Friday Feb. 18 2000


Gerald M. Steinberg

The short "discussion" on Israel's nuclear deterrence policy, that took place in the Knesset on February 2, was a farce. Instead of debating the relative strengths and weaknesses of this policy, and soberly considering the alternatives, the participants showed that they lack the maturity necessary to hold a serious discussion on fundamental security issues.

MK Issam Makhul (Hadash) insisted on raising the subject, but did not demonstrate any understanding of or interest in the substance and dilemmas of the Israeli policy. His main purpose was clearly to needle the government on a very sensitive issue, in order to gain popularity and publicity in the Israeli Arab sector. For the past decade, the Egyptian government has led an obsessive crusade to strip Israel of its deterrence capabilities, and to use this issue in order to isolate Israel.

The Arab legislators sought to contribute to this campaign, and any substantive discussion was irrelevant. Far from revealing any "secrets", Makhul merely repeated the litany of contradictory sources that have speculated on the nature of the Israeli capability, and demagogically invoked the fear of radiation, without any knowledge of the topic. His only Jewish supporters came from the far left and the small fringe of publicity seekers and social misfits who have made nuclear spy Mordechai Vanunu into a hero.

The government's response, as delivered by MK Haim Ramon, was also not particularly stirring. Ramon restated the ritual formula that Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region. He also reiterated support for the principle of nuclear nonproliferation, while noting that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty "does not provide a fitting solution for our region" as illustrated in the cases of Iran and Iraq.

Instead of the standard and uninformative response, the government should have used this opportunity to explain the logic of the current nuclear policy, both to the Israeli public and abroad. The concept of nuclear ambiguity was first developed under Ben Gurion shortly in the shadow of the Holocaust, after one-percent of the Israeli population was killed in the Arab invasion of 1948. For a microscopic state whose existence is threatened by some very dangerous neighbors, nuclear deterrence, with all of its problems and limitations, is "least bad" option.

Since then, this deterrent policy has proven to be successful, and was adopted by every successive government. In a number of cases, this unknown retaliatory option was enough to deter major attacks on Israel, including during the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein wisely decided against using the chemical warheads he had made for his SCUD missiles. In a broader sense, the nuclear deterrent also convinced Arab leaders that any attempt to destroy Israel would be suicidal, leading them, one at time, to the negotiating table.

At the same time, this policy of ambiguity represents the minimal possible level necessary to maintain effective deterrence. In contrast to India and Pakistan, which tested nuclear weapons in 1998, and openly declared themselves nuclear weapons states, Israel remains a reluctant nuclear power. There is little enthusiasm for nuclear weapons, and if better options were available, they would have been selected long ago.

Furthermore, as long as the Israeli capability remains unofficial, there is a possibility, however, small, that in the long term, after substantive peace agreements and regional security arrangements are in place, the Middle East could become a nuclear-weapons free zone. Indeed, by attempting to destroy the ambiguity, opponents of the Israeli policy are undermining the very goals that they claim to support.

However, a serious debate would note that in the wake of the progress Iraq and Iran are making in obtaining nuclear weapons, and the apparent lack of concern among the world's major powers, deterrence based on nuclear ambiguity may be losing its effectiveness. As the territory under Israeli control shrinks as a result of agreements and treaties, conventional defense will become far more difficult. This, in turn, will lead to increased emphasis on strategic deterrence, requiring fundamental changes in Israel's military posture.

Under these conditions, in order to develop a stable deterrent capability that can withstand any surprise attack and still guarantee the complete destruction of the aggressor, Israel will have to develop a "second strike" force. The U.S. and other major nuclear powers use a combination of dispersed underground missile silos and distant submarines to guarantee that a first strike would not destroy their retaliatory capability. Under these circumstances, any benefit from a surprise nuclear attack is neutralized, and this contributes to nuclear stability.

For Israel to develop an assured second strike deterrent, it may be necessary to reveal more about its strategic capabilities. At that stage, the Israeli public will have to be given more than the few scraps of unreliable information in order to judge the costs and benefits, as well as the alternatives, for itself. By that time, we can only hope that the members of the Knesset will have matured enough to hold a serious discussion.