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Israel’s Nuclear Opacity and New Challenges

Dr S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 28, 2010

    Israel’s nuclear weapons programme has variously been described as the ‘bomb in the basement’ (Michael Karpin), the ‘Samson Option (Seymour Hersh), or ‘nuclear opacity’ (Avner Cohen, Benjamin Miller, and others). Former Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s formulation in the 1960s that “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the neighbourhood” has been a defining tenet of this policy. As Avner Cohen shows in his book Israel and the Bomb, Eshkol concretised the policy of ‘nuclear ambiguity’ from the earlier policy of ‘nuclear denial’ that was initially followed by Prime Minister Ben Gurion in an effort to fend off American pressure and not force its Arab neighbours to go down the same route. This policy of ambiguity regarding its nuclear profile has come under intermittent strains – during the initial reverses suffered in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the 1986 Vanunu revelations, debates about a nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) in the region, and concerns generated by the Iranian nuclear programme. Recent ‘revelations’ about Israel-South Africa nuclear ties have also brought into focus the Israeli policy of nuclear opacity.

    Israel-South Africa Nuclear Ties

    An article published in The Guardian on May 23, 2010 draws on the latest book of American academic Sasha-Polakow Suransky The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, which contains information about alleged Israeli nuclear cooperation with the apartheid regime. The author cites ‘secret’ South African minutes of meetings held on March 31, 1975 between Israel’s then defence minister and current president Shimon Peres indicating that Peres offered to sell to South Africa nuclear warheads along with Jericho missiles as part of a project code-named ‘Chalet’.

    President Peres and the Israeli government have dismissed the assertions and stated that there was “no basis for the claims” that the language used in the minutes which show Peres offering ‘three sizes’ of warheads of the Jericho missile to South African defence minister P.W. Botha included a nuclear warhead. The other two sizes according to Suransky were conventional and chemical warheads. The article cites Suransky as stating that South Africa was only interested in nuclear-tipped Jerichos – as revealed in a memo written by South African defence chief R.F. Armstrong on the same day as the Peres-Botha meeting. Armstrong’s memo was earlier cited by Peter Liberman in his 2004 article in Non-Proliferation Review “Israel and the South African Bomb.” Liberman also cites investigative reporter Seymour Hersh who in his book The Samson Option, quoting Israeli sources, suggested that Israel offered nuclear weapons to South Africa in return for nuclear testing grounds. A former South African naval commander convicted of spying for the Soviet Union had, in 1994, also revealed that Israel had offered eight nuclear–tipped Jericho missiles to South Africa.

    Other instances of Israel-South Africa nuclear cooperation include the September 22, 1979 ‘double flash’ characteristic of a nuclear explosion which was picked up by an American ‘Vela’ satellite off the Prince Edward Islands belonging to South Africa. Controversy though surrounds that event, with explanations ranging from satellite malfunction to a meteor strike registering as the ‘double flash’. Israel is also reported to have obtained 600 tonnes of uranium oxide from South Africa and in return gave it 30 grams of tritium in a consignment marked ‘tea leaves’ in 1977.

    There are, however, no available indications to suggest that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was willing to consider the South Africa request in 1975 and supply it with the ‘ultimate weapon’. South Africa, on its part, went ahead to put in place a robust nuclear weapons programme, including building a few nuclear warheads, with possible Israeli help as some allege. It was however prevented from testing these devices twice – in 1977 and 1988, due to international pressure. The country closed its nuclear weapons programme in the aftermath of the dismantlement of the apartheid regime.

    First ‘documentary proof’ of Israel’s nuclear weapons?

    The South African documents are being touted as the first ‘documentary proof’ of Israel’s nuclear weapons capability. The existence of these ‘weapons of last resort’ has however been occasionally revealed either due to such dramatic incidents as the former Dimona employee Mordechai Vanunu’s revelations in 1986 or the famous ‘oral slips’ by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates. Olmert, in a television interview with a German channel on December 11, 2006, had inadvertently admitted Israeli nuclear capability. In response to a question about Iranian nuclear weapon aspirations, Olmert said: "Can you say that this is the same level, when they [Iran] are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?" For his part, Gates had pointed out during his Senate confirmation hearings on December 5, 2006 that Tehran was "surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons: Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf."

    Israel’s Changing Nuclear Threat Perspectives

    While Israeli nuclear weapons have originally been developed as a ‘weapon of last resort’, deterring Iran, given the concerns generated by its nuclear programme coupled with harsh rhetoric emanating from Tehran, has come to occupy a prime place in its nuclear threat perspectives. During Olmert’s ‘inadvertent’ slip, debates rose about the efficacy of continuing with the policy of nuclear ambiguity. Analysts called for ‘coming out into the open’ about Israeli nuclear capabilities so that robust deterrence could be ensured. Those calls have since then been strengthened, especially in the light of new threats like nuclear terrorism. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not attend President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit held in April 2010 in Washington, analysts like Avner Cohen termed it a lost opportunity for Israel to come clean on its nuclear credentials and play an active role in dealing with new nuclear challenges. Cohen went on to term Israel’s nuclear opacity as a ‘political anachronism’, a ‘form of concealment’ during a time when the world is “demanding that Iran speak the truth over its own nuclear program.”


    While Israel has never threatened nuclear use, it is also a fact that countries of the region cite the Israeli nuclear arsenal as a ‘sore’ factor encouraging Iran to go down the nuclear route and a stumbling block to achieve a NWFZ. Israel on its part cites Tehran’s millennial rhetoric and its regional geo-political ambitions as driving its nuclear pursuit rather than the Israeli arsenal.

    Given the rapidly evolving situation in West Asia, and the growing danger of new threats like nuclear terrorism, it would seem that the time has come for Israel to come clean on its nuclear arsenal. A formal acknowledgement will buttress its strategic profile, establish its regional pre-eminence in an unequivocal manner, spur regional arms control initiatives, and discussions on methods to achieve a comprehensive peace with its Arab (and Persian) neighbours could begin on a more uniform slate.