It's time to talk about Israel's nuclear weapons

It's time to talk about Israel's nuclear weapons
Comment: While the United States fixates on Iranian nuclear ambitions, it ignores the only actual credible nuclear threat in the region: Israel, writes CJ Werleman.
5 min read
10 May, 2018
Netanyahu's comical presentation claimed he has proof of a 'secret' Iranian nuclear weapons programme [AFP]
In the same week Hizballah and its allies secured a majority in Lebanon's parliament, Donald Trump walked away from US commitments under the six-party disarmament agreement, better known as the Iran deal. 

The Obama-era agreement had placed restrictions on Tehran's nuclear ambitions in exchange for the relaxation of punishing economic sanctions on Iran.

Hyperbole and predictions of cataclysmic doom aside, one would do well to identify a more pivotal week for the future direction of the Middle East than this one.

Given the likely confrontation involving the triumvirate Israel, Hizballah, and Iran - a confrontation that is already playing out in Syria - and given the presumption that one of the actors is already armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction, it's time to talk about Israel's nuclear weapon programme. Because now more so than ever, Israel's nukes matter.

When Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared on CNN to face questions regarding his widely panned and debunked presentation regarding Iran's nuclear weapons programme, the television journalist Chris Cuomo asked, "Does Israel have nuclear capabilities and nuclear weapons, yes or no?"

A chastened Netanyahu replied, "We've always said that we won't be the first to introduce it, so we haven't introduced it."

Cuomo pressed harder, "That's not an answer to the question. Do you have them or do you not?"

"It's as good an answer as you're going to get," Netanyahu said. "Iran said they don't have this nuclear weapons programme and Iran calls daily for the annihilation of my country. We don't do that," later adding, "You can make all your assumptions," Netanyahu continued. "One thing is clear, Israel is not threatening the annihilation of any country."

Israel has deliberately pursued an opaque policy of nuclear deterrence

Ever since Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, became "obsessed" with developing a nuclear weapons capability as a tool to deter Israel's perceived and imagined enemies, the self-proclaimed Jewish state has deliberately pursued an opaque policy of nuclear deterrence.

In a strategic assessment of Israel's opacity, Israeli historian Shlomo Aronson observes that opaque nuclear proliferation can leave totally contradictory impressions, "either that it is a status that is more manageable than an open one because the lack of clarity allows maneuverability, or that it is even less manageable because it is a lie, a breach of an international norm, or a desperate effort of a pariah state to maintain its untenable existence.

Read more: Netanyahu's Iran gobbledynuke

"Thus, it is an advanced warning of the likelihood of unconstrained behaviour by such a nation."

Aronson also adds that Israel has chosen opacity because nuclear deterrence is about deterring attacks on your sovereign borders, and given the international community is in dispute with Israel's claims to seized and appropriated territory, Israel's borders remain undefined.

That said, over recent decades Israel has occasionally let slip the intention and rationale behind its opaque nuclear weapons programme.

"No territory justifies the losses that the preempting party will have to sustain in order to occupy it, in a world of nuclear weapons. The conclusion is that we should depart from military confrontations… in the Middle East," former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres argued.

Essentially, Peres was defending Israel's "undeclared bombs" by arguing that the cost of maintaining a conventional military was not only too costly, but also redundant when nuclear weapons are available on military shopping aisle shelves.

Despite the secrecy surrounding Israel's nuclear arsenal, and despite Israel's defiance and deception of two US presidents in pursuing such, a private email leaked by former US Secretary of State Colin Powel alluded to Israel having an arsenal of "200 nuclear weapons," which is double the estimate made by the US Intelligence Defense Agency in 1999.

Whatever the size of Israel's nuclear arsenal, the United States concluded Israel had indeed developed a nuclear weapons capability as far back as 1968, when CIA Director Richard Helms briefed US President Lyndon Johnson of such, verbally, and President Richard Nixon via memo the following year.

Declassified documents from 1969 also show how the Nixon administration grappled with the notion of a nuclear armed Israel at a time when US policy makers "feared Middle Eastern conflagration could lead to superpower conflict."

Nearly five decades later, and as the US unties itself from its nuclear disarmament with Iran, Israel's opaque nuclear weapons programme suddenly matters again.

Over recent decades Israel has occasionally let slip the intention and rationale behind its opaque nuclear weapons programme

It matters because any number of scenarios could lead to Israel deploying one of its nuclear bombs, and as a result the international community - now more so than ever - must be informed of not only Israel's nuclear capability, but also its policy for launching a nuclear-armed warhead.

Israel's unofficial nuclear doctrine pivots on the notion it will use a nuclear warhead against an enemy that inflicts "excessive damage" on its civilian population.

The "
Samson Option," named after the biblical Israelite judge, mandates that Israel shall use nuclear weapons against a nation-state whose military has "destroyed much of Israel."

In other words, Israel is willing to launch a nuclear attack against a country during a conventional war, given conventional military capabilities have the potential to cause both "excessive damage" to its population and/or destroy much of Israel.

Consider that Hizballah is said to have more than 100,000 missiles pointed at Israel.

Israel's nuclear capability and policy matters more now than ever

Were a mere fraction of these missiles to hit Israel's northern cities and towns, it could justify, at least in the minds of Israel's military planners, a nuclear armed response under the next steps prescribed in the "Samson Option,".

Such a reality inches ever closer now, given Iran reportedly 
targeted Israeli positions across the Syrian frontier last night, and given Israel responded by bombing Iranian positions in Syria.

So, while the international community, led by the United States, fixates on Iranian nuclear ambitions, it ignores the only actual credible nuclear threat in the region, the threat Israel poses Lebanon, Iran, and Syria in particular.

Indeed, Israel's nuclear capability and policy matters more now than ever.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.