“I am convinced that the State of Israel needs a defence research programme of its own, so that we shall never again be as lambs led to the slaughter.” David Ben Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel[i]
Israel stands out in the Middle East. It has the spottiest convention signing record in the region, having not signed the BWC nor ratified the CTBT or the CWC, while also being the sole non-signatory of the NPT in the region. Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons is an open secret. How did Israel get here, and how might it move forward? This essay will explore the origin and motivations of Israel’s long-standing deterrence policy of amimut, its effect on proliferation in the region, and the reasons Israel perceives amimut to be a preferable policy to disarmament.
Israel’s desire for nuclear weapons is connected to the national memory of the holocaust, which is so pervasive in contemporary Israeli life.[ii] A particular Zionist narrative about the holocaust – that a strong Jewish state is necessary for the Jewish people – was influential among early figures in the political establishment who pushed for the bomb, such as scientist Ernst David Bergman[iii] and politician David Ben Gurion.[iv] This siege mentality has never left the Israeli security establishment, as evidence by the constancy of the enduring amimut policy, which even withstood fantastic pressure from the Americans during the period of acquisition under Yitzhak Rabin’s time as Foreign Minister.[v]
The official Israeli position is that it will not “introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East”, a mantra first used by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in 1963 that continues to be echoed by contemporary Israeli politicians like Netanyahu.[vi] This mantra is the core of the long-standing Israeli policy of amimut, a strategy that aims to achieve the security promised by deterrence theory while also avoiding provoking its neighbours to proliferate.[vii] Contrary to Israel’s official posture, it is an accepted fact among experts that Israel possesses enough nuclear warheads to destroy every major city in the Middle East, although estimates on their exact number vary significantly (in 2014, most sources varied between 75 to 400).[viii]
While the Israeli public is not willing to discuss nuclear weapons, it is convinced of their necessity. According to 2012 polls, the Israeli public sees Iran as a hostile existential threat to Israel, a threat which is articulated in terms of the holocaust.[ix] In the national discourse, national security for Israelis is tantamount to averting future holocausts. Indeed, the perception of the Iranian threat is not limited to the Israeli public, but is also prevalent in the security establishment. A panel at Tel Aviv University about nuclear threats in the Middle East focused entirely on Iran, and strategies to invade Iran – while not at all considering or acknowledging the role of Israeli weapons in the conflict.[x] This is the domestic dimension of amimut: as well as denying the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons to outsiders, amimut includes the taboo against acknowledging Israeli weapons which exists among the elite and the public.
Paradoxically, while Israel holds out for a more secure region before disarming, Israel’s nuclear weapons are a major obstacle themselves, since they serve as a catalyst for proliferation. Israel’s relationship with Egypt makes an interesting case study. In an effort to balance against Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, Egypt invested and acquired CW capabilities in 1950s, which it eventually used in Yemen in the 1960s.[xi] This may have led to further proliferation due to allegations that Egypt aided Iraq’s development of CW in the 1980s.[xii] Although a nuclear weapon never materialised, Egypt’s efforts in this area in the 1960s are attributable to Nasser’s discovery of – and alarm at – the Israeli nuclear programme.[xiii] Egypt continues to refrain from signing the CWC and ratifying the BWC, insisting that Israel must first sign onto the NPT.[xiv] Thus as Egypt and Israel’s other neighbours attempt to balance against Israel’s weapons, Israel’s nuclear capability is directly and indirectly fuelling militarisation and WMD proliferation in the region.
Israel has not been cooperative when it feels the discourse on regional security is focussed on its nuclear weapons, as it showed at the first committee of the UNGA in 2018. There, Israel voted against numerous resolutions concerning WMDs in the Middle East, claiming the resolution calling for the November conference was “unilateral” on the part of the Arab nations, and attempt to “single out Israel”.[xv] Israel discredited its neighbours’ resolutions, arguing that they have violated their international obligations under the NPT, and emphasising the threat that Iran’s missile programme presents to Israel. Israel takes issue with disarmament processes like the TPNW which do not address the security situation Israel faces, presumably given the enormous role nuclear weapons play in Israel’s security doctrine. Despite Israel’s claims in the UN to be seeking constructive dialogue, Israel may be content with the status quo, feeling that its amimut deterrence strategy guarantees its security better than through multilateral means.
Changing the deterrence logic that has prevailed in Israel’s security thinking for more than 60 years is no easy task. It will require lifting the siege in the mind of the Israeli public and its government, which sees foes and conflict to be a historical necessity, and a strong military a necessary evil. Dismantling this attitude will require the détente of hostilities between Iran and Israel and the establishment of a robust alternative in multilateralism and disarmament in the public discourse. Only when enemies are not seen everywhere, and history is no longer read as a mandate for distrust, can the Israeli state begin to participate, in good faith, in the regional dialogues that can bring about a new era of cooperation in the Middle East.
* University of Canterbury, New Zealand
[i] Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), chapter 1.
[ii] For a more extensive treatment of the Holocaust in Israeli media, curriculums, and discourse, see Yechiel Klar, Noa Schori-Eyal, and Yonat Klar “The “Never again” State of Israel: The Emergence of the Holocaust as a Core Feature of Israeli Identity and its Four Incongruent Voices.” Journal of Social Issues 69, no. 1 (2013): 127-132.
[iii] Ofer. “Israel’s Nuclear Amimut Policy and its Consequences” p.543.
[iv] See Avner Cohen.
[v] Netanel Flamer and Arnon Gutfeld. “Israel Approaches the Nuclear Threshold: The Controversies in the American Administration Surrounding the Israeli Nuclear Bomb 1968-1969.” Middle Eastern Studies 52, no. 5 (2016): 725.
[vi] Solingen, Etel. “Israel” in Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007: 166.
Kristensen, Hans M. and Robert S. Norris. “Israeli Nuclear Weapons, 2014.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 70, no. 6 (2014): 97.
[vii] Israeli, Ofer. “Israel’s Nuclear Amimut Policy and its Consequences.” Israel Affairs 21, no. 4 (2015): 542.
[viii] Kristensen and Norris, “Israel Nuclear Weapons, 2014”, 102.
[ix] Eiran, Ehud and Martin B. Malin. “The Sum of all Fears: Israel’s Perception of a Nuclear-Armed Iran.” The Washington Quarterly 36, no. 3 (2013): 77-89.
[x] Sharon Dolev, “An Iranian and an Israeli talk about nuclear weapons”, Asfar Digital Talks, September 1, 2021. 12:05-13:03. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmtE8F8IRx8.
[xi]Gawdat Bahgat, “Nuclear Proliferation: Egypt.”, Middle Eastern Studies 43, no. 3 (2007): 410
[xii] Ibid. 410.
[xiii] Maria Rost Rublee, “Egypt’s Nuclear Weapons Program: Lessons Learned”, The Non-proliferation Review 13, no. 3 (2006): 557.
[xiv] Bhagwat, “Nuclear Proliferation: Egypt”, 410.
[xv] Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Explanation of Vote by Mr. Ofer Moreno”, New York: United Nations, 1-9 November 2018. Available at https://unidir.org/node/6161