To be published in Security Dialogue, Spring 1997

Research for this article was assisted by grants from the BESA Center for Strategic Studies and the Ihel Foundation.

In the past few years, international perspectives on Israeli nuclear policy have begun to shift from an emphasis on universality in the NPT, to greater understanding of the role of this policy in regional deterrence and stability. Israel remains one of ten states that has not acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and one of three nuclear threshold states (in addition to India and Pakistan). However, in a number of capitals, there is more acceptance of the legitimacy of the nuclear ambiguit y, based on Israel's unique security requirements and the continuing regional threats from massive conventional forces, as well as chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs. Similarly, policy makers understand that in the Middle East, as in the case of the East-West confrontation during the Cold War, deterrence, conflict amelioration, and arms control negotiations are not incompatible, but are mutually reinforcing.

Changes in the presentation (but not the substance) of Israeli policy have contributed to this shift. The 1995 NPT Extension Conference, and the Arab campaign, led by Egypt with Syrian support, to press Israel to accept the NPT, were important facto rs in these changes. In response to this campaign, the Israeli leadership articulated and defended its policy, which is based on the maintenance of an ambiguous nuclear deterrent option while pursuing the regional peace process, until the conditions in t he region allow for implementation of regional security arrangements that will make this "deterrent of last resort" unnecessary.


The nuclear ambiguity was developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and has not changed significantly since then. It is predicated on the perception that this deterrent is necessary to compensate for the small size of the Jewish state, the lack of strategic depth, the structural imbalances in the region, and vulnerability to conventional and non-conventional attack.

Since becoming independent in 1948, Israel has faced with a number of major wars and threats to its survival, including invasions from the large ground and air forces of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan in 1948 and 1973 (Jordan did not participate in t he 1973 war). The 1967 war resulted from the massing of these forces for what Egyptian leaders declared would be a war to destroy the Jewish state. These events had a major impact on Israeli strategic culture.

Israeli decision makers view the tacit threat of massive retaliation as necessary to prevent renewed attacks that threaten national survival. Over the past five decades, the Arab states, (and Iran since 1978), have also sought non-conventional weapon s and ballistic missiles for delivery. Iraq, as well as Syria and Egypt, are reported to possess large arsenals of chemical weapons and ballistic missiles.

Despite the peace process and claims of basic changes in attitudes towards Israel, Iran as well as many radical Arab groups still call for the destruction of the Jewish state. Arab leaders and intellectuals in Egypt and Syria couch acceptance of Isra el as reluctant acceptance of reality, while rejecting the legitimacy of the Jewish state. They continue to refer to Israel as an "infringement of Arab territory and rights", which suggests that in the absence of Israeli defensive or deterrence capabilit ies, these "rights" could be reclaimed. Abdulhay Sayed acknowledges that "Many view Israel as an aggressor state that established itself on the ruins of Arab homes and villages."1 In this context, Israeli leaders also see the nuclear deterrent option as the basis for gradual Arab acceptance of the permanence of Israel, and the need to negotiate a resolution to the conflict.2

Despite the achievements of the peace process, the threat of violence and the possibility of war continue. Egypt and Syria hold military exercises involving large ground and air forces near the borders with Israel.3 Even under the best of circumstan ces, the creation of a "New Middle East" without military forces capable of destroying each other will take decades. Until then, Israel views a deterrent of last resort against existential threats as central in preventing new conflict and in maintaining the peace process.4

However, until recently, the rationale for the Israeli policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity and its link to deterrence was not articulated clearly. Policy makers sought to avoid drawing attention to the nuclear program and to prevent conflict with the United States and the global non-proliferation regime. In the early 1960s, Israel accepted limited American inspection of the Dimona reactor site, in construction, but President Kennedy's demands for involvement of the International Atomic Energy Age ncy were rejected by Prime Minister Ben Gurion, and may have also contributed to his resignation in 1963.5 The discussions between the US and Israel regarding Israel's nuclear status continued, in most cases, without publicity. In public forums, when co nfronted with questions regarding capabilities and intentions, officials provided a standard and highly ambiguous response that "Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region". Little effort was made to explain the strategic basis for the program and to justify the policy of ambiguity.

Domestically, no such explanation or discussion seemed necessary. This has been a central pillar of national security, and although it was rarely discussed in the press or in public forums, polling data demonstrated an overwhelming level of support f or the maintenance of a nuclear deterrent capability, in response to attacks that threat national survival. Following the 1991 Gulf War, in which Israel was threatened with chemical attacks from Iraqi Scud missiles, polls showed that 88% of the populatio n supported the current policy.6 Public opposition to this policy was very limited, with few demonstrations and almost no conflict in the Knesset (Israel's parliament). Indeed, some leaders of the Left, such as Yossi Sarid (Meretz party) and Efraim Sneh (Labor Party), explicitly and publicly support this policy. The deterrent is seen as providing Israel with an alternative form of security, allowing withdrawal from areas captured in 1967 to proceed while limiting the risks of another full-scale attack. This was also the one security issue that was endorsed by the consensus of government and opposition leaders during the Rabin government (1992-1995). There is little support for Mordechai Vannunu, a former technician at the Dimona reactor complex who s old what he claimed were details of operations in the plant to the Sunday Times, and is serving a long jail sentence for espionage in Israel. Nuclear ambiguity is firmly grounded in policy and public support, and no better option has been found.

As noted, for many years, this ambiguity, by its very nature, was seen as difficult to defend publicly. Beginning in the early 1990s, when the Arab pressure on Israel to accede to the NPT grew, the Israeli response changed. In the first place, Israe li decision makers began to recognize the growing diplomatic and strategic importance of arms control in the international arena, and created professional divisions for dealing with these issues in the Foreign and Defense Ministries. Israeli representati ves participated actively in the discussions of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva (becoming a member in 1996), and the First Committee of the United Nations. In 1993, Israel signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and Foreign Minister Peres present ed a detailed outline of the Israeli program for achieving regional arms limitations. This program recognized the need to decrease tensions and potential levels of destruction through mutual regional measures. The process begins with confidence building measures, extending to limits on massive conventional forces, ballistic missiles, chemical and biological weapons, and finally, the negotiation and implementation of a nuclear weapons free-zone in the region. The negotiations are to be accompanied by th e end of the threats posed by the Arab-Israeli conflict, peace agreements extending from North Africa to the Persian Gulf and Iran, and mutual verification to provide assurance against breakout and clandestine programs.7

This framework was also the basis for Israeli policy in the multilateral working group on arms control and regional security (ACRS), which was created by the Madrid Conference. (The refusal of Syria to participate in ACRS or other multilateral workin g groups has hampered their activities, and since 1994, Egyptian refusal to continue the process in the absence of an Israeli commitment to alter its nuclear policy has frozen the progress that had been achieved in the area of confidence building measures .)

In the period between 1993 and 1995, Israeli leaders, including the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, former Prime Minister Peres, and other officials responded to the Egyptian campaign. (Syria also sought to pressure Israel on this issue, but sinc e there were very few contacts between Damascus and Jerusalem, the Syrian role was very limited). The issue was raised in press conferences and public appearances by Egyptian leaders, such as President Mubarak and Foreign Minister Mousa, and Israeli lea ders answered by discussing the role and importance of this deterrent option. For example, in February 1995, Peres stated that "The main reason [that Israel will not sign the NPT] is that Israel is the only country in the world threatened by other countri es with destruction. I mean mainly Iran, Iraq and to some extent also Libya. I don't see any reason why Israel must promise that they can try to destroy Israel. ... Their fear, or their suspicion, is our deterrent. The second thing is we saw that even for those who signed...this signature isn't even worth the peel on a garlic. I mean Iran signed, Iraq signed. Who deceives by signing... What's the point?"8

In March 1995, Peres repeated the argument, noting that "Israel is the only country in the world that another country is threatening to destroy physically, militarily and otherwise. Not only are they threatening, but they are trying to get a nuclear o ption and missiles to do so. So we do not feel that we have to come to the Iranians and say: Gentlemen, since we have learned that you want to destroy us, don't be worried, go ahead and do it. We feel that the Iranian suspicion is our deterrent. We do not see it in the connection of our relations with Egypt. Nobody is threatening Egypt."9 Ehud Barak, who had served as the IDF Chief of Staff, and became Foreign Minister in January 1996, declared, "Israel's nuclear policy, as it is perceived in the eyes o f the Arabs, has not changed, will not change and cannot change, because it is a fundamental stand on a matter of survival which impacts all the generations to come."10 These explicit explanations of Israeli policy (and there were many more such statement s) marked a major departure from the previous policy of silence.


The political campaign to force Israel to sign the NPT or to isolate Jerusalem in the context of the NPT extension conference, and the response, led to a basic change in the status of Israel in international arms control frameworks. Many other states , including the US , accepted the Israeli argument and justification for maintaining its deterrent force until the threat of annihilation disappeared and until regional peace agreements were signed, implemented, and tested.

This recognition is seen in the outcome of the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Extension Conference, in which the participates approved unlimited extension by acclamation, and, despite the intensive Egyptian campaign. without explicit isolation or condemnation of Israel. The conference approved a Resolution on the Middle East that restated the UN General Assembly consensus resolutions favoring the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free-zone in the region, as well as the IAEA resolutions calling for application of safeguards in the Middle East, and noted "with concern, the continued existence in the Middle East of unsafeguarded nuclear facilities", while reaffirming the importance of "universal adherence to the NPT", all within the context of th e peace process.11 This was far from the demands to force Israel to accede to the NPT immediately and unconditionally.

Similarly, in the United Nations, a majority of states either oppose or abstain from annual resolutions that attempt to isolate Israel, without mentioning the political and security environment and the legitimacy of Israel 's deterrence requirements. While such resolutions, had, in the past, gained the support of the majority of members, in 1994, only 55 states voted for the resolution, while 82 abstained and 5 (including the US and Israel) were opposed.12

The US government has explicitly accepted the link between the security risks that Israel is taking in the peace process and the maintenance of the deterrent of last resort. In a formal policy statement, the US State Department spokesman stated that "we recognize that .. the nonproliferation issue will probably have to be one of the issues that is dealt with in the basket of issues that are dealt with as a comprehensive peace is achieved. So we don't have any illusions that it will be possible to wr ap up the NPT in that part of the world in advance of a more general peace agreement. And that's our position. We're not going to necessarily put the NPT in front of trying to conclude a regional peace. A regional peace is ... more important to us righ t now.13

The Egyptian and Syrian insistence on imposing the global regime, consisting of the NPT and IAEA inspection system, on Israel, contrasts with the concept of regional security structures, that would, eventually, encompass a Middle East Zone Free of Wea pons of Mass Destruction. Such a zone would develop in parallel with the Middle East peace process, on a step by step basis.14 Although this regional approach has been endorsed by Israel and the Arab states since the 1980s, the substance of Egyptian pol icy is still largely focused on demanding that Israel accept the global system.15 Syrian and Egyptian analysts and policy makers uniformly fail to address the failures of this system, which have allowed Iraq and North Korea to ignore its restrictions. T hey also ignore the substantial evidence that Iran is attempting to follow the same path by exploiting the weaknesses of the NPT and IAEA system to obtain nuclear weapons.16

This policy also contradicts the growing international recognition that the issue of nuclear arms control in the Middle East cannot be addressed outside the context of the political relations and the progress of the Arab-Israeli peace process. This process includes the implementation of extensive confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs) among the states, and the establishment of regional security structures are essential for dealing with this issue. A regional framework can provide the ba sis for limiting large scale conventional weapons, chemical and biological agents, ballistic missiles, and also nuclear weapons. The emphasis on the NPT and IAEA is now recognized as inadequate, and the major actors in arms control are moving towards the development of such regional regimes.17

As this process proceeds, Israel will be able to increase the contributions and activity towards the development of regional arms limitation. Israel has already been a major actor in the development of the Conventional Test Ban Treaty, emphasizing th e development of reliable verification systems that are not subject to abuse or frivolous requests. Israel cosponsored the CTBT in the United Nations and the Israeli Foreign Minister signed the CTBT shortly after it was opened for signature. (In contras t, Egypt was among the small group of states that did not cosponsor the treaty , and has not signed the CWC). As the Middle East negotiation process proceeds, a broad arms control framework, containing all the elements discussed above, will be developed, and the issue of Israel's deterrence requirements will be addressed. However, until that time, and in the absence of alternative reliable deterrent capabilities, there is in little possibility of a change in Israeli policy that would change, even margin ally, the nuclear ambiguity.


From the Israeli perspective, the Arab campaign on the nuclear issue has been inconsistent, and frequently based on political rather than significant security motivations. Egyptian President Nasser responded publicly to the construction of the Dimona reactor for the first time in December 1960. For the next three decades, Arab leaders focused attention on this issue for short periods, but for the most part, the Israeli nuclear option was accepted. In 1979, Egypt signed the peace treaty with Israel, and in 1981, Egypt ratified the NPT, and the Israeli status did not prevent on these decisions. In Syrian statements and policy, there was some occasional public criticism of Israel on the nuclear issue, but decision makers in Jerusalem understood that t his was not a significant topic for Damascus.18

In the late 1980s, the Egyptian focus on the Israeli capability suddenly increased. The reasons for this sudden change are not clear. External factors, such as the Gulf conflict and Saddam Hussein's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons developm ent programs, as well as inter-Arab and internal Egyptian political factors may have played a role.19 In addition, the Egyptian and Syrian pressure, before regional peace arrangements have proceeded very far, may be designed to "strip Israel of its deter rent shield", (couched in terms of preventing Israeli hegemony or centrality, and dismantling its technological or qualitative edge), or even paving the way for renewed attack aimed at destroying the Jewish state.20

The NPT conflict is also widely seen as only one issue, albeit the most visible, in a series of Egyptian and Syrian efforts to assert dominance and slow the acceptance of Israel in the region. The Egyptian government has also urged the Arab states to suspend regional economic cooperation with Israel in the context of the Casablanca and Amman Economic Summits and the Barcelona conference, (sponsored by the European Union). Foreign Minister Amre Mousa has continued to use this issue to increase the ri ft with Israel, suggesting that a November 1995 earthquake was linked to Israeli nuclear activities.21 The Egyptian government has also accused Israel of planting mines in the Sinai (a charge that was later retracted), and strongly protested Israeli-Turk ish military cooperation agreements22. These multiple conflicts, and the stated Egyptian objective or "reducing Israel to its 'natural' size"23, suggest that the Egyptian campaign on the NPT is not fundamentally motivated by threat perceptions, but rath er is a means of slowing the process of regional normalization, in the hope that this would reverse Egypt's declining power in the region.24

Israeli analysts have noted that in Cairo and Damascus, the NPT Extension and ACRS processes and the bilateral discussions with Israel were not seen as the basis for stability that would serve the interests of all states, but rather an arena of politi cal conflict in a broader zero-sum game. (With the exception of the Barcelona conference, sponsored by the EU, Syria has refused to participate in regional frameworks, so that its role has been limited.)


The discussions between Israel and Egypt (and Syria, to the very limited degree that Syria is willing to take part) on regional arms control and non-proliferation have not yet engaged the central issues of regional security and stability. Arms contro l is an element of both national and regional security, and in the absence of this broader context, the demands that Israel to change its policy do not go beyond the type of rhetorical sparring that characterized the relations between the superpowers in d iscussions on disarmament during the 1950s. Egyptian and Syrian leaders have failed to consider Israel's security situation, the threats that continue to exist, the impact of wars that threaten annihilation and the rejection of the historic legitimacy of Jewish claims to sovereignty in Israel.

Ironically, this process encouraged Israeli leaders to articulate the basis for the continued maintenance of the deterrent based on the ambiguous nuclear option. This has led to greater confidence in the importance of this policy, and its acceptance in the international community. The importance of universality in the NPT system has not been abandoned, but has been linked to and, in some cases, subordinated to the role of the Israeli policy in maintaining stability in the Middle East, and in allowin g the peace process to proceed.

Israel has endorsed the need for the negotiation of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, in the context of the negotiation of stable peace agreements and the implementation of a regional security system. Successive Israeli governm ents have repeatedly restated their commitment to this objective, and are likely to agree to discussions of the nature of such a zone as long as these discussions do not effect the ambiguity of the deterrent. Egyptian and Syrian demands for information o n activities in Dimona, for a fissile material cut off agreement that would also provide information on these activities and capabilities, and similar proposals are clearly unacceptable, and are likely to remain so for some time in the future. By acceptin g these "rules of the game", Middle East arms control negotiations can proceed in a manner that benefits all states in the region and assures the stability necessary for progress in the peace process.