Secrecy and Signaling: The Israeli Approach to Nuclear Weapons

One of the most pressing issues of mankind remains the issue of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. They remain on the fringes of our awareness, researched by academics and portrayed in films and television shows at plot catalysts (sometimes with debatable accuracy of their portrayal). Unfortunately, these weapons are often sought by states as “the ultimate weapon,” believed to be the best instrument of deterrence. Israel is no exception, and its nuclear policy presents a compelling case of a nuclear-armed state. This policy contradicts the very foundations of deterrence theory; it is distinctive for its secrecy and ambiguity, very unique characteristics when compared to nuclear policies of other nuclear powers. It has not changed for several decades, and its effectiveness and adequacy for present conditions is thus, after the emergence of Iranian nuclear ambitions, often subject of debates.

Israel belongs to the group of the so-called de facto nuclear states, a group which also includes India and Pakistan; these countries built their own nuclear arsenal outside the framework of Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Because Israel is not a signing party of the treaty, there is no legal obligation for Israeli nuclear facilities to be subject to regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.[1] In the case of Israel, these inspections are voluntary and only conducted in declared facilities. The program as a whole is not overseen by the international community, and there is no official way to get information about it. The majority of available information is thus based on expert estimates, in some cases open source information (such as satellite images), or even information leaks, such as the 1986 leak in which Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at the Dimona nuclear facility, published details and photographs about the situation in the facility and disclosed a considerable amount of information about Israel’s nuclear programme.[2] Availability of information is thwarted not just by secrecy, however, but also by censorship. Israeli authors are required to submit any publication dealing with issues of security to the censor, who is charged with assessing the degree of ambiguity of the text in terms of government’s requirements.[3]

Nuclear research facility at Dimona, Israel (PressTV)

The birth of the Israeli nuclear programme coincides with the birth of an autonomous state of Israel. The Israeli nuclear endeavour began in 1949, when a special unit of Israel Defense Forces known as Hemed Gimmel commenced geological surveys in the area of the Negev desert aiming to find sources of required uranium (later found near the Dead Sea).[4] Initially, one of the main reasons for Israel to pursue nuclear ambitions was the threat of Arab conventional arms; the fear of losing conventional war against coalition of Arab neighbours was very real.[5] The main function of this arsenal was to ensure security for Israel against a numerically superior enemy and the survival of the Jewish state.

Zeev Maoz also attributes great importance to the possible support for the Arab coalition (including from the Soviet Union), and the political isolation Israel could face. However, the qualitative and quantitative dominance of Arab states in military terms later proved to be of lesser importance because of the growing arms trade with the United States.[6] The early stages of Israeli nuclear ambitions were characterized by assistance from abroad. In 1955, Israel signed an agreement on co-operation in the area of nuclear energy with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower through the Atoms for Peace initiative, and obtained its first nuclear reactor and required technology and training.[7] The most important assistance, however, was provided by France. Israeli scientists were permitted to obtain training in France and the French agreed on providing Israel with a plutonium reactor, later located at Dimona in the Negev desert.[8]

After the facility in Dimona was exposed by U.S. surveillance capabilities, the United States sought proof that a single reactor existed and that no other machinery for uranium re-processing in the facility was present. As Hersh indicates, however, there was such a machine in the facility, hidden underground in a casual-looking administrative building.[9] Israel eventually agreed on inspections of the Dimona facility, though these inspections could be described as neither  thorough nor transparent.[10] Despite these inspections, Israel was able to construct its first nuclear weapon in 1966, though testing of the nuclear device was postponed.[11] In September, 1979 U.S. satellite Vela 6911 observed an unusual double flash above the southern Atlantic Ocean, noticeably resembling the explosion of a nuclear weapon. All evidence pointed towards South Africa and Israel, but Israel denied any involvement in this event.[12]

In 1963, Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Shimon Peres and U.S. President John F. Kennedy met to discuss the Israeli nuclear programme, among other issues. This meeting signified an important milestone in the history of Israel’s nuclear ambitions. President Kennedy, a supporter of nuclear non-proliferation, expressed concerns about Israel’s actions, and Peres assured the President that Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East.[13] This statement was both unclear and misleading, however. Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin later explained that the Israeli government understood the expression "introduction of nuclear weapons" as their public acknowledgement and recognition of their ownership; their existence and physical presence was not taken into account.[14] With this discourse Israel meant to defend its nuclear efforts under the pretense that until the existence of a nuclear arsenal is acknowledged and tested, it technically does not exist.

This is often regarded as the origins of the Israeli nuclear strategy amimut, and it represents one of Israel’s great strategic and diplomatic successes. By not acknowledging its arsenal Israel puts forth both a deterrent against exogenous threats and avoids the political consequences associated with an an acknowledged arsenal as well.[15] This policy has two major features, secrecy and signaling. Secrecy helps to keep the Israeli nuclear activities hidden both from the public and other countries. Israel does not openly conduct tests of nuclear weapons, nor does it confirm or deny their existence. Furthermore, it prohibits and obstructs the inspections of its facilities. With careful signaling, though, Israel aims to spread a certain image of its nuclear arsenal through information leaks, spreading of rumors or misinformation, and other political actions.[16] The whistleblowing activities of Mordechai Vanunu thus paradoxically became beneficial for Israel, as information leaked by Vanunu created an image of an Israeli deterrent in the minds of its potential adversaries. This signaling may thus have deterred Saddam Hussein from employing chemical weapons against Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.[17]

An Iran with nuclear ambitions has forced Israel to consider a new threat in its nuclear policies. Iran has pressured Israeli planners to shift their attention from the threat of conventional war to the danger of attacks with weapons of mass destruction.[18] Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed concerns about lifting sanctions against Iran after several nations conducted successful negotiations to restrict Iran’s nuclear programme.[19] Furthermore, Israel is a major stakeholder in the negotiations with Iran, but its representatives have never taken part in these deliberations. A nuclear-armed Iran could lead a coalition against Israel, dissolve the aversion towards Iran among other Middles Eastern or Islamic states, states or even launch further nuclear proliferation in the region.[20]

The concerns of Israeli strategists and representatives about the Iranian threat are understandable. A theocratic regime that values the Shia tradition of martyrdom might be difficult to deter with a nuclear balance of terror.[21] The existential threat of Iranian nuclear ambitions is also strengthened by assumptions of irrationality and ideological zealotry in Iran’s leadership.[22] Israelis are also concerned a nuclear-armed Iran would create an unstable multipolar Middle East full of actors incapable of securing proper control over their nuclear arsenals. As a result, the risk of mistaken or accidental launch caused by human or institutional error would thus increase.[23]

The future of the amimut policy depends to a large extent on Iran and the potential nuclear policy it would adopt. Iran’s open declaration of its nuclear arsenal would cause Israel to face enormous pressure to shift from its ambiguity and secrecy; an open nuclear posture might be necessary to reinforce its deterrent credibility.[24] In the event Iran decided to use the veil of secrecy, Israel would not face such pressure to change its current strategy, but this could create incentives for the two actors to start discussions on nuclear confidence-building measures.[25] This option would mean the preservation of current status quo, which according to some Israeli analysts is outdated, offers little deterrence value, and requires more transparency and accountability in terms of present security environment. This view is in minority, however, and held mostly by academics; the defense community generally supports continued opacity and ambiguity.[26]

Israeli ambiguity raises questions about its deterrence strategy. Deterrence is achieved when a state credibly communicates its capabilities and the intent to retaliate to its adversaries.[27] In the case of Israel, its nuclear arsenal has never been disclosed. This might lead one to ask: Why put enormous resources into maintenance of secret nuclear arsenal, when it does not fulfill its main task, to deter adversaries? Signaling may be therefore considered to be more important for Israeli nuclear policy than its secrecy. According to Ofer Israeli, the amimut policy even encourages regional and international security and stability.[28]

An Etching of Samson tearing down the Temple, from an 1882 German Bible (Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld/Wikimedia)

Some military analysts refer to the Israeli nuclear strategy as the “Samson Option.” Samson is described in the Old Testament as a mighty warrior with colossal power, who was defeated and blinded by the Philistines and later displayed in the temple to be mocked by the public. Chained and blind, Samson asked God to restore his powers for one last effort; his wish was granted, and he tore down the pillars of the temple, destroying it and killing his enemies with him. Analysts compare the case of Israel to this story for a reason; Israel has always considered its arsenal to be the last resort of defense.[29] Deployment of this last line of defense arsenal would mean tearing down the main pillars of the temple of Israeli nuclear policy, secrecy and signaling. To date Israel has not faced a threat so dire that it required deployment of nuclear weapons.

The Middle East has experienced enormous changes since the 1950s. Yet, the Israeli nuclear policy of ambiguity and opacity has not changed in more than four decades. Israeli strategists are aware of the challenge Iranian nuclear ambitions might present, and that they could change the very way of Israeli thinking about national security. Is the policy of amimut still adequate today when facing threats so different from in 1950s or 1960s? In conflict with Iran, this policy could prove to be useless; Iran with its ambitions shows no fear of Israeli capabilities. Israel’s nuclear policy is dependent not only on internal dynamics and situation of Iranian regime, but on other regional developments (such as political situation in Saudi Arabia) as well. Without making necessary improvements and adjustments to amimut, Israeli strategists could fail to ensure Israel’s security. Their best course would thus be to consider current worldwide and Middle-Eastern development and adjust the nuclear policy accordingly. However, the policy has proven successful so far and allowed Israel to create a credible deterrent without any major political and diplomatic repercussions; it is thus difficult to predict the next steps of Israeli policy-makers.


Rastislav Bilik is a graduate of Master’s programme in Development and International Relations at Aalborg University, Denmark. He is interested in the issues of international security, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and intelligence co-operation.


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Header Image: An Israeli flag at sunset. (GFC)


Notes:

[1] Israel is a full member of International Atomic Energy Agency.

[2] Barnaby, Frank C. (2004) Expert Opinion of Charles Frank Barnaby in the Matter of Mordechai Vanunu. Available online: http://fas.org/nuke/guide/israel/barnaby.pdf.

[3] Dowty, Alan (2005) The Enigma of Opacity: Israel’s Nuclear Weapons Program as a Field of Study. in: Israel Studies Forum, Vol. 20(2), 2005, p. 14.

[4] Kroenig, Matthew (2010) Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons. Cornell University Press. p. 68.

[5] Dowty, Alan (2005) The Enigma of Opacity: Israel’s Nuclear Weapons Program as a Field of Study. in: Israel Studies Forum, Vol. 20(2), 2005, p. 5.

[6] Maoz, Zeev (2003) The Mixed Blessing of Israel’s Nuclear Policy. in: International Security, vol. 28(2), p. 46.

[7] Cohen, Avner (1998) Israel and the Bomb. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 54.  

[8] Negm, Namira (2009) Transfer of Nuclear Technology under International Law. Case Study of Iraq, Iran and Israel. Leiden: Kininklijke Brill NV. p. 229.

[9] Hersh, Seymour M. (1991) The Samson Option: Israel's Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy. New York: Random House. p. 196.

[10] Kroenig, Matthew (2010) Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons. Cornell University Press. p. 78.

[11] Cohen, Avner; Burr, William (2006) Israel crosses the threshold. In: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Vol 62(3), 23-30. Available online: https://avnercohen.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/062_003_030.pdf. p. 24.

[12] Kristensen, Hans M.; Norris, Robert S. (2014) Israeli nuclear weapons, 2014. in: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Vol 70(6), 97-115. Available online: http://bos.sagepub.com/content/70/6/97.full.pdf+html. p. 102.

[13] Record of unscheduled meeting between Shimon Peres, then Israel's Deputy Minister of Defense and President John Kennedy, held at the White House on 2 April 1963. Available online: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/israel/documents/hebrew/index.html

[14] Murray, Robert J. (1968) Memorandum of conversation, Subject: Negotiation with Israel – F-4 and Advanced Weapons. Available online: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/israel/documents/battle/12-01.htm.

[15] Cohen, Avner; Miller, Marvin (2010) Bringing Israel’s Bomb Out of Basement. in: Foreign Affairs. Vol 89(5), 30-44. Available online: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/israel/2010-09-01/bringing-israels-bomb-out-basement.

[16] Maoz, Zeev (2003) The Mixed Blessing of Israel’s Nuclear Policy. in: International Security, vol. 28(2), p. 47.

[17] Dowty, Alan (2005) The Enigma of Opacity: Israel’s Nuclear Weapons Program as a Field of Study. in: Israel Studies Forum, Vol. 20(2), 2005, p. 16.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Booth, William; Eglash, Ruth (2015) Israeli leaders condemn Iran deal, ‘one of the darkest days in world history’. in: Washington Post. Available online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/israel-blasts-iran-deal-as-dark-day-in-history/2015/07/14/feba23ae-0018-403f-82f3-3cd54e87a23b_story.html?utm_term=.f8ae8d6cc6d0

[20] Kaye, Dalia Dassa; Nader, Alireza; Roshan, Parisa (2011) Israel and Iran. A Dangerous Rivalry. Santa Monica: Rand Corporation. p. 34.

[21] The Economist (2011) Leaders: Nuclear Iran, anxious Israel; Conflict in the Middle East. in: The Economist, November 12 2011 Issue.

[22] Merom, Gil (2017) Israeli Perceptions of the Iranian Nuclear Threat. in: Political Science Quarterly, vol. 132(1), p. 90.

[23] Ibid.,  p. 91.

[24] Kaye, Dalia Dassa; Nader, Alireza; Roshan, Parisa (2011) Israel and Iran. A Dangerous Rivalry. Santa Monica: Rand Corporation. p. 45.

[25] Ibid., p. 45.

[26] Ibid., p. 46.

[27] Israeli, Ofer (2015) Israel’s nuclear amimut policy and its consequences. in: Israel Affairs, vol. 21(4), p. 543.

[28] Ibid., p. 547.

[29] Hersh, Seymour M. (1991) The Samson Option: Israel's Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy. New York: Random House. p. 137.