Israeli Nuclear Power

By  Professor Bichara Khader
CERMAC, Catholic University of Louvain


At a time when Iran’s nuclear programme finds itself in the spotlight, I would like to look at another country, realistically and not virtually nuclearised: Israel. Despite a “deafening silence” and “deliberate strategy of ambiguity” on the part of Israeli leaders, the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons is no real secret.

Israel’s nuclear project goes back to the creation of the Jewish State in 1948. By 1952, a “Commission on Atomic Energy” was founded in Israel. The United States provided Israel with its first research reactor in 1955 in the context of the “Atoms for Peace” Programme. Israel’s plans for a military nuclear programme came to life, thanks to French support, at the time of the Suez War. Much of its sophisticated equipment was, then, provided by France. A decade later, the Dimona nuclear reactor was producing enough plutonium to build nuclear weapons.

The creation of an Israeli nuclear bomb came as a response to a security doctrine built on the perception of an existential and permanent threat (vulnerability) and on the need to develop a decisive capacity of prevention and deterrence. This security doctrine thus called for Israeli military supremacy over its neighbours, acting either individually or collectively.

Israel’s security doctrine is based on two guiding principles:

Firstly, as Arabs are fatally hostile to the mere existence of Israel, the latter has “no other choice” but to develop a crushing deterrence force. In this light, victories must be fast and total. A half-victory is a “defeat”, as it sheds doubts over Israel’s deterrence capacity: this was witnessed with the Lebanon war of 2006.

Secondly, Israel cannot allow itself any domestic aggressions, but must rather immediately take the war out on the “external theatre of the enemy” through strickes qualified, as usual, as “preventive”. This notion of “prevention” is derived from perceptions of small territory and lack of strategic depth. This is the model of “aggressive deterrence”.

In this doctrine, Israel’s nuclear capacity serves as an “ultimate guarantee of security”, aimed at deterring war, but above all, deterring “in war” when the Israeli army finds itself in a bleak situation. However, for the nuclear to serve as a “definitive security shield”, Israel must prevent, by all means, Arab and non-Arab hostile states of obtaining nuclear firepower, as this would cancel out Israel’s initial advantage.

This is what is known as the “Begin Doctrine”. Indeed, on the day of the attack of the Iraqi nuclear power station of Osirak in 1981, Begin declared that “Israel will prevent any effort by the enemy to acquire nuclear weapons”. Back in 1979, Israeli secret services destroyed a warehouse located in a French port, in which equipment for the Iraqi nuclear power station was stocked. Throughout the 1980s, many engineers from Iraq and other neighbouring states were liquidated by the Mossad. Osirak was the first “preventive” action carried out by the Israeli army. Closer to us, Israel also destroyed Syrian installations in the north of the country, which Israel suspected to shelter “nuclear components”.

Thus, Israel has considered itself as the “nuclear policeman” of the region. While Israel’s actions may be matters of concern and frustration for Western countries in terms of their timing, a sort of “tacit consensus” fundamentally has existed between Israel and the West with regards its “nuclear monopoly”.

Arab States’ reaction to the military nuclearisation of Israel was three-fold. The first phase was one of blindness: Arabs did not believe in Israel’s capacity to develop a nuclear weapon and looked serene through reassuring statements; Secondly, one of realism: confronted to Israel armed with weapons of mass destruction, they developed chemical and biological capacities; The final phase consisted of a counter-offer by Arab states, with the suggestion to create a “nuclear weapons free zone”.

This final phase, which has become the spearhead of Egyptian foreign policy, aims at avoiding proliferation. In fact, as is the general feeling in the Arab world, “the presence of an Israeli nuclear programme incites other states to develop weapons of mass destruction”. The case of a nuclear Iran confirms this Arab fear.

In this light, a “security dilemma” exists, in which Israel’s nuclear power, built as an “ultimate guarantee for survival”, is conceived by its neighbours to represent a “threat” to their own security and, thus, an “incentive” in the race for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Israel’s nuclear capacity therefore appears to be a triggering factor for proliferation. In an attempt to “impose a security regime”, through which it is enforcing its objectives at the expense of other regional actors, Israel is jeopardizing the creation of a real “shared security regime” in which each actor would feel in security. We can even go a step further and suggest that Israel’s nuclear power, aimed at guaranteeing its security thanks to theabsolute weapon, has actually led to greater insecurity for Israel, through the multiplication of “prolifying” states that are less exposed to total destruction of their bigger territories.

Thus, Israel is cancelling out its qualitative advantage over neighbouring states and, ultimately, its capacity of “aggressive sanctuarisation” by refusing to contemplate calls for a “nuclear weapons free zone” and by seeking to hold on to the “monopoly” of the ultimate deterring weapon.

In effect, until today, Israel remains superior to its neighbours in terms of conventional wars. However, if its neighbours become nuclear, Israel will lose its superiority and may even risk becoming an inferior force in the region. For this reason, Israel is keen on preventing the rise of a nuclear Iran and forbidding this right to other Arab countries. This containment and withholding strategy has proven successful up to now, not without complacency by its Western allies, but for how long can this last?

This underlines the importance of the Treaty of Non Proliferation (TNP) of nuclear weapons. The Treaty was signed on July 1st 1968 and came into action on March 5th 1970, in the midst of the Cold War. It sought to create a form of status quo between nuclear and non-nuclear states and stem proliferation. States can develop civilian nuclear power but must authorize inspections in exchange. Iran and most other Arab states have ratified this Treaty. Hence, no article of the Treaty forbids Iran to develop its nuclear powers for pacific ends under the condition that the country submits itself to regular inspections. However, Iran’s game of hide and seek has clearly irritated the international community and cast doubts over its real intentions.

This is the first problem posed by the Treaty: how can pressure be put, or sanctions placed, upon a signatory state who fails to abide to the rules of the Treaty, as is the case with Iran? However, this leads to another problem: how can one ensure the universality of the Treaty’s application, as countries like Israel, who are not signatories, contribute to proliferation? Does this lack of universality ultimately benefits countries outside the TNP? These questions cast serious shadows over a seemingly praiseworthly enterprise, which remains, nonetheless, ambiguous in its application.