On September 19, to nobody’s surprise, Shaul Chorev, the director-general of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, announced that his government would not attend an upcoming conference devoted to establishing a nuclear-free Middle East. The announcement reaffirmed Israel’s long-standing position that a nuclear-free zone can come about only as a consequence of a lasting regional peace. Until such a peace is achieved, Jerusalem will not take any tangible steps toward eliminating its nuclear weapons.
At least on the face of it, this stand is sensible. For 45 years, Israel has been the only nuclear power in the Middle East, enjoying a formidable strategic safety net against any existential threat. Since 1957, Israel has invested tremendous resources in building up a solid nuclear arsenal in Dimona. Today, according to various estimates, this stockpile comprises some 100–300 devices, including two-stage thermonuclear warheads and a variety of delivery systems, the most important of which are modern German-built submarines, which constitute the backbone of Israel’s second-strike capability. For Israel to give up these assets in the midst of an ongoing conflict strikes most Israelis as irrational.
This consensus, however, overlooks the fact that Israel’s nuclear capability has not played an important role in the country’s defense. Unlike other nuclear-armed states, Israel initiated its nuclear project not because of an opponent’s real or imagined nuclear capability but because of the worry that, in the long run, Arab conventional forces would outstrip the power of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). As early as the 1950s, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sought to manage the threat of modernizing Arab armies, which were inspired by pan-Arab sentiment and backed by the Soviet Union, by developing the ultimate deterrent. Shimon Peres, the architect of Israel’s nuclear program and now Israel’s president, relentlessly argued in public speeches and writings that Israel needed to compensate for the large size of the Arab armies with “science” -- a code word for nuclear arms.
As it turned out, however,
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