In the shadow of the Holocaust, Israel made a determined effort to acquire nuclear weapons. However, just as fear of genocide is the key to understanding Israel's nuclear resolve, that fear has also encouraged nuclear restraint. After all, if Israel's enemies also acquired the bomb, the Jewish state might well face destruction, given its small size and high population density. Moreover, the specter of killing large numbers of innocent people, even to save their own, was morally unsettling for Israeli leaders.
This combination of resolve and restraint led to a code of nuclear conduct that is fundamentally different from that of all other nuclear weapons states. Israel neither affirms nor denies its possession of nuclear weapons; indeed, the government refuses to say anything factual about Israel's nuclear activities, and Israeli citizens are encouraged, both by law and by custom, to follow suit. And so they do, primarily through government censorship of and self-censorship by the media. This posture is known as nuclear opacity, or, in Hebrew, amimut.
The policy and practice of nuclear opacity was codified in 1969 in an extraordinary secret accord between Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and U.S. President Richard Nixon. Although this agreement has never been openly acknowledged or documented, its existence was revealed in 1991 by the Israeli journalist Aluf Benn, and more information came out in some recently declassified memos regarding Nixon's 1969 meeting with Meir written by Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. According to the Nixon-Meir pact, as long as Israel did not advertise its possession of nuclear weapons by publicly declaring or testing them, the United States would tolerate and shield Israel's nuclear program.
Ever since, all U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers have reaffirmed this policy -- most recently, U.S. President Barack Obama, in a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 6, during which Obama stated, "We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it's in . . . Israel has unique security requirements. It's got to be able to respond to threats. . . . And the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine [its] security interests."
In Israel, for government officials, security analysts, and even the general public, nuclear opacity is one of the Jewish state's greatest strategic and diplomatic success stories. It has provided Israel with the best of all possible worlds: the advantages of nuclear deterrence to protect against existential threats but almost none of the potential political drawbacks of possessing nuclear weapons. If Israel went public about its bomb, it could face tangible costs. In particular, although the Arab states have learned to live, albeit uncomfortably, with the Israeli bomb, in 2008 they threatened to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) if Israel declared its nuclear status. Moreover, some Arab states, especially Egypt, could face increasing popular pressure to challenge Israel's nuclear monopoly, as Iran is now doing.
Opacity may have been justified when Israel had just acquired the bomb and the United States did not wish to confront this reality openly. However, today Israel's nuclear policy clashes with both emerging global nuclear norms and democratic principles, and it prevents Israel from arguing that it is a responsible nuclear power. Above all, Israel's nuclear monopoly in the Middle East is now facing two key challenges. The first is Iran's determined effort to acquire nuclear weapons under the cover of an ostensibly peaceful atomic energy program; the second is growing international support for the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, as manifested in the final declaration of the recent NPT Review Conference.
An additional challenge is that the Netanyahu government's policy toward the Palestinians is widely viewed both within and outside Israel as undermining the establishment of a viable Palestinian state and a lasting two-state solution. Given that Israel's legitimacy as a de facto nuclear weapons state rests on its broader political legitimacy, the connection between political and nuclear issues cannot be ignored.
Finally, there is growing recognition globally that the nuclear status quo is dangerous -- primarily because deterrence can no longer be relied on to prevent the acquisition and possible use of nuclear weapons by both states and nonstate actors. This has increased support for the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons -- which raises the question of whether Israel can afford not to be part of this ongoing international debate.Israel could increase its credibility as a responsible nuclear state in various ways, but almost all of them would require relaxing the policy of opacity, without fully abandoning it. This policy made strategic and political sense 40 years ago, but in today's regional and international climate, it has more vices than virtues.
DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL
In 1958, Israel began secretly constructing a nuclear center in Dimona with French assistance. The United States did not learn about the Dimona site until late 1960, and responding to it posed a challenge for U.S. policymakers. Only 15 years after the end of the Holocaust and before international nuclear nonproliferation norms existed, Israel's founders believed that they had a compelling case for acquiring the bomb, although there was disagreement about whether to openly argue that case, as Meir urged, or to conceal the entire project, as David Ben-Gurion insisted. As prime minister at the time, Ben-Gurion prevailed.
In the early 1960s, Washington saw Israel as a small and friendly state surrounded by much larger enemies vowing to destroy it; moreover, Israel enjoyed strong support among U.S. voters. Yet the idea of a nuclear-armed Israel was perceived as antithetical to U.S. global and regional interests. President John F. Kennedy feared that without decisive global action to curb nuclear proliferation, the number of nuclear weapons states would inevitably rise and that Israel's acquisition of the bomb would undermine U.S. efforts to establish a global nonproliferation norm. He was also concerned that Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons would lead to increasing Soviet influence over Israel's Arab neighbors and a heightened risk of a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in the event of another Arab-Israeli war. As a result of these concerns, in the spring of 1963, Kennedy pressed Ben-Gurion to permit annual U.S. visits to Dimona to verify Ben-Gurion's assurances that Israel had purely peaceful intentions when it came to its nuclear program.
Such regular visits began in 1964. Israel's new prime minister, Levi Eshkol, reiterated Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres' ambiguous pledge to Kennedy in 1962 that Israel would not be the first state to "introduce" nuclear weapons to the region. This effectively foreclosed the option of a public nuclear test. But Israel still had some leeway. The timing of the visits, the limited access granted to the inspectors, and the concealment of key operations ensured that the U.S. intelligence community found no incriminating weapons-related activities. This was accepted by the Johnson administration, which wanted to avoid a confrontation with Israel on the nuclear issue.
By the time of the Six-Day War, in June 1967, Israel had secretly crossed the nuclear threshold. At the time, the Johnson administration's nonproliferation priority was to enlist support for the newly negotiated NPT. The United States tried to pressure Israel to sign the NPT as a nonnuclear weapons state, but Israel resisted. And by 1969, when President Nixon and Prime Minister Meir took office, it became clear to U.S. policymakers -- particularly Nixon and Kissinger -- that Israel probably already had a so-called bomb in the basement. Moreover, they knew Israel was reluctant either to give it up or to declare itself as a nuclear power by public acknowledgment or testing. A new understanding between the United States and Israel was needed.
In July 1969, Kissinger wrote to Nixon, "Our interest is in preventing Israel's possession of nuclear weapons. But since we cannot -- and may not want to try [to] -- control the state of Israel's nuclear program and since Israel may already have nuclear weapons, the one objective we might achieve is to persuade them to keep what they have secret." The recently declassified Kissinger memo goes on to argue that "this would meet our objective because the international implications of an Israeli program are not triggered until it becomes public knowledge." On September 26, 1969, Nixon and Meir reached a new agreement at the White House. Israel committed itself not to test its atomic weapons, advertise its possession of them, or threaten any other state with its newfound nuclear capability -- an arrangement that the United States was willing to tolerate. Washington, in turn, would end its visits to Dimona and stop pressuring Israel to sign the NPT. Over time, U.S. tolerance has evolved into a policy of shielding Israel's nuclear capabilities from international scrutiny.
Nixon's rationale for becoming Israel's partner in opacity probably included both considerations of realpolitik and sympathy for the small Jewish state's need to have an existential insurance policy. Israel had already crossed the nuclear threshold, and it could be counted on as a democratic ally of the United States in its Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union. Nixon also apparently trusted Meir as a responsible custodian of Israel's nuclear weapons. But as the Nixon-Meir accord enters its fifth decade, it is fair to ask whether this secret deal is still the best way for Israel to conduct its nuclear affairs. And if not, what are the alternatives?
In Israel, opacity is viewed almost universally as the most prudent response -- indeed, the only possible response -- Israel could have fashioned to its nuclear dilemma.
Despite Israel's victory in its War of Independence, in 1948, Ben-Gurion was haunted by the nightmare that the Arab states, acting together, could overwhelm Israel's conventional forces. Thus, under his leadership, Israel seized the opportunity to acquire a nuclear deterrent starting in the 1950s. However, nuclear weapons were viewed as "a last resort," in case Israel's conventional forces failed, and Ben-Gurion was not prepared politically to openly declare Israel a nuclear state.
Today, opacity continues to have almost universal support among members of the Israeli security establishment, who contend that as long as Israel maintains its regional nuclear monopoly, opacity should continue to guide the country's nuclear affairs. Short of the imminence of a new nuclear state in the region, they believe, Israel must do everything possible to maintain the policy and practice of opacity. Indeed, as the Iranian nuclear threat has grown more ominous, the commitment to opacity appears to have been strengthened -- most recently in a 2004 review of Israel's national security strategy headed by Dan Meridor, now the deputy prime minister in charge of intelligence and atomic energy.
Senior Israeli officials insist -- always off the record -- that the policy of opacity is not a dogma and its continuity is not an article of faith. However, each review of the policy to date has concluded that there is no viable alternative to opacity and that a public acknowledgment of Israel's nuclear status would pose a major national security risk. Israel therefore enjoys remarkable and unparalleled freedom of action in the nuclear sphere. After a stormy decade in which Israel's nuclear program was a continuous source of irritation and friction between the United States and Israel, the 1969 deal made the United States a silent partner in Israel's policy of opacity. Ever since, Washington has provided Israel with significant diplomatic cover vis-à-vis the NPT regime. Over time, most other countries have followed the United States' lead, accepting Israel's opaque nuclear posture and treating Israel's nuclear program as an exceptional case.
Despite concerns that the advent of Israeli nuclear weapons would exacerbate the Arab-Israeli conflict, the politics of opacity created a reality that was more benign than anybody expected. Opacity has in fact moderated and eased Arabs' ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons. By not publicly flaunting its nuclear status, Israel has reduced its neighbors' incentives to proliferate. Finally, opacity makes it easier to resist increasing demands that Israel give up its nuclear shield before a just and durable peace is established in the Middle East -- what Israelis commonly refer to as the "slippery slope" toward premature denuclearization.
Indeed, opacity has become much more than a government policy. Israel's nuclear ambiguity and the bomb itself have become essentially inseparable, and thus it is difficult for Israelis to debate whether and under what conditions Israel could continue to have the bomb without the opaque cover that now shrouds it from public view. The time for that debate has come.
THE BUNDY DOCTRINE
The first time we heard a plea for Israel to abandon its policy of opacity was in the spring of 1992, in a meeting we organized to enable U.S. and Israeli security experts and government officials to reflect on the issue of nuclear weapons in the Middle East after the first Gulf War. To the surprise of all present, and the discomfort of some of the attendees, our keynote speaker, the late former U.S. national security adviser McGeorge Bundy urged Israel to "come clean" about its nuclear status in order to reduce the risk of proliferation and the potential use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
Less than two years later, Bundy co-authored a book, Reducing Nuclear Danger, with U.S. Admiral William Crowe and the theoretical physicist Sidney Drell. They argued that all three existing de facto nuclear weapons states -- Israel, India, and Pakistan -- should acknowledge their true nuclear status. On matters of nuclear weapons, the authors maintained, the international community could no longer tolerate evading the truth. The possession of nuclear weapons was too serious a matter -- for the states involved, for their neighbors, and for the entire world -- to be left unacknowledged. With specific reference to Israel, the three authors suggested that "the fiction" of opacity was so "perverse" that it prevented Israelis from seeing their own best interests. As they put it, "The pretense [of opacity] prevents any public defense of the Israeli program by the Israeli government and any effective argument that no state or group need fear an Israeli bomb unless it attempts the destruction of Israel."
It is unclear whether Bundy knew all the details of the Nixon-Meir accord, but he and his co-authors suggested that the United States should end its own participation in the policy of opacity and state in public that it considers Israel to be a nuclear weapons state. "Such a statement would clarify an important reality, would follow the guidelines of openness, and help the Israelis themselves to tell the truth," they wrote. Ultimately, however, the burden of disclosure would fall on the Israelis themselves: "The best way out of this cul-de-sac," they maintained, "is Israeli openness by Israeli decision."
Bundy's argument is even more salient today than it was in the 1990s. Moreover, opacity makes it very difficult for Israel to engage seriously in negotiations on arms control and disarmament in both the regional and the global context. A case in point is the proposed Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. Compliance with such an agreement by Israel would require Israel to allow verification that it had ceased production of unsafeguarded plutonium at its Dimona reactor. Although a complete shutdown of the reactor could be verified remotely, it is widely assumed that the reactor also produces tritium -- a hydrogen isotope used in advanced nuclear weapons -- the production of which is not banned by the treaty. Thus, verification of a cutoff in the production of plutonium, specifically, would require intrusive on-site inspections, and these are not compatible with the pretense that Israel is not a nuclear weapons state.
The perceived need to maintain opacity can become a convenient excuse for not engaging in arms control and disarmament initiatives that could actually serve Israel's interests. Whereas India and Pakistan are now recognized and treated as weapons states, Israel remains in the nuclear shadow, as if its moral and political case for the bomb were weaker than New Delhi's or Islamabad's or those of the established NPT weapons states.
Ironically, the nuclear policy that served Israel's interest in the 1950s and 1960s is now an obstacle to achieving its political and diplomatic objectives. In the early days of its nuclear program, Israel had no concerns about legitimacy, recognition, and status; all it cared about was acquiring a nuclear capability. The virtue of the Nixon-Meir accord was that it allowed Israel to do just that. Today, the situation is different. Israel is now a mature nuclear weapons state, but it finds it difficult under the strictures of opacity to make a convincing case that it is a responsible one.
A RESPONSIBLE NUCLEAR POWER
In recent years, leaders of the Israeli nuclear establishment have emphasized, in the words of Gideon Frank, vice chair of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, "Israel's long-standing commitment to norms of security, responsibility, accountability, and restraint in the nuclear domain." Although fully consistent with nuclear opacity, this new terminology allows Israel to promote its credentials as a supporter of the international nonproliferation regime. This represents a tacit but significant shift from Israel's past nuclear policy, which, for decades, was characterized by a determined effort to achieve an advanced nuclear capability outside the norms of the regime.
Having attained such a capability, Israel has shifted its priority to burnishing its image as a democratic, responsible nuclear state and thus, although still not an NPT signatory, placing itself on the right side of the global nuclear order and distinguishing itself from autocratic, rogue regimes with nuclear ambitions, such as the current government of Iran.
The behavior of regimes should no doubt be considered in devising strategies to prevent proliferation. However, regimes change. Pre-1979 Iran was encouraged by the United States, France, and West Germany to invest heavily in nuclear power plants, together with the associated technology and expertise, and a hostile regime in Tehran is now using civilian nuclear technology as a cover for obtaining nuclear weapons. As the Swedish physicist and Nobel laureate Hannes Alfvén once observed, "Atoms for peace and atoms for war are Siamese twins." Attempts to deal with this long-standing problem by encouraging nonnuclear weapons states not to acquire dual-use technologies, such as those for uranium enrichment, have met with considerable skepticism in a world already divided between nuclear haves and nuclear have-nots.
To demonstrate its support for the international nonproliferation regime, Israel points out that it plays an active role in the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, has harmonized its nuclear export control legislation and regulations with the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, is a state party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, and has cooperated with the committee charged with implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which obligates all UN member states to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Nuclear analysts, such as George Perkovich and Pierre Goldschmidt of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also emphasize that Israel has never threatened the existence of any other state with nuclear weapons, or by any other means, and that it is a responsible custodian of nuclear weapons with respect to both its nuclear doctrine and the procedures it has in place to govern their use. Specifically, they infer that Israel's doctrine remains one of "defensive last resort" and that its procedural safeguards are designed to minimize the risk of inadvertent or accidental use.
Obviously, there are matters that democratic governments need to keep secret, but transparency is vital to preserving democratic institutions. This is especially true with regard to nuclear weapons policy, an area in which decision-making is commonly the province of a small elite. To the extent that opacity keeps both the Israeli public and the rest of the world in the dark about Israel's capability, it undercuts the need for Israelis to be informed about issues that are literally matters of life and death: Whose finger is on the nuclear trigger? Under what circumstances would the country's nuclear weapons be used? And what are the occupational hazards and environmental risks posed by the possession and continued manufacturing of nuclear weapons?
There should not be an end to all secrecy on nuclear matters; the balance between the legitimate need for secrecy and the desire for transparency needs to be carefully considered. However, nearly five decades after Prime Minister Eshkol told the Israeli Knesset that Israel would not "introduce" nuclear weapons to the region, neither he nor any of his successors has ever elaborated on the meaning of this ambiguous statement. Times have changed, and as long as Israel adheres strictly to the policy of opacity, it cannot address concerns about its nuclear capability or about the seriousness of its commitment to a NWFZ in the Middle East, which it has advocated since 1980.The former Israeli nuclear scientist Mordechai Vanunu's revelations about Dimona to the London Sunday Times in 1986 have led to claims that Israel possesses hundreds of nuclear weapons, including thermonuclear devices and battlefield weapons such as neutron bombs and nuclear artillery shells. Such an arsenal would seem to be incompatible with a nuclear doctrine of "defensive last resort." And it remains unclear what "defensive last resort" means in practice, in particular with regard to how Israel would respond to an attack with biological or chemical weapons.
Israel should demonstrate that it is serious about its commitment to a NWFZ in the Middle East provided that a just and durable peace is achieved first. It should also acknowledge the inherent dangers of possessing nuclear weapons, even by "responsible" nuclear states. Progress toward a peace deal should proceed in conjunction with arms control measures short of complete denuclearization.
The difficulties involved in realizing a nuclear-free world, such as verifying and punishing noncompliance, have been acknowledged by many of its proponents, including Obama. What is significant about the current global debate is the growing consensus that the nuclear status quo is dangerous, especially with regard to the inadequacy of nuclear deterrence to deal with the growing danger that nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of nonstate actors. Thus, the final declaration of the recently concluded NPT Review Conference underlined the support of all the NPT member states for Article 6 of the treaty, which calls for "negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament."
Although Israel supports measures to reduce the risk of proliferation and nuclear terrorism, as a non-NPT state it is not obligated to voice its support for Article 6. Nevertheless, Israel should make explicit that its support of a NWFZ in the Middle East also implies support of Article 6 of the NPT and of the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Such a statement should endorse the perspective of the late Shalheveth Freier -- the senior Israeli nuclear official who translated the Nixon-Meir opacity accord into a national doctrine. Freier argued in 1993 that "nuclear weapons are bad" for a number of reasons: they are so destructive that irreparable damage can be done, and second thoughts cannot redress that damage; they cause lasting and pernicious injury to people and the environment; they could proliferate to countries that might feel less inhibited in contemplating their use than the established nuclear weapons states; once a nuclear weapon has been employed in an actual conflict, there is no credible barrier to the escalation of their use and destructive power; and, finally, proliferation to a regime facing internal challenges to its rule or not exercising complete control over its military could have devastating consequences.
The Israeli bomb became opaque soon after its birth and remains so today. Yet unlike 50 years ago, Israel today needs to bolster its credentials as a democratic state that seeks a just peace with the Palestinian people and to deal effectively with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran -- challenges that require a reconsideration of its opaque nuclear posture.
International support for Israel and its opaque bomb is being eroded by its continued occupation of Palestinian territory and the policies that support that occupation, such as settlement construction, house demolitions, and restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, all of which are widely perceived as undermining a genuine commitment to the establishment of a just and durable peace in the Middle East. What happens in the West Bank may have consequences in Dimona. For example, the Israeli political commentator Ari Shavit, who strongly supports Israel's retention of its nuclear shield, has observed that "the West is not prepared to accept Israel as an occupying state."
Such international criticism might well spill over into the nuclear domain, making Israel increasingly vulnerable to the charge that it is a nuclear-armed pariah state. This associates Israel to an uncomfortable degree with today's rogue Iranian regime and the old apartheid government in South Africa. This charge needs to be countered by displaying a genuine commitment to the pursuit of peace and a willingness to modify the policy of opacity in order to reinforce Israel's credentials as a responsible nuclear state. Obviously, those who contest Israel's right to exist as an independent state and to possess a nuclear deterrent to secure that right are unlikely to change their views even if Israel alters its political and nuclear posture. However, there is a deep reservoir of goodwill toward Israel and admiration for its accomplishments in many countries. Altering its present course would significantly increase the support Israel now receives in the international community.
Agreeing to the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty or to a ban on uranium enrichment and reprocessing in the region would be problematic for both Israel and its neighbors at the moment. For Israel, such agreements would be incompatible with opacity; for the Arab states, they would legitimate an Israeli nuclear monopoly. However, Israel could take other steps on its own in the near term, whose cumulative impact would be to increase confidence in Israel's support of global norms to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Specifically, Israel should ratify both the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Given Israel's formidable conventional military capabilities -- specifically, its edge in the quality of both its manpower and its technology, its aircraft in particular -- as well as its nuclear deterrent, Israel can stand with the 188 states that are already parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention without any loss of national security and thus indicate that it views the use of chemical weapons as abhorrent and unnecessary. The same considerations should motivate Israel to join the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.
It is also important for Israel to follow the lead of the United States in its latest Nuclear Posture Review, which significantly circumscribed the role of nuclear weapons as a means of responding to a biological or chemical attack. In particular, the new U.S. posture indicates that although the use of nuclear weapons in retaliation for a biological or chemical attack is not out of the question, the primary role of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by other states. Obviously, under the current policy of opacity, Israel cannot make a public statement of this kind. The policy of opacity should be loosened so that Israel can become both a more responsible and more legitimate nuclear state -- and be perceived as such by the international community.
Almost all states publicly oppose the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, but the willingness to take strong measures to achieve this goal is very limited. Even the United States, Israel's closest ally, seems unsure about how far it should go to counter the nuclear ambitions of a country whose president commonly refers to Israel as "an illegal political entity that is bound to disappear from the pages of history." And although global concerns about nuclear weapons in the Middle East are focused on Iran's imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons rather than Israel's "bomb in the basement," there is also widespread support for dealing with this problem in an evenhanded manner, namely, by establishing a NWFZ in the region.
Faced with such a situation, Israel feels isolated and under siege -- a mentality that has deep roots in its history. However, Israel should resist the view that unilateral military action is its only option for dealing with the perceived Iranian threat to its existence. Although Israel has previously bombed nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria to protect its nuclear monopoly in the region, the challenge it faces from Iran today is much greater, especially since Tehran's precise level of nuclear advancement is so difficult to discern. In particular, it is not clear whether Iran has made a decision to build actual nuclear weapons or simply decided to maintain a "latent" nuclear capability -- essentially coming as close to the bomb as technically possible without actually completing it and thus precipitating a strong reaction from other states, especially Israel.