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Let’s Call It a Bargaining Chip

Referring to Israel’s nuclear program as a bargaining chip is not a breakthrough idea. Scholars have argued before that in lieu of having a “deterrence policy that does not deter,” Israel might perceive its nuclear arsenal as a bargaining chip to negotiate with its Arab counterparts over regional security issues, including around a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. The third blog in this series will explore, admittedly in a quite speculative fashion, another possible bargaining dimension of Israel’s nuclear program: a bargaining chip with the United States over its unconditional maintenance of Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME).

Under the government of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (1963-1969), Israel seems to have defined the strategic value of its nuclear arsenal as twofold. As Avner Cohen points out in his seminal book Israel and the Bomb, the first fold was an “insurance vis-à-vis the United States – a strong political incentive for America to keep Israel conventionally armed, believing that a sufficiently armed Israel would not have to use its nuclear option.” The second fold was as a tool of “last resort” amid the backdrop of a worst-case scenario, which Cohen describes as “a swift and dramatic deterioration of Israel’s basic security.”[1]

The development of Israel’s nuclear program under Eshkol’s leadership was not outright met with a U.S. policy to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge. Instead, the U.S.-Israel bargain seemed to have evolved from a tacit quid pro quo relationship into a policy that was later solidified at the possible advent of an Israeli nuclear detonation. The implications of this narrative might also underlie the current Israeli posture regarding denuclearization, in turn posing an additional obstacle to the Helsinki process.[2]

The beginning

Undoubtedly Israel’s pursuit of nuclear weapons arose amidst a vow to “Never Again” witness the horrid events of Shoah (Hebrew for Holocaust), through a doctrine of self-reliance. The country’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, feared that Israel’s conventional military advantage could not be indefinitely maintained, while regional developments likely heightened his threat perception and fueled his decision to pursue a nuclear weapons program.[3]

Israel might have also felt betrayed at the sight of embargo-like actions from its closest allies – the U.S. and France – in turn further entrenching its doctrine of self-reliance. First the French – who had assisted with Israel’s development of surface-to-surface ballistic missiles and the construction of the Dimona reactor – placed an arms embargo against the country on June 1st, 1967 four days before the Six Day War erupted. The Johnson administration also stopped all military shipments to the region, while seemingly violating a 1956 written commitment, stating that the U.S. would intervene militarily on Israel’s behalf if Egypt ever tried to close the Straits of Tiran (something Cairo had done running up to the war).[4]

“To hedge against the uncertainties involved in depending on foreign suppliers,” Avner Cohen suggests that “Israel had to keep a bargaining chip for its dealings with the United States.”[5] For consideration, Israel’s nuclear program might have become such a bargaining chip, especially amid aspirations to procure U.S. military aid.

The U.S. and Israel strike a bargain
The U.S. had suspicions over Israel’s nuclear ventures in the early 1960’s. The U.S. policy – though perhaps executed halfheartedly – was to prevent Israel from creating a nuclear device altogether, through annual inspections of Dimona, and an emerging quid pro quo relationship – cemented in the Eshkol-Komer memorandum of understanding of 1965 – where U.S. military aid was offered as leverage to obtain Israel’s repeated assurance of a non-introduction policy (i.e. Israel would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East).[6]  Israel would also reference this tacit quid pro quo bargain while dealing with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, exposing the following as preconditions for signing:

  • Israel must have an agreement with the U.S. that would guarantee an American supply of conventional military hardware;
  • Israel must obtain security guarantees from the U.S. against aggression by a nuclear-weapon state (e.g. the Soviet Union); and,
  • there must be a link between Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and regional peace.

The U.S. centered its policy around the prevention of an Israeli nuclear bomb. By the time of the Six Day War, however, the physical infrastructure of Israel’s nuclear program had already been completed and it is now believed that Israel assembled “its first rudimentary nuclear devices” in the run up to the war. Cohen suggests that U.S. President Lyndon Johnson was not certain of this development, however, since the State Department briefings from the Dimona visits did not reveal any evidence of plutonium reprocessing or related activities.

During the crisis running up to the war, then-Knesset member Shimon Peres proposed to conduct a nuclear test for deterrence purposes, to which Prime Minister Levi Eshkol objected. Israel then launched a preemptive strike that gave it a strategic and conventional advantage over the Egyptian air force, which in turn, might have avoided further nuclear considerations during the confrontation.

The 1973 Yom Kippur War was different. Arab numerical superiority seemed to be positioned for a decisive victory over Israel’s collapsed borders, which Israelis might have perceived as if on the verge of the worst-case scenario. Scholar Seymour M. Hersh, author of The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy, argues that Israel used a policy of “nuclear blackmail” to accelerate the U.S. response of airlifting military supplies into the country. Though Avner Cohen disputes this idea, he does not deny that Moshe Dayan, then Israel’s defense minister, proposed a plan to prepare for a “nuclear demonstration” during the darkest times of the war. Prime Minister Golda Meir dismissed Dayan’s suggestion, but the mere fact that a nuclear demonstration was being considered was likely to have prompted the Nixon Administration to attempt to prevent it. Contrary to Johnson during the 1967 War, President Nixon was well aware of Israel’s nuclear capability – briefed by Golda Meir herself, during their 1969 meeting. Yet, U.S. policy continued to seek reassurance that Israel’s nukes would remain “invisible – that is, untested, and undeclared.”

Maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge – a new U.S. policy emerges
The Yom Kippur War marked a change in U.S. policy toward Israel. Since 1974, “Israel became the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance,” currently amounting to billion a year. (In real terms this number is much greater since aid disbursement occurs in one installment, thus allowing it to accrue interest.) This unparalleled amount is coupled with additional benefits, unavailable to other U.S. aid recipients, such as allowing the beneficiary to make purchases from its own military industry.

The policy of QME, is not only about apportioning large sums of military aid to Israel, but also about requiring that “the sale or export of the defense articles or defense services [to other Middle Eastern states] will not adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge.” Thus, U.S. law requires certifications of QME policy during arms sales to Middle Eastern countries other than Israel, while bilateral meetings between the U.S. and Israel are convened regularly to assess QME policy, related concerns, and opportunities for increased cooperation.[7]

Though lobbying organizations such as AIPAC [8] have clearly influenced the U.S. maintenance of Israel’s QME, the idea of Israel using its nuclear arsenal as a bargaining chip in an attempt to ensure U.S. commitment to its military superiority, seems to be a likely, but understudied, scenario. If the Yom Kippur War almost led to a nuclear demonstration in the Middle East, and the U.S. goal back in 1973 was to keep Israel’s arsenal “non-introduced”, then ensuring Israel’s QME may have been one of several ways to achieve this goal. (It would also help to avoid the allegations of known accomplice the U.S. would face due to its continued assurance that the Dimona visits did not reveal a military dimension to Israel’s nuclear program.) Israel’s nuclear weapons would remain “non-introduced,” while the policy of amimut (i.e. nuclear ambiguity or opacity – an Israeli policy where the government neither confirms nor negates its possession of nuclear weapons) could be indirectly utilized to curb regional proliferation risks.

What does this mean for the Helsinki process and regional denuclearization?

With the potentially declining influence of AIPAC,[9] the U.S. goal to pivot to Asia, and possible strategic rapprochement between the West and Iran, Israel might hold onto their nuclear arsenal all the tighter, not just as a hedge against a nuclear Iran, but also to maintain leverage; to keep a bargaining chip to ensure that U.S. military commitments toward it remain unchanged. On the other hand, amidst talks of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, where the U.S., the U.K., and Russia agreed to “exert their utmost efforts” to ensure the establishment of such a zone, Israel might look at the advent of denuclearization as an opportunity to negotiate over the indefinite maintenance of its conventional superiority, and not only over regional peace.

As hinted through Israel’s preconditions to join the NPT (positive security assurances, conventional superiority, and peace), the Israeli government might aim to pursue a contractual agreement with the U.S., possibly in the form of a NATO-like alliance, where the U.S. spells out its commitment to maintaining Israel’s QME. If such is the case, this stance presents yet another obstacle for the Helsinki process, not least because the emphasis is placed on building trust among regional parties, rather than on drafting a bilateral security agreement between a country inside the region (Israel) and an outside nuclear power (the U.S.).

The possible bargaining dimension of Israel’s nuclear program vis-a-vis the U.S. and its maintenance of Israel’s QME is an understudied, though seemingly outstanding challenge to the prospect of denuclearization in the Middle East. If we are to see progress in negotiations within the Helsinki process, this dimension might need to be addressed directly.

For a thorough overview of additional challenges to the Helsinki process, refer to BASIC’s fact sheet on the Middle East WMD-free zone.

The opinions expressed in the article belong to the author alone.


1. For more information, refer to Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), chapter “Growing Pains,” sub-header “Early Strategic Thinking.”

2. The Helsinki process refers to the current efforts from the US, the UK, Russia and regional parties in the Middle East, to convene a conference in Helsinki on the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. This particular process was started as part of a mandate from the 2010 Review Conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

3. Developments such as the 1955 Czech-Egyptian arms deal that would triple Egypt’s military capabilities; Israel’s apprehension at the height of the Suez Canal crisis in 1955 where the Soviets threatened to force Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai; Egypt’s test launch of ballistic missiles “aimed to hit any target south of Beirut” and Arab rhetoric to bring about the “destruction of the Zionist entity” all seemed to have contributed to Ben Gurion’s perception of military vulnerability.

4. During the 1967-1970 War of Attrition, the U.S. also suspended the delivery of Phantoms to Israel in spite of Soviet commitment to bolster Egypt’s aerial defenses. For more information, refer to Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) pgs. 274 and 286.

5. Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) p. 287.

6. Ibid, p. 233.

7. The Naval Vessel Transfer Act of 2008 defined QME as “the ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat (…), through the use of superior military means (…) that in their technical characteristics are superior in capability to those of such other individual or possible coalition of states or non-state actors.”

8. Scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer discuss this abrupt change in their book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, and attribute it to the evident strengthening of AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in America. AIPAC’s power operates by dedicating gargantuan sums of money (57 million from 1997 to 2004 alone) to elect pro-Israel candidates to the U.S. Congress, who then vote in favor of maintaining Israel’s QME, object to any attempts to make this aid conditional, and also carry the weight of their support to espouse additional pro-Israel policies (U.S. backing at the UN is another example).

9. In his book, The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart foreshadows the dwindling power of the lobby by citing that younger generations of Jewish Americans are increasingly critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank and are unlikely to defend Israel so unconditionally as done by AIPAC’s leadership. Though Beinart does not reveal any attitudinal changes within the ranks of evangelical Christians, staunch supporters of the Israeli government and hefty contributors to the pro-Israel lobby, the growing appeal of the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) – a movement that seeks to sanction Israeli businesses with offices within the West Bank – might be the harbinger of a change in attitudes from regular Americans toward the unconditional maintenance of Israel’s QME. The fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a public relations campaign to improve Israel’s image in the West, indicates that he is well aware of these emerging trends and might fear a future policy change from the U.S. toward Israel.

Image: Nehemia Gershuni-Aylho

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