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Olmert's 'Nuclear Slip' and Israeli Nuclear Ambiguity

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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  • December 21, 2006

    Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's seemingly 'inadvertent' admission of his country's nuclear status in an interview broadcast on German television on December 11 at the start of his trip to Berlin once again focussed world attention on the country's nuclear status. It is widely known that Israel has a nuclear arsenal consisting of about 150-200 weapons from the plutonium produced at the Dimona nuclear reactor, situated in the Negev desert near Beer Sheva. The fact that Israel has not tested a nuclear device, or officially acknowledged its capabilities, has allowed it to maintain its stated position that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. This posture of 'nuclear ambiguity' regarding its 'bomb in the basement' has survived many onslaughts and by all accounts, achieved its policy objectives, of ensuring a deterrent, withstanding Arab criticism, and making it easier for key allies like the United States to reluctantly acquiesce in its nuclear status.

    The government of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was pressured to come clean on its activities at Dimona during the administrations of President Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy. The Israelis are reported to have insisted that what the American U-2 spy planes revealed was in fact a 'textile' plant. However, it is widely held by critics of the Israeli nuclear programme that successive US administrations either turned a blind eye to Israeli efforts to get the bomb or did not pressure it enough to change its course. As long as Israel kept 'low' on matters nuclear, the pressure on the Americans to bear hard on the Israelis was also minimized.

    Having the most sophisticated fighting force in West Asia, and with operative peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan securing its immediate borders, Israel on paper does not seem to require the nuclear buttress. It achieved overwhelming victories in its wars with the combined Arab coalitions without recourse to the dreaded N-option. In the heat of the reverses suffered during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), Gen. David Elazar, according to his biographer, reportedly dismissed the suggestion to use 'special means'/unconventional weapons to halt the Arab advance. The Israeli nuclear quest is however unique in contemporary world history. Born with an extreme sense of insecurity, surrounded by Arab neighbours hostile to its formation, and having withstood series of wars and continuing tensions, Israel, from its earliest days has invested in the nuclear option as the ultimate guarantor of its security.

    Israel's Arab neighbours, on their part, tried to buttress their own capabilities to counter the Israeli nuclear efforts. Some of them, most prominently Iraq and Egypt, tried to go down the nuclear route but could not succeed for a variety of technical, political, and economic reasons. The Israeli attack on the 70 MW Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981 destroyed nascent Iraqi nuclear capabilities. After the attack, Iraq opted for the route of enriching uranium through centrifuges. Analysts contend that its ill-timed invasion of Kuwait, the resultant defeat at the hands of the American-led coalition and multi-national sanctions prevented Iraq from realizing its stated goal of achieving a nuclear capability, which otherwise, would have taken it scarcely another half-a-decade, according to some estimates. Egypt signed the NPT in 1981. A major contributing factor in its decision to do so was the desire to get nuclear power reactors, encouraged under Article IV of the NPT to further the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The Libyan regime of Col. Muammar Gadhafi made strenuous efforts to be nuclear-capable, mostly through smuggling of nuclear-related components and technology. Iran pursued a vigorous nuclear programme under Shah Reza Pahlavi, which however was not given sufficient attention after the 1979 revolution.

    Most of the Arab countries pursued chemical and biological arsenals, the 'poor man's' weapons of mass destruction. In this regard, they received positive support from their great power patrons and friends, including the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea. Apart from these efforts, the Arab nations tried very hard to get West Asia declared a nuclear-weapon free zone and to force Israel to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In fact, it was Iran that first proposed a Middle East nuclear weapon free zone (MENWFZ) in 1974. Israel, along with India and Pakistan, is a prominent holdout from the NPT regime. The May 1998 nuclear tests by the latter two have meant that Israel is in a unique league by itself.

    There have been serious debates within Israel regarding the continued relevance and the benefits of Israeli exceptionality in the fast changing global scenario. Some strategic analysts contend that for the Israeli nuclear deterrent to be effective, it is very important to convey Israel's nuclear status unambiguously so that there won't be a mistake on the part of Israel's enemies in misinterpreting Israeli capabilities. This would mean coming clean on a fact that the rest of the world already considers a fait accompli, and making known its war-fighting doctrines incorporating nuclear weapons. However, successive Israeli governments have resisted such talk and continued with the traditional Israeli posture.

    During the July 2004 visit of Mohamad El Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in remarks to the Israeli Army Radio, stated that the Israeli policy of ambiguity has proved its worth and will continue, adding, "I don't know what he [ElBaradei] is coming to see". In the light of renewed pressure to give up its nuclear weapons in response to the Libyan decision to give up its nuclear ambitions in late 2003, the Israeli foreign ministry repeated that peace and security were important pre-conditions for the Middle East to be a nuclear weapon free zone.

    Iran's continuing efforts in pursuing a nuclear programme and acquiring nuclear technology, and Israel's contention that it is aimed at threatening the very survival of the Jewish state, coupled with the harsh rhetoric emanating from Tehran, has made the West Asian nuclear equation very fluid and unstable. If and when Tehran succeeds in its objective of developing a nuclear weapon, there is a real danger of an unfolding crisis taking on a nuclear dimension due to the lack of any direct channel of communication between the two sides. There is also a real danger of a multi-nuclear West Asia worsening the already fragile situation there.

    It is instructive to note that Prime Minister Olmert's 'nuclear slip' was made in the context of the Iran threat. Pointing out Iran's rhetoric of wiping out Israel from the world map, Olmert continued ""Can you say that this is the same level, when they [Iran] are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?" Mr. Olmert's interview came in the wake of the statement of the incoming US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates the previous week, in which he apparently acknowledged Israeli nuclear status. During his Senate confirmation hearings, Mr. Gates pointed out 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".

    Olmert's 'slip' has elicited varied reactions. Domestic commentators have pointed out that the prime minister's admission has weakened Israeli position in that it has led to unwanted focus on the Israeli nuclear capabilities, renewed calls from the Arab countries to give up its nuclear weapons, demands from the international non-proliferation and disarmament community to agree to a nuclear weapon free West Asia, more rigorous justifications by the Iranians for a nuclear deterrent and criticisms of the so-called 'double standards' of the US and Europe in applying non-proliferation yardsticks. Analysts swearing by the nuclear option however will no doubt point to the fact that the prime minister's admission has unambiguously 'signaled' Israel's nuclear status for Iran to take note of. These analysts will read in the statement a continuing effort by Israel to make its deterrent more effective. These include the decision to purchase 2 more German Dolphin submarines in a deal approved by the then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in November 2005, in addition to the three it already operates. These can be used effectively as secure, second-strike platforms, negating Israel's lack of strategic depth. There are reports that Israel will equip the subs with cruise missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, housed in their 650mm torpedo tubes.

    It is possible to read Olmert's 'slip', in its widest interpretation, as a precursor to Israel preparing to maintain a more overt nuclear profile in the face of Iranian attempts to go nuclear. The decision to acquire the Dolphin submarines, efforts to build a missile-defence shield, made up of the US-Israeli Arrow-2 missile system and the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system, are all measures designed to make Israel more secure to face the possibility and eventuality of the Iranian nuclear capability, in case efforts to stop Iran in its nuclear quest fail. The Prime Minister's statement has succeeded in opening up the taboo question of the Israeli nuclear posture to greater public debate and scrutiny, both within the country and in its immediate neighbourhood. The unfolding nuclear drama in West Asia will no doubt make further 'interesting' headlines. The world will hope and pray that these do not produce 'deadly' consequences.