Israeli Nuclear Program

For some five decades the Israeli nuclear program has been one of the world’s most closely guarded secrets. The international community has long been convinced that Israel has nuclear weapons, indeed, that it has a second-strike capability based on a nuclear “triad” (i.e. the capability to deliver nuclear weapons by aircraft, missiles and submarines). Nevertheless, Israel continues to adhere to a strict policy of “nuclear ambiguity”, refusing to acknowledge or deny what others consider to be self-evident, that Israeli nuclear capabilities are  robust.

Israeli Nuclear Capability and Nuclear Ambiguity 

To those not well-versed in the at times arcane logic of nuclear strategy, Israel’s ongoing adherence to the policy of ambiguity appears inexplicable, almost childish. In reality, Israel has very good reasons for maintaining the policy. It may actually be the best thought out and most successful policy Israel has ever adopted.

Beginning with the historic understandings reached by President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with Prime Minister Golda Meir and then ambassador to the US Yitzhak Rabin, the US has played a critical role in Israel’s decision to adopt and maintain the policy of nuclear ambiguity. Indeed, some consider the policy of nuclear ambiguity to be a fundamental pillar of US-Israeli relations. Concern over the potential Arab and especially the Iranian response, including legitimization of the Iranian nuclear program, indicate the wisdom of continuing to maintain the current policy.

Numerous experts have speculated about the circumstances in which Israel might consider a partial or complete end to the policy of nuclear ambiguity. As with all other major changes to a national policy, however, one has to carefully assess both the potential benefits and potential downside. Would an end to ambiguity meaningfully strengthen Israel’s deterrence, or does it already enjoy all of the deterrent benefits attendant to an explicit nuclear posture? How would Israel deal with the likely international reaction, including US legislation that calls for imposition of comprehensive sanctions on proliferating states? How might other regional actors respond?

Nuclear Prevention – the “Begin Doctrine”

Israel has long pursued a policy of nuclear prevention, the “Begin Doctrine”, named for the then prime minister. The doctrine states that Israel will not allow a hostile power in the region to develop a military nuclear program. It has been implemented twice, with Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and the Syrian reactor in 2007, but so far not against Iran. Some believe that the Begin Doctrine has already run its course with Iran and that it is certainly not feasible against the presumed proliferators in the future – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – all of whom are US allies and enjoy at least some American security guarantee. In these circumstances, Israel may have to consider new and novel options to ensure its security against this ultimate threat in the future. In the era of the Israel-Iran nuclear tensions, the issue is more important than ever.

 The Talk

  • International assessments of Israel’s nuclear capabilities
  • “Never again” – why Israel might want a nuclear capability and scenarios for its use
  • The origins of the policy of nuclear ambiguity 
  • Under what circumstances might Israel consider ending ambiguity and should it?
  • The American factor in Israel’s nuclear strategy
  • Arab, Iranian and international responses to Israel’s purported capabilities
  • Nuclear prevention: is the “Begin Doctrine still viable? What are the alternatives?
  • Israel’s regional arms control policy

Join me for an illuminating discussion of Israel’s best thought out and most successful national security policy. This is definitely not about child’s play. It will be thought-provoking, disturbing and ultimately reassuring.

Talk Titles

  • Israel’s Nuclear Strategy: Unwrapping a Mystery Inside an Enigma
  • “Nuclear Ambiguity” – Israel’s Most Successful Policy


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