Why the Israeli Policy of Nuclear Ambiguity is Harmful for Prospects of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East

The Israeli policy of nuclear ambiguity is perhaps one of the most controversial nuclear policies today, and is the subject of some criticism by other states in the Middle East and nuclear disarmament activists.

The history of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme began at the time of David Ben Gurion’s period in office as Prime Minister of the State of Israel. Ben Gurion expressed the idea that nuclear weapons could act as a deterrent preventing other states in the region from taking steps to destroy the Jewish State.  The French were heavily involved in Israel’s nuclear programme in its first stages.

Israel started producing heavy water in 1953. France agreed to supply an 18 Megawatt research reactor but then promised to build a 24 MWt reactor and a chemical reprocessing plant instead after the Suez Crisis. The plant was constructed in Dimona in secret, without IAEA safeguards. To help with the Israeli nuclear programme, Britain sold lithium-6, beryllium and 20 tonnes of heavy water to Israel between 1959 and 1960.

The French role in Israel’s nuclear weapons programme was deeply duplicitous, and formed the foundations of the policy of ambiguity. France provided Israel with highly sensitive nuclear weapons capabilities, including a plutonium reprocessing facility, and yet required Israel to promise in 1960 that it would never produce nuclear weapons, reprocess plutonium, publicly announce the existence of its reactor, or complete the reactor’s construction without French assistance. The cooling system in the Dimona plant was three times larger than was necessary for civil purposes and Israel further enlarged its capacity later.

This assistance was not a one-way engagement. Israeli scientists actively helped in the French nuclear weapons programme when it began in the 1950s, with their nuclear expertise and their participation in bomb tests in Algeria in the early 1960s. According to John Steinbach, the Israeli nuclear programme, “should be understood largely as an extension of this early collaboration.”

The Israeli nuclear weapons programme was seen by its architects as a way to achieve self reliance in terms of security. In the early days of the state of Israel, still recovering from the trauma of the holocaust and with an influential narrative of Israel being the salvation for the Jewish people, nuclear deterrence was seen as the ultimate means of ensuring the protection of the Jewish state. Ofer Israeli quotes from Ernst David Bergmann, one of the people involved in the nuclear programme, as saying, “the state of Israel needs a defence research programme of its own, so that we shall never again be as a herd led to the slaughter.”

During the 1950s, Israel permitted a brief assessment of the facility at Dimona by the United States but it has not allowed other international inspections of the facility since. There are believed to be several hidden underground levels in the facility, and security has always been tight in the area surrounding the Dimona plant.

Israel has been developing its weapons delivery systems and platforms since the 1960s. These include the F15, F15I and F16 aircraft, Jericho ballistic missiles and Dolphin class submarines provided by the Germans, carrying nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

The Israeli policy of ambiguity (Amimut) was viewed as a way to keep Israel and its nuclear programme safe as Israel’s allies were seen as unreliable. According to the policy, Israel neither officially confirms nor denies that it has nuclear weapons.

There are two elements of Amimut, as Israeli notes:

“(1) keeping its nuclear enterprise secret, meaning not testing or announcing it has nuclear weapons, and at the same time (2) bolstering its nuclear image through leaks, statements, and rumours, as well as publishing indirect evidence of its existing nuclear capabilities.”

As Zeev Maoz points out, “through a series of leaks and veiled statements, the spread of rumours, and other political actions (e.g., refusal to sign the 1968 Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, or NPT), Israel would bolster its nuclear image—an image comprising indirect evidence of an existing nuclear capability and hints of a deterrence doctrine”.

This combination of opacity with leaking and suggestion was intended to deliver a deterrent effect while also avoiding or minimising the short and long term ramifications of having an open nuclear weapon monopoly in the region. Maoz also points out that the nuclear weapon programme is a “samson option”, the idea that nuclear weapons would be used as a last resort suicide decision.

As such, Israel is able to continue its nuclear weapons programme while retaining relative quiet on the issue in the international sphere, and with few boundaries on what it can do, while continuing to maintain close ties with the United States and other Western nations that profess commitment to non proliferation, which severely punish other states for acquiring sensitive technologies while protecting Israel’s position.

Proponents of the ambiguity policy have argued that it has ensured relative security for Israel and that Israel has not been attacked collectively by Arab states. Maoz points out that there has been no evidence of any such intention among Arab neighbours since the Israeli nuclear programme kicked off in the 1960s, but there have been two instances of Arab states forming temporary coalitions to target Israel for partial temporary territorial gain/reclaim. Prior to 1967, open willingness by Arab states to destroy Israel was common. Such expressions are no longer commonly made by the vast majority of regional states. However, whether Israel’s nuclear weapons played any role in this situation is a matter of conjecture. In any case, the goal of retaking Israeli occupied Palestine seems to have been a greater motive to target Israel instead of the very destruction of the state of Israel. This can be seen, for example, in the Arab attempt to reoccupy land taken over by Israel in 1967.

Zeev Maoz, after examining the Israeli policy of nuclear ambiguity, its effectiveness, Israeli public opinion on the issue, and whether or not the nuclear programme itself is what has deterred an all-out Arab attack to annihilate Israel, concludes a number of important insights. Firstly, there is no direct proof that Israel’s nuclear policy has provided an effective deterrent against a collective Arab attack on Israel. Secondly, there is no evidence that, when there were attacks on Israel, Israel’s nuclear policy in any way affected Arab operational plans. Thirdly, there is no evidence that directly links Israel’s nuclear weapons’ capability with the willingness of Arab states and Palestinians to negotiate with Israel.

In light of this evidence, Israel’s nuclear programme, contrary to what Israeli strategists and academics have claimed, has not contributed to Israel’s security in any meaningful way. Maoz’s conclusions also show the inherent contradictions in the policy.

In response to such criticism, other authors, academics and policy thinkers have explained their reasons for Israel’s continual need for nuclear weapons and it’s ambiguity policy. Louis Rene Beres has responded directly to Maoz. To him, the Arab states cannot be trusted to uphold peace agreements with Israel. He also believes that, given the slightest chance, Arab countries would attack Israel. He also points to present cases of Middle Eastern Countries, such as Iran, calling for the destruction of Israel.

He argues that, even if other countries in the Middle East were to sign up to a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East, or sign disarmament agreements in Israel, verification of compliance in these matters would be incredibly difficult.  For Beres, the problem is not so much with nuclear weapons as it is with what he perceives as an Arab-Iranian commitment to destroy Israel. This commitment means that the “peace plan” is a futile attempt at peace with actors which want nothing less than Israel’s destruction. At least one Arab country that has signed peace agreements with Israel, according to Beres, is “effectively at war” with it. With nuclear weapons, Israel can deter strategic conventional attacks by these states. They could also target hard state targets that threaten Israel’s existence through non nuclear preemptive strikes, which would otherwise look like a call to war, since there would be no context of a credible potential retaliation threat from Israel.

Beres argues further that Israel’s nuclear amimut policy may need to be reviewed and replaced by a policy of more transparent disclosure in the future, for the purpose of highlighting to enemy states and forces the capabilities that Israel has and to let them know that Israel is willing to use them in response to some strategic first-strike attacks… a message supported by the modernisation of Israel’s nuclear weapon systems. It was important to elucidate Beres’ comments because many of the arguments he raises are accepted as conventional wisdom among those who support Israel’s nuclear programme.

Maoz has responded to many of Beres’s assertions and grievances. While Beres asserts that Israeli possession of nuclear weapons is necessary to safeguard Israel from a state of catastrophic war, there is no evidence that the Arab states have invested in such a war, it has not deterred the Arab states from forming coalitions to attack Israel in 1967 and 1973, and there is no evidence that nuclear weapons have inclined the Arab states more towards or against peace. However, there may be evidence that Israel’s nuclear weapons programme could have increased the non conventional arms race in the region. Maoz points out the effects that Israel’s nuclear programme may have had on Iraq’s WMD programme, and in Egypt and Syria pursuing and developing chemical weapons, biological weapons, and surface to surface missiles.

Maoz questions Beres’ assumptions about Arab states and particularly their supposed lack of willingness to have peace with Israel. Maoz refers to a letter written by Yasir Arafat in 1988 for President Clinton, in which he wrote that, “the Palestine National Council’s resolution is a comprehensive amendment of the Covenant. All of the provisions of the Covenant which are inconsistent with the PLO commitment to recognize and live in peace side by side with Israel are no longer in effect….I can assure you on behalf of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority that all the provisions of the Covenant that were inconsistent with the commitments of September 9/10, 1993 to Prime Minister Rabin, have been nullified.” He also argues that, even if the PA were not to stand behind this, and were to be committed to Israel’s destruction, nuclear weapons would not deter them.

Maoz points out that Egypt has not violated its peace treaty with Israel, even when Israel launched an unprovoked attack on Syria and Lebanon in 1982. Similarly, when its forces were attacked by Israeli forces, Syria did not violate its May 1974 agreement with Israel. In 2000, when the al-Aqsa intifada started, Syria, Jordan and Egypt did not violate their treaty agreements.

After its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Egypt reduced its defense budget, from a height of 22 percent in 1974 to 2.75 percent in 2002. In 2002, Syria’s defence budget was roughly 6.7 percent of its GDP. By contrast, Israel, at the time Maoz was writing in 2004, had a defense burden approaching 10 percent of a much larger GDP, whilst also receiving substantial military assistance from the United States. Maoz continues to note:

“The combined defense expenditures of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon (the four contiguous states to Israel), amount only to 58 percent of Israel’s defense expenditures. Coupled with Israeli nuclear weapons, if anyone should be more concerned about security, it is the leaders of these Arab states. These figures also suggest that Israeli weapons did not play an important role in reducing its defense burden.”

At the same time, Israel’s policy of amimut may well have done more harm than good. It may have encouraged other states in the region to increase their WMD capacity. The policy both seeks to prevent Israel from being held accountable for its nuclear weapons programme, while also making it clear through leaks (intentional and not) and behaviour that it has one, for deterrence purposes. Even some proponents of the nuclear weapons programme, such as Beres, have argued that the policy should be jettisoned in favour of more open disclosure for deterrence purposes.

Israel has not permitted international inspection of its sensitive nuclear facilities. It’s unwillingness to be held accountable to the international community deepens mistrust in the region towards Israel.

Israeli Amimut and a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East

Israel’s opacity over its nuclear weapons possession has been a principal hindrance to the establishment of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East. Yet, it appears that for many states within the international community Israel’s nuclear possession is more acceptable than other states having any ambiguity in their nuclear capability. This explicit double standard deepens the sense of injustice within the region, further driving hostility to Israel, and undermining the ability of much of the international community to play the role of honest broker.

Moreover, due to the nature of nuclear amimut, Israel cannot have any sort of declaratory policy. It cannot clearly signal the purpose of its nuclear weapons and cannot communicate any limitations on its possible use of its nuclear weapons. It is, in other words, an extreme position of complete ambiguity, with damaging impacts on the security of other states, and to diplomatic attempts to limit damage to the global non-proliferation regime. Israel has already said that it would not introduce nuclear weapons to the region, but has clearly broken this promise.

Its possession without restraint leaves open the suspicion that Israel is able to engage in aggressive military action in the region safe in the knowledge that its nuclear monopoly prevents assertive reaction.

Israel has frequently declared its official support for a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East at UN meetings, but has also argued that such a zone could only be achieved once there was peace and mutual recognition within the region. Arab states see this as a stalling tactic, and could imply some kind of justification for Israel’s secret nuclear arsenal. There have been a number of proposals to consider the Zone in parallel with a wider regional security dialogue, but these have yet to get anywhere. If there is to be any progress, Israel would do well to consider how its policy of Amimut undermines its own long-term security as well as prospects of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East.

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