Commentary Magazine

Thinking About the Unthinkable in the Middle East

By the eve of the Six-Day war of 1967, after over a decade of intensive effort, Israel had succeeded in building a small number of nuclear weapons. Such weapons have been part of its arsenal ever since, giving the country a monopoly in the Middle East and a vital if problematic edge in its ongoing struggle for survival. But, in a profound shift in the regional military balance, that monopoly is about to be lost.

This is a matter of cardinal importance to Israel’s future—at least as important as the arrangements it will conclude with the Palestinians under Yasir Arafat. And yet the issue of nuclear weapons has seldom been raised in public discussion of the Middle East conflict, in part because Israel itself has blanketed it in layers of secrecy and military censorship and in part, no doubt, because the possibilities it evokes are simply too terrifying to think about. Nevertheless, for any appreciation of the unfolding strategic map of the Middle East, a grasp of the nuclear dimension is essential. A new book, Israel and the Bomb, by the Israeli political scientist Avner Cohen,1 offers a timely account of the crucial first two decades of Israel’s nuclear program and a stepping-stone into thinking about the unthinkable in the Middle East.



When Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion pushed his country onto the atomic path in the early 1950′s, nuclear weapons were perceived as a vital shortcut to national defense. Israel’s population then stood at fewer than two million, outnumbered thirtyfold by the Arab states; in territory, Israel occupied a mere 7,800 square miles as against the Arabs’ 3.4 million. What these huge disparities meant in military terms was, as Ben-Gurion put it, that Israel “could not afford to lose any round, whereas the Arabs could afford to lose them all.”

Of course, nuclear weapons were never regarded as a substitute for conventional military might. Nor did Israel set out to acquire them with any clearly delineated strategic doctrine in mind. With the shadow of the Holocaust and the Arab campaign of annihilation of 1948 still looming large, the bomb was seen as a partial fix to the country’s overwhelming vulnerability—and also a way for the Jewish state to guarantee its existence on its own without outside help. At the very least, Arab leaders would be forced to think twice before waging war on a country armed with weapons whose terrible power had been demonstrated to the world at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yet acquiring a nuclear capability was anything but a simple task. It would be hard to overstate, to begin with, the staggering financial cost of the effort. Although, as Cohen writes, precise estimates are not available, for comparison’s sake one need only think of the company that then-underdeveloped Israel was joining when it finally entered the nuclear club in 1967: the U.S. and the USSR, England and France, Communist China. From the late 1950′s through the mid-1960′s, vast resources were diverted into the Negev desert to build the Dimona reactor and the accompanying plutoniumprocessing plant where the weapons themselves were to be fabricated. If senior officers of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) were kept in the dark about the project, it was not only to ensure secrecy but because Dimona was necessarily siphoning funds that might otherwise have gone to Israel’s conventional military forces.

The costs in political capital were no less great. Ever since its inception, Israel’s nuclear program has periodically given rise to friction with the United States. This was especially so in the 1960′s, when both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, in their determination to restrict the global proliferation of nuclear weapons, made no attempt to distinguish between friend and foe. Intent on stopping Israel from “going nuclear,” both administrations turned the screws on Jerusalem with vehemence.

Because Israel has yet to concede it is a nuclear power—it has refused to sign the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), abiding instead by the oft-repeated assertion that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East—the pressure on it to renounce its nuclear option continues to flare up from time to time. Among its Arab neighbors, Egypt in particular has vociferously raised the issue in international forums year in and year out, accusing the United States of hypocrisy for not compelling its client to sign the NPT while (presumably) holding all other countries to account. And the bomb has naturally also figured in the various campaigns of demonization and delegitimation that have been Israel’s unique lot in the world, adduced as further evidence of its allegedly hegemonic and even genocidal ambitions toward its hapless Arab neighbors.



As it happens, what the actual effect of Israel’s nuclear monopoly has been on the power equation in the Middle East is not so easy to specify. In the early 1960′s, the nuclear facility at Dimona figured prominently in the threatening speeches of the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser. This gave rise to concern both in Israel and in Washington that Egypt itself might be on the verge of embarking on nuclearization, thus setting off an atomic arms race in the Middle East. While that particular peril never materialized—Egypt has, so far as is known, never moved down the road toward nuclear weapons in any significant way—a case can be made that, to some degree, Israel’s program did figure in Nasser’s decision to go to war in 1967.

Nasser first publicly threatened Israel with war over Dimona in 1960, when construction was still under way. Over the next six years, he repeated the threat incessantly, and, in the immediate run-up to the Six-Day war, sent Egyptian MiG-2l’s into Israeli air space to carry out high-altitude reconnaissance over the facility even as he was also closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. To Israel’s then-prime minister, Levi Eshkol, these overflights suggested that an Egyptian move to bomb the Dimona reactor might well be the final preparation for a “full military assault.” And indeed, according to Avner Cohen, “Egyptian maps and contingency plans for offensive operations, found in air bases in the Sinai [by Israel after the war], confirmed that aerial bombing of Dimona was a primary Egyptian objective.”

Obviously, a great many considerations entered into Israel’s decision to strike preemptively on June 5, 1967, but it is still insufficiently appreciated how deeply the need to protect Dimona may have affected its calculations, just as the desire to eliminate Dimona had affected Nasser’s, To say this, however, is merely to underline the difficulty of assessing accurately the relative costs and benefits that the possession of nuclear weapons brings to any country that is party to a conflict—costs and benefits that in any case are as much political and psychological as military.

Take, for example, Israel’s relationship with the superpowers. Once Jerusalem had the bomb, the Kremlin was arguably forced to exercise a certain restraint in its maneuvering for influence in the Middle East, lest actions by Soviet clients provoke a nuclear response from Israel and/or set in motion an escalating conflagration ending in an explosive clash between the superpowers. Moreover, as the IDF’s strategic reach increased, Moscow could not altogether exclude the possibility that Israel, if pressed to the wall by a direct Soviet military intervention, might in desperation bring the house down on top of itself by hitting the USSR with nuclear weapons in a variant of the so-called “Samson option.”

Then there was the United States. In the period during which it was most anxious to prevent Israel from obtaining nuclear weapons, it found itself with a strong incentive to supply Jerusalem with conventional arms instead; as declassified American documents reveal, these arms were the carrot that accompanied the stick of U.S. pressure on Israel not to go nuclear. And after the late 1960′s, when it seemed clear Israel had in fact become a nuclear-weapons state, the need was even greater to make certain that, in a crisis, the country would be strong enough to defend itself without having to escalate to the nuclear stage.

As for shaping relations with its immediate neighbors, nuclear weapons have again had a certain utility for Israel, though hardly in a uniform way. Clearly, many of the threats Israel has regularly faced have not been influenced one way or another by the fact that it is a nuclear power. Atomic weapons are of no value in deterring or responding to guerrilla incursions, car bombings, and the like, and they have been equally useless in contending with larger incidences of violence of the kind that have periodically erupted in southern Lebanon or the West Bank. The real issue is whether Israel’s nuclear forces have been useful in deterring or containing full-scale war.

Basing oneself on the experience of 1967, one might be tempted to answer no. After all, as we have seen, Israel’s nuclear program—and, much as Nasser was alarmed by it, he did not yet know with any certainty how far along it had come—may have had just the opposite effect, becoming a factor not in deterring but in precipitating conflict. But by the time of the Yom Kippur war of October 1973, things stood very differently.

By then, the perception had become widespread that Israel did have or was close to acquiring a small nuclear arsenal. Although that perception did not stop Egypt and Syria from planning and launching a major act of aggression, the Arabs’ strategy was not designed, as it always had been previously, to achieve the maximal goal of finishing off the Jewish state altogether. Rather, it was aimed at recapturing specific territory conquered by Israel six years earlier.

Once again a great many factors can be adduced to account for the way the 1973 war unfolded and especially for the limited nature of Arab aims. Preeminent among them was surely Israel’s well-deserved reputation for mastery of conventional warfare. But at the same time, the Arab assault may also have been calibrated to come in below any threshold that might seem likely to invite a nuclear response.

Even more significantly, after 1973, as the existence of Israel’s nuclear option became a more widely accepted proposition, a marked change began to be visible in the behavior of the bordering Arab states. Though Israel still remained in possession of territory it had taken in the Six-Day war, and though the question of Palestinian refugees and Palestinian self-rule continued to agitate Arab opinion, there were no subsequent attempts to address these matters by all-out force of arms, let alone to destroy Israel entirely. On the contrary, for the first time, both Egypt and Jordan began to advance along a different path, engaging in negotiations, establishing diplomatic relations, and even concluding peace agreements with the Jewish state. What part in all this was played by Israel’s possession of a nuclear arsenal must necessarily remain speculative, but we do know something: in 1977, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt confided to his Israeli interlocutors that his precedent-shattering decision to seek peace had been deeply influenced by just this fact.

In short, Israel’s nuclear weapons do appear to have in some sense fulfilled the function Ben-Gurion had in mind for them. By bolstering Israel’s image as an invincible military power despite its permanent inferiority in materiel and numbers of men under arms, these weapons have helped to persuade its neighbors that in a full-fledged war nothing would be gained and everything could be lost In that sense, they have also succeeded in imparting a measure of stability to the world’s most volatile region.



This, however, is exactly the situation that is about to be turned upside down.

Over the last several years, cadres of unemployed but highly skilled nuclear engineers have dispersed to the corners of the earth from the lands of the now-dissolved Soviet Union; fissionable material, laxly secured in the chaos of the past decade, may in some cases have traveled with them. At the same time, Moscow’s need for cash has led it to sell sophisticated nuclear technology, including reactors, to less than stable countries on its periphery.

The former USSR is hardly the only offending proliferator. Both Communist China and North Korea have shown themselves willing to provide lethal technologies, including the means to deliver nuclear weapons, to the highest bidder. This past May, Pakistan, a recipient of considerable help from both China and North Korea, conducted a series of underground nuclear blasts, becoming the first Islamic state to wield the atomic bomb.

In the Middle East itself, three of the countries most consumed with hatred of Israel—Libya, Iran, and Iraq—have been intent on obtaining nuclear weapons for decades. The last two have now made significant progress toward that end. This past July, a commission formed by Congress and headed by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld concluded that once Iran manages to acquire the necessary materials, it will be within three years of building a nuclear weapon. That Iran will soon possess the means to deliver such weapons is common knowledge; in July, it tested the Shahab-3, a modified version of a North Korean missile with a range that extends to Israel and beyond.

Iraq, for its part, would long since have possessed nuclear arms had its program not been interrupted by Israel’s aerial strike against the Osirak “research” facility in 1981. Interrupted, but not halted: a decade later, in the wake of the Gulf war, both the CIA and United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspectors were shocked to discover that shortly after the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Baghdad had embarked on a crash program to produce a nuclear device. It was proceeding along a technological path—the use of electromagnetic devices called “calutrons” to enrich uranium—that Western experts had simply not foreseen, and was utilizing fuel that had been surreptitiously removed from a reactor supposedly under International Atomic Energy Agency “safeguards.” Before the calutrons were discovered (along with the principal Iraqi nuclear-weapons design center at Al Atheer, a facility unknown to and not targeted by the U.S. during the war), the CIA had erroneously forecast that Iraq was ten years away from developing an operational nuclear weapon. In fact, it was only six months to a year short of finishing the job.

In the opinion of the Rumsfeld commission in July, it would now take Saddam Hussein several years to reconstitute the nuclear-production facilities destroyed in the Gulf war and its immediate aftermath. More recently, however, revelations by Scott Ritter, the American inspector who resigned from UNSCOM in protest against U.S. interference with its mission, suggested that Iraq had maintained three or four “implosion devices” requiring only a fissionable core to become fully operational, twenty-kiloton nuclear bombs. If Iraq managed to obtain the requisite quantity of plutonium or enriched uranium—the Rumsfeld commission acknowledged that Iraq may have hidden some fissile materials from the UN inspectors—it could have a nuclear weapon within a matter of weeks. On the assumption that Saddam Hussein will continue successfully to conceal his nuclear facilities from UN inspectors, the only further question is how much trouble Iraq would have mounting its first-generation nuclear weapons on the Scud missiles it is reported by UNSCOM to have secretly kept in reserve.



So it is only a matter of time—perhaps a very brief time—before Israel’s nuclear monopoly will draw to an end. What sort of dynamic will then be introduced into the Middle East?

As far back as the 1970′s, in anticipation of things to come, students of military strategy debated the likely effect of a balance of nuclear terror in the Middle East. Some were strikingly sanguine about it. Here, for instance, was the view of Robert W. Tucker in a widely discussed COMMENTARY article:

We have no persuasive reason for believing that, in a nuclear environment, the major Arab countries would behave irrationally. We do have every reason for believing they will have every inducement to behave with marked circumspection. . . . Far from proving destabilizing, a nuclear balance between Israel and the major Arab states would have a stabilizing effect. On the Arab side, there would no longer be reason to fear that Israel might be tempted to use its nuclear deterrent for expansionist purposes. On the Israeli side, the present preoccupation with secure borders could markedly diminish. On both sides, the will to resort to a military solution of differences would decline and, in time, disappear.2

To temper this upbeat forecast, Tucker added an important caveat: he was assuming, he wrote, “that the nuclear forces of both sides would be second-strike forces”—that is, capable of surviving an enemy attack—and “that the technical nature of the force structures would not be such as to generate a new, and compelling, instability.”

Tucker’s optimistic view may or may not have been reasonable in 1975. Looking at the picture of the Middle East today, however, one wonders if any portion of what he had to say applies to the situation at hand. The two powers in the region most likely to acquire nuclear weapons are not moderate nations of the kind Tucker plainly had in mind in speaking of the “major Arab states,” but rather the outlaw states of Iran and Iraq. It is a real question whether either of them can be expected to “behave with marked circumspection” under any circumstances, let alone when they become militarily far stronger than they now are. How a nuclear rivalry between Israel and such radically hostile countries can have a “stabilizing effect” is difficult to see.

A key underpinning of any stable balance of terror is the presumption of rationality—the one quality that seems in exceptionally scant supply in either the rhetoric or the behavior of the leadership of Iran and Iraq. Consider, for example, a recent pronouncement of Ayatollah Yusuf Sani’i, a senior member of Iran’s ruling council:

All religious persons and Islamic leaders must encourage and teach the value of the deed of suicide. We ask God to illuminate all Muslims and to seat all the fallen in the first row, particularly the most courageous martyrs who were killed in suicide actions.

Or consider, in the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s use of poison gas against his own citizens in 1988; his willingness to put Iraq’s armed forces and a good part of its national infrastructure at risk of destruction by American airpower for the sake of digesting an Arab neighbor; or his threats “to make fire burn half of Israel” and his hurling of Scud missiles into the heart of Tel Aviv.

It is possible, to be sure, to argue that in one sense both Iran and Iraq do indeed behave rationally; after all, after having committed or encouraged violence and mayhem of the most extreme kind, they seem not only to have gotten away with it but to be doing relatively well. But this is exactly the form of rationality that could end in a nuclear exchange. Just as Israel now confronts suicide bombers willing to give up their own lives in the hope of taking large numbers of Israeli civilians with them, we may soon see the emergence of suicide states, willing to sacrifice huge portions of their own populace for the sake of “liberating” Palestine. Faced with enemies like these, Israel may find itself in a novel position of uncertainty as to whether its own threat of a nuclear response would be adequate to maintain deterrence. Where such matters are concerned, uncertainty is not good enough.



How to diminish the uncertainty? Already in the 1960′s, Yigal Allon, the Israeli politician and military strategist, added an amendment to Israel’s traditional formula: Israel, he said, would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, but it would also not be the second. By striking Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, Israel made it utterly clear that this aspect of its doctrine was not merely theoretical.

Now, once again, the question has arisen of what forcible steps Israel might take in order to deny nuclear weapons to its enemies. This past September, Ephraim Sneh, a general in the Israeli army reserves and a leading member of the opposition Labor party, spoke publicly of the possibility that the IDF might be compelled to “deliver a conventional counterstrike or preemptive strike” against Iranian atomic facilities. This was not long after Teheran tested its Shahab-3 missile—to the yawns of the international community—and then displayed the missile in a military parade with banners draped from it reading, “Israel should be wiped from the map”—to still more yawns by the international community. Sneh was roundly criticized at home for his remarks, not because he was wrong but because, as Uzi Landau, the chairman of the Knesset’s foreign-affairs and security committee, explained, “unnecessary chatter” could heighten the likelihood of Israel’s being targeted for attack.

But whether or not Sneh should have spoken out, the option he referred to may be less viable than it once was. Both Iran and Iraq have already taken measures—concealment, dispersion, hardening, surface-to-air defense—to ensure that the feat performed by Israel’s air force in 1981, and for which it was universally condemned at the time, including by the United States, could not easily be repeated.

If preemption is largely ruled out as an option, what then? To reduce its vulnerability—enemy missiles can arrive within ten minutes from firing—Israel may well be compelled to adopt a “launch-on-warning” posture for both its conventional and nuclear forces. For the purpose of considering this eventuality, we may assume that Israel has indeed developed a secure retaliatory force of the kind Tucker saw as essential to stability. Even so, however, this would not offer much reassurance. Unlike its neighbors, and unlike the U S., Israel is a tiny country, and in a nuclear environment it would not have the luxury of waiting to assess the damage from a first strike before deciding how to respond.

Thus, in any future crisis, at the first hint from satellite intelligence or some other means that a missile fusillade was being prepared from, say, Iran or Iraq, Israel, to protect its populace, would have to punch first. And it would have to strike not only at missile sites, some of which it might well miss, but at a broader range of targets—communications facilities, air bases, storage bunkers, and all other critical nodes—so as to paralyze the enemy and thus rule out the possibility of attack. These are the implications of launch-on-warning.

Clearly, such a posture presents grave problems. Lacking secure second-strike forces of their own, and aware that Israel would no doubt try to hit them preemptively, Iran and Iraq would be under tremendous pressure to launch their missiles first—to “use them or lose them.” In other words, what this scenario leads to is the prospect of both sides’ moving to a permanent position of hair-trigger alert. It is a nightmarish prospect. The possibility that nuclear war might break out at any moment—by accident, miscalculation, or design—would inevitably place an intolerable strain on Israel’s freedom of military movement, and take a no less heavy toll on civilian morale.

In part, no doubt, because of just such considerations, Israel has been attempting to find other, more palatable solutions to its strategic dilemma—first and foremost by developing a system of defense against ballistic missiles. Here the weapon of choice is the surface-to-air Arrow missile, an American-funded device that promises to be far more effective at intercepting incoming projectiles than the Patriot, an anti-missile battery which, though heralded by American generals during the Gulf war for its prowess at shooting down Scuds, was shown in postmortems to have been of severely limited effectiveness. The Arrow is still being tested and is expected to be deployed sometime in the year 2000.

But while the Arrow is necessary, it can hardly be said to be sufficient. Even if it works as advertised, it cannot be counted on to serve as a truly impermeable shield. An aggressor could attempt to overwhelm it, for example, by saturating the sky with missiles and decoys. A single missile with a nuclear payload that managed to penetrate the Arrow’s defensive wall would be one missile too many: a twenty-kiloton nuclear weapon bursting over Tel Aviv (population 1,139,000) would deal an unfathomable blow to Israel’s national life.

Of course, the Arrow system is not the last word in defensive technology, and a number of complementary approaches hold the potential of offering more effective protection down the road. Among the most promising are space-based systems that target enemy missiles in their boost phase—that is, when they are at their most vulnerable, moving at slow speeds and emitting intensely hot and highly visible plumes, and also still ascending over the territory of the country that launched them.



While a space-based system is beyond Israel’s financial and technological means, it is not beyond ours, and we ourselves happen to be in dire need of one. Not only are our shores already completely vulnerable to intercontinental ballistic-missile attack from Russia and China, we will soon be naked to assault from a number of third-world countries as well. According to the Rumsfeld commission report, North Korea and Iran will be “able to inflict major destruction on the United States” within five years; Iraq within ten.

About this, however, we are so far doing, essentially, nothing. The “overriding goal of the Clinton administration,” as Robert Kagan and Gary Schmitt have recently pointed out in these pages, “has been to preserve the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] treaty, which essentially prohibits any national defense against missile attack and frustrates development of the most effective regional defenses for our troops and our allies.”3 This unwillingness to face the defensive imperatives of the missile age is mirrored by comprehensive American laxity in dealing with the nuclearization of the Middle East, on display most vividly in the Clinton team’s extreme reluctance to reckon with Iran and Iraq.

It is true that as part of the deal struck in the recent negotiations at the Wye Plantation, the U.S. did give Israel a Memorandum of Agreement affirming American support in the event of a ballistic-missile threat. This document is quite similar in wording to a pledge given by Henry Kissinger in 1975 after an agreement securing the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai and aimed at allaying Israeli concerns about a direct assault from the Soviet Union. Like that one, this one too promises cooperation in enhancing Israel’s security, but what is notable here is the complete absence of specific assurances. All the Clinton administration offers its close ally is a privilege it already enjoys, namely, that in the event of a threat, the U.S. government “would consult promptly” with the government of Israel.

That is bad enough. But consider the difference between then and now. During the Yom Kippur war, the Soviet Union, then the Arab world’s major patron, threatened to introduce its own forces into the Middle East; Washington responded in the most vigorous possible manner, placing U.S. forces on a global nuclear alert. Today’s assurances by the Clinton administration must be measured against our resolute dawdling in response to challenges from all around the world involving weapons of mass destruction, as well as against our pitiful record of enforcing international agreements we have brokered.

And consider, too, the differing nature of the challenges themselves. The Soviet Union was an evil power, with a terrifyingly great arsenal at its disposal. But at least where nuclear weapons were concerned, and especially after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, it knew the limits of the game. In many ways, the peril now facing both the United States and Israel, from players who have no use for rules or limits, is greater by several magnitudes.

For all these reasons, Israel’s own nuclear arsenal has perhaps never been so crucial a part of its armament as it is right now. Moreover, given the threat to its very existence, and the world’s general indifference to that threat, Israel’s moral claim to a nuclear arsenal has also never been stronger. But, as an insurance policy against military disaster, its nuclear weapons are a wasting asset Unless measures are taken to halt the Middle East’s rogue states in their nuclear tracks, or to protect against their certain depredations, one dreads what the morrow will bring.



1 Columbia University Press, 432 pp., $27.50.

2 “Israel and the United States: From Dependency to Nuclear Weapons,” November 1975.

3 “Now May We Please Defend Ourselves?,” July 1998.


About the Author

Gabriel Schoenfeld is senior editor of COMMENTARY.