.
- AIJAC guest Matthew Levitt on ABC Radio “PM” yesterday discussing the killing of senior Hezbollah figure Hassan al-Lakis in Beirut on Wednesday.
Analysis: Largely optimistic intelligence evaluation includes quite a few causes for concern
Ron Ben Yishai
The law does not allow us to report what the cabinet ministers heard from senior intelligence officials as part of the annual evaluation presented to them on Monday. But reliable sources say the ministers left the important meeting, held at the Mossad facility in central Israel, in quite a good mood.
Before getting into details, it should be clarified that an “intelligence evaluation” only reviews developments in the region and in the world which might affect our national and personal security, as opposed to the annual “national evaluation of the situation” which takes other factors into account.
All signs point to a mostly optimistic intelligence evaluation for 2014. First of all, because the direct conventional threats on Israel (on the part of countries’ armies) decreased dramatically in the past year – due to the internal conflicts which our neighbors’ regular armies are busy dealing with and will likely be occupied with next year as well.
Secondly, because although terror groups have multiplied and opened new fronts, and are even growing stronger militarily, the danger they pose now and in the coming year has not increased significantly. And more importantly, they are more deterred than ever. Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and even the Salafis and global jihad groups in Sinai and Syria have at the moment – and will likely have next year too – good, existential reasons to try not to get entangled in a wide-scale conflict with Israel.
Terror is deterred not just because of the IDF’s intelligence and operational abilities, but also – to the same extent – because of other factors (for example, the security policy of the new regime in Egypt).
Thirdly, because the region is experiencing political, diplomatic and military processes which have the potential, at least theoretically, to develop in a positive direction from a security-related Israeli point of view. From the agreement to disarm Syria from its chemical weapons, which is being implemented impeccably in the meantime; through the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and a possible achievement for the world powers in their negotiations with Iran, which will set the military nuclear program several years backwards; to the set of interests shared between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and Egypt in light of the weakened US status in the region, the expected reinforcement in Iran’s regional and global status, and the threat hanging over them and us from the radical political Islam.
Not all of these positive opportunities and others will be realized in the coming year, but even if some of them yield a positive result – it’s good enough.
Iran: Khamenei’s insistence
This is where the good news ends. The bad news is led by the estimate that Iran will likely not be willing, as part of the permanent agreement in six months, to completely abandon the abilities allowing the future production of a nuclear weapon. Simply put, Ali Khamenei’s Iran aspires to remain a threshold country even if it pays a heavy price for it.
IDF Military Intelligence Director Aviv Major-General Kochavi estimated in the past, and even sent a special report to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the matter, that there is a political and social change taking place in Iran and greater willingness than before to draw closer to the West and accept its demands.
Nonetheless, experts estimate that one of the main reasons for Iran wanting a nuclear weapon is to guarantee the regime’s survival, a sort of insurance policy. Khamenei saw what happened to Muammar Gaddafi, who disarmed of his nuclear and missile capabilities in Libya. Therefore, even further inconvenience to the population due to the sanctions will not stop an aspiration to at least maintain nuclear threshold abilities and the array of missiles.
However, it’s unclear how much rope Khamenei will give Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif as part of the negotiations for the permanent agreement. The internal power struggle in Iran is still open and a lot depends on the way things are conducted during the implementation of the interim agreement. So it’s even possible that as part of the permanent agreement the Iranians will agree to a settlement pulling them several years away from the bomb.
By the way, it should be mentioned that in the uranium enrichment track Iran made a breakthrough last year when it installed thousands of centrifuges, and so today it is already in the position of a threshold country or almost threshold country. On the other hand, in the atomic weapon development and production program (prototype of a nuclear explosive device and warhead), the Iranians have not made much progress. That is also an issue which requires thorough treatment in the negotiations for the permanent agreement.
In any event, the regime in Iran is stable in the meantime and its status has even become stronger following the Geneva agreement.
Islam: Signs of jihad in West Bank
Almost all other security-related issues (apart from the Iranian nukes) are dictated and stem from what the Military Intelligence refers to as “the regional turmoil,” which sent the region into a situation characterized by uncertainty and explosiveness.
The leaders of the State of Israel are not the only ones who should prepare for the unexpected and for a sudden, violent outbreak of masses. Arab leaders, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Khamenei in Tehran must also consider the rising power of the public seeking economic welfare, freedom and justice, and its ability to undermine the stability of the regimes – even those which rose to power after the first wave of uprisings in early 2011.
The coup in which Mohamed Morsi was deposed from Egyptian presidency is nicknamed by the Military Intelligence “Turmoil 2.0.” In other words, we are already witnessing the second wave of upheavals the region is going through, in which there appears to be a disappointment with the political and radical Islam. Not just with the Muslim Brotherhood, which failed in Egypt and Tunisia, but also with the groups of jihadists and Salafis experiencing renewed prosperity.
The turmoil in the Arab world saved the global jihad from the school of al-Qaeda, which was in a state of decline, and gave it renewed momentum. The weapons plundered in Libya and the areas with no governance created in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sinai, Iraq, North Africa and Sahel allow al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to gain power and serve as the driving force of the fighting against the old regimes.
Recently, the Salafis and jihadists have been boosting their activity in Gaza and creating something we haven’t seen so far: Cells in the West Bank too. Yet intelligence experts note that the immediate level of danger is not high, as they have set a list of priorities for themselves: First bringing down the regimes and taking over Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Sinai, establishing Sharia countries and social activity in the Da’wah Islam style, and only at the third stage an all-out war against Israel.
This agenda terrifies Arab rulers from Saudi Arabia to Egypt and traps them, especially in light of Washington’s helplessness and unreliable policy. This is the reason why Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are giving Egypt $100 million a month to buy food and so that it will not have to depend on Washington.
Syria: Assad will avoid conflict with Israel
According to the estimates, the civil war in Syria is slightly diminishing and there are fewer casualties every day. But it will still go on for a relatively long time, and even if President Assad is overthrown for some reason or killed – the fire will continue there. Too many bloody scores have to be settled there
In the meantime Assad’s situation is improving, either because the divided rebels have lost momentum in the fighting after their hopes for an American operation as a punishment for Assad’s use of chemical weapons were dashed, or because the agreement between Russia and the United States for the disarmament of chemical weapons gave the regime renewed international legitimacy and immunity.
Iran supports Assad financially despite the sanctions, because it considers his regime to be the most important foreign post of the Shiite Islamic revolution. Russia provides Assad with a diplomatic umbrella and weapons in a bid to reclaim the outposts it lose when the USSR collapsed.
And so the civil war in Syria has turned into an entanglement of intersecting front lines in the battles between Sunnis and Shiites, between the radical axis led by Iran and the axis led by Saudi Arabia, and into a confrontation between Russia and the US over regional hegemony. Only massive external intervention has a chance of bringing the war in Syria to an end, experts say.
And what about us? Even with his improved situation, Assad is increasingly inclined not to get involved in a conflict with Israel.
Lebanon: Next conflict will be different
Hezbollah is in a similar situation and will also, experts estimate, think twice before entering a conflict with the IDF. Hassan Nasrallah is maintaining his powers so that he can attack Israel if Iran’s nuclear facilities are attacked and in order to continue aiding the Assad regime in Syria. This aid – at Khamene’s explicit order – put Nasrallah in a complicated situation against the other factions in Lebanon and weakened him.
Some will be surprised to hear that Hezbollah hardly strengthened its military capabilities in the past year, apart from the combat experience its members gained in Syria, at the cost of hundreds of casualties. Hezbollah has not received a lot of strategic weapons from Syria or Iran.
If a conflict does develop after all, estimates are that Hezbollah will deal a blow which will be more serious than anything we have experienced so far. However, the experts say, the organization does not have sufficient capabilities to significantly limit and sabotage the combined ability of the IDF’s Air Force and intelligence unit to strongly damage the array and arsenal of missiles and rockets, thereby eroding the launching abilities at the very first hours of fighting, which will minimize the damage caused to the home front.
In addition, in the coming year Hezbollah will not have the ability to hit home front targets more accurately than before. It’s safe to assume, therefore, that in the next war it will try to deal a concentrated blow of hundreds and perhaps thousands of missiles, rockets and UAVs in the first hours and days of the conflict – before the Air Force demonstrates its full force, in an attempt to neutralize the abilities of the Iron Dome and other active defense systems.
Nasrallah will do so at the advice of the Iranians, also in a bid to shorten the length of the fighting significantly and prevent Lebanon from suffering serious damage which will stir up the other factions and the Shiites against Hezbollah.
Tunnels from Sinai to Gaza, from Gaza to Israel
Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are planning to apply similar tactics in Gaza in case of a conflict with Israel. As the Egyptian army is making it difficult to smuggle weapons from Sinai and destroying smuggling tunnels, the organizations are engaging in a concentrated effort to produce their own relatively long-range rockets of the M-75 model, an imitation of the Iranian Fajr-5
A corresponding effort is taking place in the digging of tunnels and hidden launching holes. The goal is to allow massive rocket fire at the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and Jerusalem, which will overpower the Iron Dome system, thereby protecting the survival of the fighting force against the Air Force. The Gazans are particularly focusing on digging fighting tunnels through which they will be able to target the Negev communities.
But in general, Hamas is in a lousy situation and is trying to draw closer to Iran again in order to renew the financial aid. There is also an attempt to advance the reconciliation with Abbas, who is rejecting the courting for now.
Abbas’ situation, on the other hand, has improved marvelously recently, whether because of Hamas’ terrible state or because of the negotiations with Israel and the prisoner release. Nonetheless, the Palestinian Authority president is aware of the possibility that his political rivals will use every concession he makes to bring about a mass uprising on the Palestinian street.
Experts estimate that the threatening shadow of the “turmoil,” which has skipped the Palestinian street in the meantime, will prevent Abbas from making big concessions, for example over the right of return, which are required for a permanent agreement
But the Americans will likely try to raise their own bridging proposals, and that is why recently Abbas has been conveying faint signals that he is willing to reach an interim agreement in which he will receive territories in the West Bank over which he will be able to declare sovereignty, although he officially rules that out.
US not going anywhere
It’s reasonable to assume that the intelligence evaluation also dealt with the weakening status of the US in the region. The ministers were possibly surprised to hear that the experts believe that in spite of the rift in the relations between Washington and Saudi Arabia, despite the open dispute between the Obama administration and Egypt’s new rulers, and notwithstanding Netanyahu’s reprimanding approach towards the interim nuclear agreement with Iran – in the meantime there is no substitute for the US as the factor defending the important countries in the region and their interests, militarily and diplomatically.
More importantly, although America is tired of the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and although the public opinion in the US does not support an overly deep involvement in the Middle East, and although the US will be energetically independent in two or three years – Washington has no intention of abandoning the region and focusing exclusively on East Asia.
The US knows that the regional stability in the Middle East, where most of the global oil reserves are located, dictates ups and downs in energy prices in the global market. These prices affect the global economy, which also affects growth and employment in the US. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that next year and in the years to come, America will remain the main influential factor in the region.
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The interim deal signed in Geneva by the P5+1 and Iran is meant only to put “more time on the clock” in order to negotiate a final deal – a comprehensive agreement that will ensure that Iran backs away from its military nuclear ambitions. As the international community embarks on its most difficult proliferation challenge yet, what lessons can be drawn from confrontations with other determined proliferators? What model best applies?
When international focus in mid-2003 turned almost simultaneously to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear crises, diplomacy emerged as the virtually unchallenged strategy for confronting the nuclear aspirations of both determined proliferators. The decision to pursue negotiations rather than military force did not emerge by chance, nor was it inevitable. Rather, it was a deliberate choice that was shaped in large measure by the dynamics surrounding the US invasion of Iraq earlier that year. The US choice to employ military force to confront potential WMD proliferators after 9/11 had met with serious opposition well before the US decision to go to war in Iraq, and was amplified as America prepared for attack. But the final nail on the coffin of the “use-of-force” strategy came after US forces that invaded Iraq failed to find the WMD that were the declared justification for going to war.
The shadow of Iraq loomed large over efforts to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions over the course of the next decade, and had two decidedly negative consequences. First, it severely constrained efforts to establish firm grounds for the existence of a “smoking gun” regarding Iran’s military nuclear ambitions. Compounding the already difficult task of presenting evidence of military nuclear activities in an NPT member state – primarily due to the centrality of dual-use technology – was the nagging insistence of skeptics that if Iraq was unfairly accused of WMD capabilities, who is to say Iran is not similarly misjudged? It was only in late 2011, when the full annex on the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program was revealed, that the suspicions were broadly recognized as constituting a virtual smoking gun. By this time, however, crucial years were wasted on less-than determined efforts to confront Iran. Second, the US military venture in Iraq produced a gun-shy America when it came to Iran; this undermined an important lever of pressure that could have been achieved through credible threats of military consequences for lack of Iranian seriousness at the negotiations table. Unfortunately, every presidential statement that “all options are on the table” was diluted by a US official proclaiming that another war would be a disaster.
Now that negotiations with Iran have produced an interim deal, the North Korean model comes into sharper relief. Negotiations with North Korea over the past two decades produced a number of agreements that were ultimately not upheld by North Korea. The most notable was the deal struck in September 2005 whereby North Korea committed to abandon its nuclear program and pursue nuclear disarmament in return for economic and energy assistance. But the deal never materialized – North Korea tested its first nuclear device the following year, and since then has continued on a path of nuclear defiance despite additional attempts to restart negotiations.
The North Korean model thus demonstrates that when trying to stop a determined proliferator, regardless of whether the approach is negotiations or military force, the challenge is the same: to get the determined proliferator to back away from military aspirations and return to its NPT commitments. As such, it is always a game of compellence.
When military force is chosen, the element of compellence is quite apparent. But it is often overlooked in the case of negotiations, especially when diplomacy is mistakenly couched in the language of “confidence building.” But in fact, successful negotiations necessitate an equally forceful approach; to achieve nuclear rollback via negotiations, the international community will have to be armed (in more ways than one) with a considerable degree of leverage. In all scenarios, the determined proliferator is trying to proliferate, and there is no deal that will meet its interests in this regard, unless pressure (military threats and/or economic sanctions) becomes unbearable. Therefore, whatever approach is taken, leverage is the key to success.
For all the differences between the cases of Iran and North Korea, the North Korean model demonstrates clearly what happens when a determined proliferator faces international negotiators that are devoid of any leverage for compelling it to reverse course in the nuclear realm. Once North Korea demonstrated that it is a nuclear state, the military option was rendered null and void. That left only economic pressure, but the specifics of the North Korean case basically neutralized economic leverage as well. Due to Chinese and Russian fears that the collapse of North Korea would spark a massive influx of refugees across their borders, the two powers have been unwilling to risk creating an economic disaster in North Korea. This has engendered the unusual dynamic whereby North Korea is subjected to sanctions after every case of defying UN Security Council resolutions, but when it returns to the table to negotiate, it normally receives the economic assistance that it seeks – generally in return for meaningless North Korean nuclear promises.
The experience of dealing with North Korea underscores the importance of the economic leverage that the P5+1 finally gained over Iran in 2012, following the set of strong and effective economic and financial sanctions that the US and EU put in place. The military option is also still realistic enough to be on the table seriously. If this leverage is squandered in return for anything less than very significant nuclear concessions by Iran, the Iranian case will very likely begin looking more and more like North Korea, with the international community increasingly powerless to stop it.
Two additional models highlight another important lesson for those trying to negotiate a deal with Iran: Libya (2003) and Syria (2013). The lesson of these two cases is that when pressure succeeds in forcing a state to actually make the decision to reverse course – Libya regarding all WMD, and Syria regarding its chemical weapons – it does not take years to finalize a deal. Indeed, the details can be worked out very quickly, and the process can begin almost immediately. In the Syrian case, for example, no one contends that the rollback is not final because the knowhow to make chemical weapons is still in the minds of Syrian scientists, an argument that has lately been thrown into the Iranian debate. When a state makes a genuine decision to roll back its program, these arguments are irrelevant – they are only raised when that decision has not been taken.
Emily Landau is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, where she is also director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project.
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By Max Fisher
Washington Post, December 2 at 9:30 am
Iranian officials sometimes respond to accusations that Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability by replying that, not only do they not want a bomb, they’d actually like to see a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East. Yes, this is surely in part a deflection, meant to shift attention away from concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities by not-so-subtly nodding to the one country in the region that does have nuclear weapons: Israel.
But could Iran have a point? Is there something hypocritical about the world tolerating Israel’s nuclear arsenal, which the country does not officially acknowledge but has been publicly known for decades, and yet punishing Iran with severe economic sanctions just for its suspected steps toward a weapons program? Even Saudi Arabia, which sees Iran as its implacable enemy and made its accommodations with Israel long ago, often joins Tehran’s calls for a “nuclear-free region.” And anyone not closely versed in Middle East issues might naturally wonder why the United States would accept Israeli warheads but not an Iranian program.
“This issue comes up in every lecture I give,” Joe Cirincione, president of the nuclear nonproliferation-focused Ploughshares Fund, told me. The suspicions that Israel gets special treatment because it’s Israel, and that Western countries are unfairly hard on Israel’s neighbors, tend to inform how many in the Middle East see the ongoing nuclear disputes. “It is impossible to give a nuclear policy talk in the Middle East without having the questions focus almost entirely on Israel,” Cirincione said.
Of course, many Westerners would likely argue that Israel’s weapons are morally and historically defensible in a way that an Iranian program would not be, both because of Israel’s roots in the Holocaust and because it fought a series of defensive wars against its neighbors. “Israel has never given any reason to doubt its solely defensive nature,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, summarizing the American position. “Israel has never brandished its capabilities to exert regional influence, cow its adversaries or threaten its neighbors.”
There’s truth to both of these perspectives. But the story of the Israeli nuclear program, and how the United States came to accept it, is more complicated and surprising than you might think.
The single greatest factor explaining how Israel got the world to accept its nuclear program may be timing. The first nuclear weapon was detonated in 1945, by the United States. In 1970, most of the world agreed to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which forbids any new countries from developing nuclear weapons. In that 25-year window, every major world power developed a nuclear weapon: the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France and China. They were joined by exactly one other country: Israel.
The Israeli nuclear program was driven in many ways by the obsessive fear that gripped the nation’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, in which the new country fought off Egyptian and Jordanian armies, Ben-Gurion concluded that Israel could survive only if it had a massive military deterrent — nuclear weapons.
“What Einstein, Oppenheimer and Teller, the three of them are Jews, made for the United States could also be done by scientists in Israel for their own people,” Ben-Gurion wrote in 1956. Avner Cohen, the preeminent historian of Israel’s nuclear program, has written that Ben-Gurion “believed Israel needed nuclear weapons as insurance if it could no longer compete with the Arabs in an arms race, and as a weapon of last resort in case of an extreme military emergency. Nuclear weapons might also persuade the Arabs to accept Israel’s existence, leading to peace in the region.”
But Israel of the 1950s was a poor country. And it was not, as it is today, a close political and military ally of the United States. Israel had to find a way to keep up with the much wealthier and more advanced world powers dominating the nuclear race. How it went about doing this goes a long way to explaining both why the United States initially opposed Israel’s nuclear program and how the world came around to accepting Israeli warheads.
So the Israelis turned to France, which was much further along on its own nuclear program, and in 1957 secretly agreed to help install a plutonium-based facility in the small Israeli city of Dimona. Why France did this is not settled history. French foreign policy at the time was assiduously independent from, and standoffish toward, the United States and United Kingdom; perhaps this was one of France’s many steps meant to reclaim great power status. A year earlier, Israel had assisted France and the United Kingdom in launching a disastrous invasion of Egypt that became known as the “Suez Crisis”; French leaders may have felt that they owed Israel. Whatever France’s reason, both countries kept it a secret from the United States.
When U.S. intelligence did finally discover Israel’s nuclear facility, in 1960, Israeli leaders insisted that it was for peaceful purposes and that they were not interested in acquiring a nuclear weapon. Quite simply, they were lying, and for years resisted and stalled U.S.-backed nuclear inspectors sent to the facility. (This may help shed some light on why the United States and Israel are both so skeptical of Iran’s own reactor, potentially capable of yielding plutonium, under construction at Arak.) The work continued at Dimona.
Gradually, as the United States came to understand the scope of the program, the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy and even the relatively Israel-friendly Johnson all pushed ever harder to halt Israel’s nuclear development. Their response to an Israeli bomb was “no.”
“The U.S. tried to stop Israel from getting nuclear weapons and to stop France from giving Israel the technology and material it needed to make them,” Cirincione said. “We failed.”
The turning point for both Israel and the United States may have been the 1967 war. The second large-scale Arab-Israeli war lasted only six days, but that was enough to convince Israeli leaders that, though they had won, they could lose next time. Two crucial things happened in the next five years. First, in 1968, Israel secretly developed a nuclear weapon. Second, and perhaps more important, was a White House meeting in September 1969 between President Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. What happened during that meeting is secret. But the Nixon’s administration’s meticulous records show that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said to Nixon, in a later conversation about the Meir meeting, “during your private discussions with Golda Meir you emphasized that our primary concern was that Israel make no visible introduction of nuclear weapons or undertake a nuclear test program.”
That meeting between Nixon and Meir set what has been Israel’s unofficial policy ever since: one in which the country does nothing to publicly acknowledge or demonstrate its nuclear weapons program, and in exchange the United States would accept it. The Nixon administration had concluded that, while it didn’t like the Israeli weapons program, it also wasn’t prepared to stop it. The Cold War had polarized the Middle East, a region where Soviet influence was growing and where Israel — along with Iran — were scarce American allies. If they had already resigned themselves to living with a nuclear weapon, Kissinger concluded, they might as well make it on their terms.
“Essentially the bargain has been that Israel keeps its nuclear deterrent deep in the basement and Washington keeps its critique locked in the closet,” Satloff explained.
If the 1967 war had sparked Israel’s rush to a warhead and led the United States to tacitly accept the program, then the 1973 Arab-Israeli war made that arrangement more or less permanent. Egypt and Syria launched a joint surprise attack on Yom Kippur and made rapid gains — so rapid that Israeli leaders feared that the entire country would be overrun. They ordered the military to prepare several nuclear warheads for launch — exactly the sort of drastic, final measure then Ben-Gurion had envisioned 20 years earlier. (Update: This incident is disputed. See note at bottom.) But the Israeli forces held, assisted by an emergency U.S. resupply that Nixon ordered, and eventually won the war.
The desperation of the 1973 war may have ensured that, once Nixon left office, his deal with the Israelis would hold. And it has. But the world has changed in the past 40 years. Israel’s conventional military forces are now far more powerful than all of its neighbors’ militaries combined. Anyway, those neighbors have made peace with Israel save Syria, which has held out mostly for political reasons. From Israel’s view, there is only one potentially existential military threat left: the Iranian nuclear program. But that program has not produced a warhead and, with Tehran now seeking to reach an agreement on the program, it may never.
Some scholars are beginning to ask whether the old deal is outdated, if Israel should consider announcing its nuclear weapons arsenal publicly. Cohen, the historian who studies the Israel program, argues that the policy of secrecy “undermines genuine Israeli interests, including the need to gain recognition and legitimacy and to be counted among the responsible states in this strategic field.”
The dilemma for Israel is that, should Iran ever develop a nuclear warhead, Israel will surely feel less unsafe if it has its own nuclear deterrent. But, ironically, Israel’s nuclear arsenal may itself be one of the factors driving Iran’s program in the first place.
“History tells us that Israel’s position as the sole nuclear-armed state in the region is an anomaly — regions either have several nuclear states or none,” said Cirincione, of the nonproliferation Ploughshares Fund. “At some point, for its own security, Israel will have to take the bombs out of the basement and put them on the negotiating table.”
Some scholars suggest that world powers, including the United States, may have quietly tolerated Egyptian and Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles as counterbalances to Israel’s own weapons of mass destruction; a concession just large enough to prevent them from seeking nuclear weapons of their own.
Ultimately, while every president from Nixon to Obama has accepted Israel’s nuclear weapons, at some point the United States would surely prefer to see a Middle East that’s entirely free of weapons of mass destruction.
“We are not okay with Israel having nuclear weapons, but U.S. policymakers recognize that there is not much we can do about it in the short-term,” Cirincione said. “But these are general back-burner efforts. All recognize that Israel will only give up its nuclear weapons in the context of a regional peace settlement where all states recognized the rights of other states to exist and agree on territorial boundaries. This would mean a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issues.”
In other words, the Middle East would have to cease being the Middle East. Maybe that will happen, but not anytime soon.
Update: The much-discussed 1973 incident, in which Israel allegedly readied its nuclear weapons in case the country was overrun by the invading Arab armies, may have never actually happened. Avner Cohen, the ultimate authority on the subject, wrote as much in an October post for Arms Control Wonk. “The nuclear lore about 1973 has turned into an urban legend: nobody knows how exactly it originated and who the real sources were, but it is commonly believed as true or near-true,” he wrote, calling the event “mythology.”
What actually happened, according to Cohen, is that Defense Minister Moshe Dayan proposed in the middle of the war that Israel prepare to detonate a nuclear warhead over the desert as a “test” and show of force. But his proposal, Cohen says, was rejected immediately. Thanks to freelance journalist and former colleague Armin Rosen for flagging this. Read more in this recent paper on Israel’s 1973 “nuclear alert,” co-authored by Cohen along with Elbridge Colby, William McCants, Bradley Morris and William Rosenau.
Max Fisher is the Post’s foreign affairs blogger. He has a master’s degree in security studies from Johns Hopkins University. Sign up for his daily newsletter here. Also, follow him on Twitter or Facebook.