Intelligence Report: The merits of ambiguity

The calls for Israel to abandon its policy of neither confirming or denying it possesses nuclear weapons are not wise.

The Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev Desert (photo credit: THOMAS COEX / AFP 15)
The Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev Desert
(photo credit: THOMAS COEX / AFP 15)
Israel recently named a new ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna – Meirav Zafary-Odiz, a senior official at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. Her mission will be on three major fronts.
Firstly, to be Israel’s eyes and ears at the IAEA, which is a hub for important information on Iran’s nuclear program; secondly, to lead Israeli diplomatic efforts at the IAEA and other UN bodies in an effort to mobilize the international community to maintain the diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions so as to coerce Tehran to halt its nuclear weapons program, or at least slow it down; and thirdly, and perhaps her most sensitive assignment, to repel the growing calls on Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and to counter diplomatic efforts to establish a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone.
Such calls come as no surprise when they are heard from Arab leaders. This has been a traditional Arab demand raised at almost every IAEA gathering and UN forum. Currently, the most vociferous of such calls are coming from Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif. Their basic argument is: Why us? Why are you, the international community, picking on us when we don’t have nuclear bombs, yet you are ignoring Israel’s huge nuclear arsenal? But when Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke recently in public about Israel being a nuclear power, Israeli officials became more concerned. Putin raised the Israeli nuclear card to explain that his ally, President Basher Assad of Syria, had amassed chemical weapons to match and deter Israel’s nuclear capabilities.
On the backdrop of the international discourse on this subject, more and more Israeli commentators and pundits are also contemplating and even suggesting that Israel should change its nuclear policy, widely known as “nuclear ambiguity.”
Israel’s nuclear policy was publicly defined in April 1963 by Shimon Peres, then deputy director of the Defense Ministry, some three years after France completed the construction of the plutonium-producing nuclear reactor in Dimona. At the time, Peres was visiting the White House and was taken by surprise when US president John Kennedy told him that he was very concerned about Israel’s nuclear potential.
Peres did not blink and intuitively responded with a sentence that has since cemented the Israeli official approach to the issue: “I can tell you clearly that we shall not be the ones to introduce nuclear weapons into the area. We will not be the first to do so,” Peres said.
The statement was a rhetorical stroke of genius designed to divert Kennedy’s pressure. And since then, for the past five decades, Israeli governments have continued to use the phrase Peres invented during his chat with Kennedy. It might be an out-and-out falsehood, but it helped to get Israel off the hook. Three years later, in 1966 according to foreign reports, Israel assembled its first nuclear bomb.
The entire world believes that Israel has nuclear bombs, with estimates ranging from 80 to 200 warheads. But Israeli officials neither confirm nor deny it.
Recent accounts, based on documents from the Israel State Archives, testimony from former officials and foreign publications reveal that Israeli leaders have twice come close to using “the bomb.”
The scientific and technical breakthroughs that made it possible for Israel to build an atomic bomb came, by coincidence, just before the Six Day War of June 1967. The Jewish State had reportedly become just the sixth country to achieve nuclear-weapons capabilities, joining the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Britain and China in that exclusive club.
Israel’s undeclared status almost came into play during the three-week crisis that led up to the outbreak of war on June 5, 1967. Israeli political leaders and military chiefs were very concerned by the expulsion of UN peacekeepers from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. It was also impossible to dismiss Cairo’s raucous psychological campaign that claimed Arab armies would smash Israel and throw the Jews into the sea. Fears of another Holocaust were fueled by the fact that Egypt’s military had just used chemical weapons in Yemen’s civil war.
Against this backdrop, some Defense Ministry officials, scientists and others in the know (including Peres, who then was an opposition Knesset Member) deliberated over nuclear strategy.
The state’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had insisted on developing the world’s most dangerous weapon, but there was no clear decision on when this might be used. Some 46 years later, the outcome of the 1967 discussions remains under wraps, and, according to sources close to the participants, surprisingly ambiguous.
The emerging picture is that Rafael, the company that developed advanced armaments, mobilized all of its top engineers and technicians during the weeks of crisis before the Six Day War. According to retired Lt. Gen. Tzvi Tzur, a former IDF chief of staff, who was then a special adviser to the Defense Ministry, those men and women “worked around the clock and neared total collapse” to assemble Israel’s first nuclear device.
Around the same time, the commander of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit, Lt. Col. Dov Tamari, was summoned to headquarters for a meeting with a general.
Tamari was ordered to prepare a team of soldiers to fly by helicopter into the Sinai.
They would be carrying “a thing,” which the general did not specify.
The miss ion sketched out would have the troops place Israel’s first nuclear bomb and some kind of detonation mechanism on a high peak – perhaps for maximum psychological effect choosing Mount Sinai, where the Bible says Moses received the Ten Commandments. If Egypt’s army, already massing in the Sinai, was to cross into Israel and threaten Tel Aviv or other major cities, the Israelis would shock the invaders by turning the mountain into little more than rubble under a mushroom cloud.
The plan was dropped, primarily due to the fact that Israel won the June 1967 war with such ease.
The second occasion came 40 years ago, during the Yom Kippur War. Egypt and Syria, in a coordinated attack on two widely separated fronts, had taken Israel’s celebrated and overconfident military by surprise. The defense minister at the time, the iconic Moshe Dayan, panicked. Other military officers and officials were under the impression that Dayan believed Israel might lose – and losing might mean the end of Israel.
Dayan suggested “the end of the Third Temple” was nigh.
Official documents, just now released thanks to the passage of four decades, show that both Dayan and Maj.-Gen. Rehavam Ze’evi both hinted at the need to use “the strategic weapons.” The declassified papers don’t use the word nuclear, but the meaning is clear – a very drastic step, using a weapon up until that point totally hidden, to turn back the seemingly unstoppable invaders The papers show that fortunately, prime minister Golda Meir and the IDF chief of staff David Elazar rejected the idea of unsheathing “the strategic weapons.”
Nowadays, the calls to abandon Israel’s nuclear ambiguity are not wise. They are foolish and can cause a great deal of damage to the national interest, especially now when Israel and the international community are trying to force Iran to dismantle its nuclear program. A declaration at this sensitive moment by Israel that it is a nuclear power will only harden Iran’s stubbornness and its desire to assemble a bomb.
Nuclear ambiguity is one of the smartest, most sophisticated and imaginative strategic concepts ever created in Israel.
It has enabled Israel to develop a deterrent force against its enemies, weakened their desire to annihilate the Jewish state and brought them to the realization that even if they desire do it, they would never accomplish it.
No less importantly, this policy helps to maintain the unique strategic alliance with the US. Israel has several verbal and tacit understandings with the US crystallized in decades of meetings between Israeli prime ministers and US presidents. These understandings can be summed up in the phrase: Don’t ask, don’t tell. If Israel does not talk about its nuclear capabilities, and certainly does not boast about them, the US does not ask too many questions.
The practical result is that the US is not pressing Israel to join the NPT; in other words, Washington does not demand that Israel dismantle its nuclear weapons, and it is repelling any international effort to force Israel to do so.