Behind the Headlines Israel’s Nuclear Strategy
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Behind the Headlines Israel’s Nuclear Strategy

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The strategic issues raised in the Jerusalem trial of Mordechai Vanunu, charged with leaking Israel’s atomic secrets to a foreign newspaper, have been largely lost in the shuffle.

According to Vanunu’s information as published in London’s Sunday Times, Israel now ranks as the world’s sixth largest nuclear power–just after (in descending order) Great Britain, France, and The People’s Republic of China.

According to the report, Israel has stockpiled at least 100 nuclear weapons, and has the “components and ability to build atomic, neutron or hydrogen bombs” of both the “suburb-busting” nuclear and “city-busting” thermo-nuclear types.

At the outset, observers expressed doubt that Vanunu’s nuclear story was on the level, reading it as an intentional leak in order to warn off the Syrians, whose chemical weapons build-up was recently discussed in the media.

In fact, quite the opposite may be true: to the “sudden” appearance of information on the Syrians’ chemical warfare capabilities was probably introduced to provide part of the strategic context for the discussion of Israel’s nuclear force which the Vanunu revelations have thrust upon us.


Israel’s nuclear strategy is at the heart of one of the critical debates dividing Israeli strategic planners and leading politicians. The key question is to what extent Israel should employ, and rely on, a nuclear umbrella to balance out what is ultimately an insurmountable Arab conventional edge.

This division cuts across other issues, like the dove/hawk territorial one. Both the annexationists and the doves are divided among pronuclear and pro-conventional lines.

Prof. Yuval Ne’eman, an internationally recognized expert on nuclear physics who heads the far-right Tehiya Party, is pro-nuclear. Ariel Sharon, no less a committed annexationist, sees Israel’s future wars in conventional, non-nuclear terms.

The nuclear/conventional strategic debate also divides Israeli moderates. There are doves who see a nuclear umbrella as a substitute for strategic depth. Others doubt that Israel could live safely within the old 1967 borders.

This debate was the secret text animating supporters of Shimon Peres (Israel’s foremost champion of nuclear thinking) and Yitzhak Rabin in the years when the two struggled for leadership of the Labor Party. It also explains why Rabin briefly took Sharon on as an adviser, while Peres appointed Ne’eman, during the last Labor government in the mid-1970’s.


Now this internal Israeli discussion, suppressed by a tradition of self-imposed silence on national security matters, has come out into the open. But the new disclosures still leave the most important questions unanswered.

What are the geographical and situational–not to mention the ethical–limitations on the use of Israel’s nuclear weapons? What governs the “when” and the “where” of their use?

Presumably, nuclear weapons could only be employed in a “Samson”-type scenario, with Arab armies breaking through and threatening the heartland. How could Israel justify their use in a limited conflict, like a conventional Syrian offensive aimed at re-capturing parts of the Golan Heights, or an anti-PLO foray into Lebanon? Doesn’t that leave Israel without recourse to its nuclear arsenal in the overwhelming majority of possible military confrontations?

Moreover, just where could Israel use a thermo-nuclear “city-buster”? Or even the small “suburb-busting” variety? On bellicose Damascus?


There is a major problem with this scenario even if one discounts the unpredictable Soviet response to an Israeli first-use of nuclear weapons against Syria, Moscow’s regional ally. With a sudden gust of wind, the radioactive material released over Damascus could boomerang back and cover Israel within a few hours.

According to the new information, however, Israel can produce neutron weapons which can kill the people and leave the buildings standing–and which would not pose a boomerang threat to Israel proper.

These severe restrictions on the use of nuclear weapons bolster the arguments of the anti-nuclear strategists whose thinking remains dominated by traditional conventional categories, like territorial depth.

But there is no escaping a confrontation with the necessity for a nuclear counter-weight to growing Arab power.

The Gulf War won’t go on forever. Israeli planners must imagine the possibility of conflict not only with Syria, armed to the teeth by the Soviets, but with an “eastern front” including Iraq, Jordan and Iran. Even given today’s political reality, they cannot rule out the possibility that Egypt will return to the war front against Israel.


This scenario overwhelms with sheer numbers and weight the traditional military doctrine which balanced the Arab advantage in men and weapons systems with Israeli quality and sophistication, and since 1967 with some territorial depth.

No wonder someone began to make nuclear contingency plans. And if nuclear weapons cannot do everything, they do act to dispel any lingering Arab illusions about wiping Israel off the map. They also serve notice on the Syrians that chemical weapons or no, Israel retains the strategic upper hand.

Of course, the possible Arab conventional advantage and the introduction into Arab arsenals of longer-range missiles capable of hitting Israeli air bases and mobilization centers raises another possibility. And that is that the most hard boiled conception of Israel’s strategic interest is to work for the reduction of tensions and for peace.

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