Israel’s arsenal

Andrew Sullivan wonders “why can’t Israel just declare that it’s a nuclear power?" Good question. I’ve never had much problem with Israel having a nuclear arsenal myself — if I were Israeli, I’d want one too. Nor am I surprised that they don’t want their neighbors to follow suit, because that’s basically been our position ...

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Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Andrew Sullivan wonders “why can’t Israel just declare that it’s a nuclear power?" Good question. I’ve never had much problem with Israel having a nuclear arsenal myself -- if I were Israeli, I’d want one too. Nor am I surprised that they don’t want their neighbors to follow suit, because that’s basically been our position too.  The United States would clearly prefer to be the only country with nuclear weapons; the problem is that it’s difficult-to-impossible to maintain a nuclear monopoly in perpetuity without fighting a lot of preventive wars.  And the same goes for Israel too.  

As for Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity -- “we will not be first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, but we will not be second” -- it was probably an effective ploy for awhile. It was easier for some Arab governments to live with the asymmetry if Israel wasn’t bragging about it, and it allowed the U.S. and the Europeans to turn a blind eye to the problem in various non-proliferation forums. See Sullivan's follow up here.  But this polite fiction lost its hexing power some time ago, and now it just looks disingenuous. More importantly, refusing to come clean isn’t affecting anyone’s calculations today, and certainly not in the places that matter most (like Tehran).

There is a substantial literature addressing Sullivan’s original question, and a good place to start is Shai Feldman’s Israeli Nuclear Deterrence (Columbia University Press, 1981). Its core argument was straightforward: 1) nuclear deterrence works, especially for the protection of a state’s core territory; 2) other governments in the region understand this, and there’s every reason to believe deterrence would work in the Middle East; 3) Israel should openly declare its nuclear capability and adopt an explicit policy of deterrence; and 4) relying more heavily on deterrence would reduce the importance of strategic depth and facilitate Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories as part of a regional peace agreement. Note that Feldman was writing back when Iraq and Syria were still Soviet client states, when there was no peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, and when Israel’s economy was much smaller. Of course, that was also before there were half a million Israelis living outside the 1967 borders.  

Andrew Sullivan wonders “why can’t Israel just declare that it’s a nuclear power?" Good question. I’ve never had much problem with Israel having a nuclear arsenal myself — if I were Israeli, I’d want one too. Nor am I surprised that they don’t want their neighbors to follow suit, because that’s basically been our position too.  The United States would clearly prefer to be the only country with nuclear weapons; the problem is that it’s difficult-to-impossible to maintain a nuclear monopoly in perpetuity without fighting a lot of preventive wars.  And the same goes for Israel too.  

As for Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity — “we will not be first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, but we will not be second” — it was probably an effective ploy for awhile. It was easier for some Arab governments to live with the asymmetry if Israel wasn’t bragging about it, and it allowed the U.S. and the Europeans to turn a blind eye to the problem in various non-proliferation forums. See Sullivan’s follow up here.  But this polite fiction lost its hexing power some time ago, and now it just looks disingenuous. More importantly, refusing to come clean isn’t affecting anyone’s calculations today, and certainly not in the places that matter most (like Tehran).

There is a substantial literature addressing Sullivan’s original question, and a good place to start is Shai Feldman’s Israeli Nuclear Deterrence (Columbia University Press, 1981). Its core argument was straightforward: 1) nuclear deterrence works, especially for the protection of a state’s core territory; 2) other governments in the region understand this, and there’s every reason to believe deterrence would work in the Middle East; 3) Israel should openly declare its nuclear capability and adopt an explicit policy of deterrence; and 4) relying more heavily on deterrence would reduce the importance of strategic depth and facilitate Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories as part of a regional peace agreement. Note that Feldman was writing back when Iraq and Syria were still Soviet client states, when there was no peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, and when Israel’s economy was much smaller. Of course, that was also before there were half a million Israelis living outside the 1967 borders.  

Today, one could argue that the Israeli government could reassure its citizens about a possible “existential” threat from Iran by advertising its own far more impressive nuclear capability and reminding its that any Iranian attack on Israel would be an act of national suicide. The problem, of course, is that calling attention to Israel’s existing arsenal weakens the case for opposing Iran’s nuclear programs. And that might be part of the answer to Sullivan’s query: Israel can’t declare that it is a nuclear weapons state when it’s trying to convince the rest of the world that it’s totally illegitimate for Iran to become one too. 

For a history of Israel’s nuclear program, check out Avner Cohen’s Israel and the Bomb. And for a qualified defense of Israel’s policy of ambiguity, see Ze’ev Maoz, “The Mixed Blessing of Israel’s Nuclear Policy,” in the Fall 2003 issue of International Security.  

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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