Israel's Nuclear Posture:A Cost-Benefit Analysis

Vyoma Nupur,M.Phil Scholar,SIS,JNU


Security has always been a paramount and constant theme in the Israeli mindset. This paper traces the historical evolution of the country's nuclear posture and the acquisition of a nuclear capability in the backdrop of this concern. A further attempt has been made to analyse the principal characteristics of Israel's nuclear position and the events and issues that shaped it.


Situated in one of the most politically volatile regions of the world, security has been central to both the domestic and foreign policy of Israel, ever since its birth as a nation-state in 1948. This concern is, in fact, part of the genetic make-up of Israel--the Jewish state was created as an outcome of an expensive military conflict with the Palestinians and Arabs--a state formed in the aftermath of the horrible persecution of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. This mindset was further nurtured by a perception of extreme hostility of the Arab states surrounding Israel, who deeply resented the new Jewish state in their midst. Israel in response has followed a belligerent and non-conciliatory approach. This has been eloquently reflected in the opinion presented by ex-Prime Minister Moshe Sharett:

"..the only language the Arabs understand is force. The State of Israel is so tiny and so isolated...that if it does not increase its actual strength by a very high coefficient of demonstrated action, it will run into trouble. From time to time, the State of Israel must give unmistakable proof of its strength...(otherwise) it will be engulfed and may even disappear..."

No wonder, the region has never seen real peace during the last fifty years and Israel's nuclear posture is a significant manifestation of its quest for security.

Historical Evolution of the Posture

In this section we consider the main planks of Israel's nuclear posture as it evolved in the last five decades. This discussion also includes a brief narrative of major events and developments and the way they influenced Israel's nuclear policy. The principal characteristics of this policy include:

* An early beginning--almost coinciding with the birth of the nation.

* The French connection during the early crucial years.

* A shrill and consistent assertion that in the absence of a nuclear option the very existence of the Jewish state is imperilled. Hence, there is "no alternative," but to acquire nuclear capability (Ein brera).

* Ambiguity in official denials and secrecy of the programme--thus avoiding international condemnation and sanctions, while gaining from nuclear deterrence. The objective is to keep the enemy guessing.

* Arab-Israeli conflicts resulting in hardening of the nuclear posture and a shift from a policy of "nuclear option" to "bomb in the basement" stance.

* The Samson option--a last resort scenario in which both the Jews and the Palestinians are annihilated simultaneously.

Early Beginnings

Israel's nuclear programme had its beginning in the early years of the Jewish state. In 1949, the Weizmann Institute was established in Tel Aviv for nuclear research. Furthermore, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was established in 1952 with the rather open-ended objective of advising the government on policy issues, supervising the implementation of agreed policy, and to maintain contacts with foreign institutes. The fact that the AEC was placed under the control of the Defence Ministry speaks volumes of the objectives of the nuclear programme that were to be pursued by the AEC. Israel had some very gifted scientists for guiding nuclear research and a strong pool of scientific manpower to support the R&D effort. This assured the political leadership about the feasibility of building up a credible nuclear programme. Some Arab experts even suspect that Israel received the technical support of some of the Jewish scientists who had gained experience working in the Manhattan Project of the United States.

Ben Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister was the chief architect of his country's quest for nuclear capability. He considered the development of such a capability as crucial to Israel's security concerns.

Ein Brera: No Alternative

Considering the geo-political realities of the region, wherein Israel was surrounded by hostile Arab countries much larger in size, population and natural resources, there was no alternative, in Israeli calculations, other than to embark on an independent programme of nuclear development. Moreover, for several years, Israel had been attempting to wring a security guarantee from the United States, albeit without success. As Ben Gurion wrote to President Kennedy, "My people have a right to exist...and its existence is in danger..." However, no security guarantees from the US were forthcoming. Consequently, Israeli policy makers felt that in the absence of a US security umbrella, Israel had no alternative but to "go its own way" in terms of nuclear strategy. Therefore, self-defence and self-reliance--at any cost--became the twin pillars of their national security policy.

The French Connection

The French substantially assisted the Israelis in developing their nuclear capability. There were four main reasons for the French collaboration in Israel's nuclear development. First, Israel began cultivating friendly relations with France from 1950 onwards. This created a political climate that was conducive to cooperation between the two countries. Second, in the Fifties, France was still in the process of evolving into a full-fledged nuclear power. The French felt isolated because the provisions of the MacMahon Act in the United States precluded the former from benefiting from the nuclear development activities carried out in the US. A new method of producing heavy water was discovered by Israel Dostrovsky, a scientist settled in Israel. The patent of this process was sold to the French by the Israelis as a result of an agreement of cooperation signed in 1953. Moreover, France also acquired a patent for a method of processing low-grade uranium. The French, in turn, trained Israeli engineers and more importantly, helped establish the Dimona reactor. Thus, both sides had a mutual interest in pursuing cooperation in the nuclear field. Third, the Suez Canal crisis of 1956 gave fresh opportunities to the Israelis to pressurise the French for further concessions. After the war ended, Ben Gurion was able to secure aid for building a nuclear reactor and a chemical processing plant modelled after the French Marcoule IV. Fourth, during the 1950s, the French and the Israelis believed the possession of nuclear capability to be a good way of counteracting inferiority in conventional weapons. Thus, identical currents of thought governed the strategic thinking of both countries. Furthermore, the Dimona reactor, which was publicly called a "textile mill" went critical in 1962 (that is, it was able to sustain a chain reaction). It could operate at 70 megawatts, though the officially reported figure was only 24 megawatts. Israel could consequently divert the additional plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Hardening Posture

Following the 1967 conflict with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq, Israel decided to build a plutonium separation plant which represented an important milestone in the nuclear weapons programme.

It is believed that by 1968, Israel had moved from "a nuclear option policy" to a "bomb in the basement policy." This suggested the possession of pre-assembled, ready-to-deploy nuclear weapons. What could be the reasons for this policy shift? The 1967 conflict finally convinced Israel that it could not depend on the powerful Jewish lobby in the United States as far as the crucial aspects of national security were concerned. The Jewish lobby could help obtain financial aid, and act as a pressure group--but this was not good enough to influence US decisions on nuclear non-proliferation issues in Israel's favour. The Kennedy Administration in the early 1960s was particularly insistent on the inspection of the Israeli reactors--faced as it was with growing evidence of Israel's nuclear weapons programme coupled by an official denial by the Israeli government. Ultimately, the US supplied Israel with Hawk surface-to-air missiles in return for an inspection. The latter turned out to be an orchestrated performance and yielded no results in curbing the Israeli nuclear weapons programme.

During the 1967 conflict, the US failed to use force to get the Strait of Tiran opened despite promises made during the Eisenhower Administration. Furthermore, intelligence reports suggested that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear missiles to target Israeli locations. Though Israel dazzled the world by its daring pre-emptive air strikes on the Arabs and gained a major victory, these reports caused alarm in Israel and further strengthened the hands of the nuclear hawks within the political leadership. Furthermore, during the 1973 War, when Israel was threatened on two fronts by Egypt and Syria, it is believed that Prime Minister Golda Mier had ordered the deployment of nuclear warheads on short-range missiles targetted at Arab lands. But, as we now know, the doomsday of August 1945 was not repeated.

Ambiguity in Denial and Secrecy

From the beginning, nuclear installations were kept totally out of bounds to foreign "visitors." A window to the outside world on the Israeli nuclear programme was presented in 1986, as an outcome of the deposition of Vanunu, a former Israeli technician in the Dimona nuclear centre. He supplied a number of photographs and technical details to the United States, which indicated that Israel might have an arsenal of at least 200 nuclear devices that could be deployed in both tactical and strategic roles. Thus, if Vanunu's evidence is to be believed, Israel ranks as the sixth most powerful nuclear power.

Israel has all along adopted an ambiguous approach in its pronouncements on the nuclear programme. In 1964, Levi Eshkol, former Prime Minister of the country, stated: " will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East." In 1966, Abba Eban pointed out that "Israel has not initiated and will not initiate the introduction of new arms, nor any sort of new weapons into the Middle East, conventional or non-conventional." This was again repeated in 1970 as "Israel is not a nuclear country and will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East." This play of words was further refined when Israeli officials stated that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, but it will not be the second either! By this deliberate ambiguity, Israel has been able to avoid direct condemnation of the world community while at the same time instilling fear into the minds of its Arab adversaries.

Assessment of the Israeli Nuclear Posture

It is hard to justify the development of a nuclear weapons programme particularly when the perceived Arab adversary states do not have any comparable capability. But there have been serious attempts to build an "Islamic bomb" and the responsibility record of Arab states such as Iraq and Libya is far from satisfactory. Coupled with this fact is the small size and population of the Jewish state which constrains conventional arms build-up to levels well below the combined potential of the Arab states. I consider that these are special circumstances that justify, to a great extent, Israel's nuclear policy. But how can one be sure that Israel will use a nuclear weapon only as a last resort measure (the Samson option), particularly when the region has a poor record of peace--in fact, one is tempted to describe the events of the last 50 years as a chain of conflicts punctuated by uneasy intervals of peace.

The United States also bears some responsibility for pushing Israel into an aggressive nuclear posture. While the French and the Israelis cooperated during the 1950s, it did not do enough to reassure Israel on its genuine security concerns. At the same time, it did put sufficient pressure on Israel to permit inspection of its nuclear installations. Successive US Administrations did not agree to the security umbrella which Israel so assiduously sought for years, thus encouraging Israel to be self-reliant and independent in the nuclear field.

Who can guarantee that in a future conflict a "nuclear Israel" will not be tempted to find a "permanent solution" to its problems of the past, but will instead show restraint to consider use of nuclear weapons as a last resort? In fact, there is no certain way to characterise the "last resort" situation. For instance, can we say that the Americans acted as a last resort while dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima? Even if we grant that it was so, by no extension of logic can we justify another bomb on Nagasaki within five days. The US could have waited to see if the first bomb itself was enough to break the enemy's back. It did not do so and there has been no significant condemnation for this most heinous crime against humanity. The Israelis, street smart as they are in the international arena, would have certainly learnt these lessons of history. And they have never been too fastidious about the niceties of international law. However, some of the characteristics of the Israeli posture favour the opinion that their nuclear programme is for the purpose of obtaining nuclear deterrence. For instance, satellite pictures indicate that the nuclear weapon deployment site is in the centre of the country. It may be argued that this central location suggests that only when Israel is defeated in conventional warfare and the enemy advances well within the Israeli territory, will these weapons be used from this central location. This argument appears to me as laboured and unconvincing because a central site is preferable for the security of the installations themselves. Another argument that supports the nuclear deterrence intention is the deliberate ambiguity its leaders have maintained over the nuclear status, thus keeping the Arabs guessing and fearful. But again, this may only be a strategy to avoid international condemnation and US sanctions. However, during the 1973 War when Israel had to face Egypt and Syria on two different fronts, it did not exercise the nuclear option. Again, during the Gulf War, Israel did not retaliate despite Scud missile attacks by Iraq. It appears convincing, therefore, to expect that Israel will not press the panic button too soon in a future conflict. Moreover, the situation in the Middle East has improved with the removal of big power rivalry following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and after the Camp David Agreement. Therefore, a future long-lasting conflict requiring nuclear weapons appears remote. Israeli policy makers need to be convinced and reassured, so that they are able to shed their life-long phobia of "threat to the existence of the nation" and agree to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Cost-Benefit Analysis

An evaluation of the cost of the nuclear programme to Israel and its perceived and accrued benefits to that country is a complex exercise consisting of several parameters--many of them not fully understood.

Direct Economic Costs

One of the obvious parameters is the economic cost--how much in money terms has the nuclear weapons programme cost the country? There are no published figures, and in their absence, estimates of other nuclear programmes may be useful. For example, the US Manhattan Project cost US $2 billion in 1945 prices. More relevant are the estimates of China's nuclear programme considering that China was the fifth and last officially declared nuclear power and Israel has the sixth largest arsenal. The total cost of the Chinese project from uranium prospecting to the first finished bomb is estimated at Yuan 10.7 billion or US $4.1 billion, in terms of 1957 prices. This expenditure was made in the period between 1955 and 1964. It is important to note that the cost of a covert programme as that of Israel, will be higher when compared to a declared nuclear programme. This is because the costs of concealment, camouflaging and deception are significant and also because legitimate exports arising from the programme cannot be made. Thus, enormous amounts are involved in direct costs alone. But how strong is the impact of these direct costs on the Israeli economy? Israel is an affluent country and its nuclear programme has certainly not deprived its citizens of basic necessities, though it can always be argued that the expenditure on the nuclear weapons programme could have been diverted to social and economic programmes. I am inclined to believe that the direct cost of the nuclear weapon in the Israeli context is not a very significant parameter--particularly if we are to accept the "survival is in peril and nuclear weapon is the only alternative" theory. When China detonated its nuclear bomb, it was a much poorer country and this amply demonstrates that direct costs are no consideration for a country with ambitions of a great power status.

Environmental Costs

The possible risks of nuclear leaks and disasters cannot be underestimated. Experience has shown that the possibility of nuclear accidents is real and not insignificant. The US Department of Defence has admitted to only 33 incidents prior to 1990, but the actual number may be much larger. Nuclear accidents may lead to radioactive leaks with disastrous consequences; the Chernobyl disaster being the most visible example. Nuclear disasters represent a terrible cost not only to the nuclear power concerned, but to its neighbours and the entire world. Countries such as Israel, which are geographically small, cannot have their installations in places far from population centres, thus leading to a further escalation of risks. Another important factor is the disposal of nuclear waste. For a comparatively small and clandestine programme as that of Israel, this may not be a major issue at the moment, but may become important if the size of the weapons programme grows in future.

Isolation in the International Community

With the globalisation of the world economic order, interdependence between nations has grown in the recent past. Running a clandestine nuclear programme builds suspicion in the mind of the international community and Israel's refusal to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and CTBT has aggravated these suspicions further. These trends are likely to aggravate in the future as more nations join the non-proliferation regime and Israel feels increasingly isolated. The collapse of the Soviet Union has also diminished Israel's strategic importance to the US and the kid-glove treatment it has been receiving so far may not be available for too long.

The major perceived benefits of the current Israeli nuclear policy include the following:

Heightened Sense of Security

As stated earlier, security has been a major issue for Israel policy-makers and the public. A nation cannot perpetually live in a situation where war is seen to be imminent and a threat to the existence of the nation itself.

The knowledge that the country possesses a nuclear arsenal while none of the Arab adversaries do, at least at the present moment, soothes the Israeli pyche and reassures them of the durability of the Jewish state. This is likely to be a major gain because the thinking and policy formulation of Israel will be geared to normal peace-time issues. An improved perception of security will also have a stabilising effect on the region. A powerful Israel can afford to be more magnanimous to its smaller neighbours, thus improving the prospects of peace.

Nuclear Deterrence

The effectiveness of nuclear deterrence will depend on several factors, such as the perceived vulnerability of Israel's nuclear deployment to pre-emptive attacks, the perceived size and destructive capability of the nuclear arsenal and the perceived resolve of Israel's political leadership to follow through on nuclear threats. While considering deterrence, perception of the potential enemy is more important than the ground realities. Thus, whatever may be the actual size of the nuclear arsenal, deterrence will work only if the potential adversary feels that it is not possible to wipe it out by a pre-emptive first strike. Furthermore, the yield of the nuclear weapons and the nature of their delivery systems are also important factors. Israel's nuclear weapons are unlikely to deter, if they are high-yield, counter-value weapons instead of low-yield counter-force weapons. Successful nuclear deterrence is inversely proportional to the perceived destructiveness of the nuclear weapons, because the ability to use high-yield weapons is very much circumscribed, particularly when the user-state is not a superpower. It will be far easier for the Israeli political leadership to authorise the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon and this realisation generates nuclear deterrence. It appears that Israeli security will be erected on the foundation of nuclear weapons and conventional weapons will be used for securing the borders and for pre-emptive strikes.

Reduced Need for Conventional Weapons

One of the major benefits of a nuclear arsenal for Israel is the reduced dependence on conventional weapons. Israel has attempted to remedy this imbalance by the use of better technology, better training and higher motivation of its armed forces. But these steps can help only upto a point. The 1973 War demonstrated to Israel that the performance of 1967 cannot be repeated any more. Given its size and manpower resources, it cannot possess an Army that would match the numerical strength of Arab Armies. Arab nations have progressively gained technological expertise and their greater numbers will inevitably tilt the balance in their favour in long-lasting conventional warfare. Nuclear weapons help bridge this potential imbalance and permit Israel to spend less on conventional weapons, thus partially offsetting the cost of possession of the nuclear arsenal.

Increased Responsibility

Possession of nuclear power imposes moral responsibility on a nation. Decisions on military action must be weighed more thoroughly in the light of the "nuclear burden." For instance, is there a possibility that the enemy may strike the nuclear installations causing an environmental holocaust? Israel's policy makers can no longer be reckless and act harshly on perceived (but unfounded) threats to its sovereignty and existence.


In the new world order, interdependence between nations is increasingly stressed. But this interdependence relates mainly to trade and economic aspects. Self-reliance has not lost its significance, where defence and security matters are concerned. The US nuclear umbrella, even if it were to be available to Israel, cannot be a substitute for an indigenous programme. Such support inevitably comes at a high price and with conditionalities that may constrain independent action. Moreover, US support may become uncertain, once the strategic importance of Israel as a partner is diminished. Thus, self-reliant development is an important benefit in both military and psychological terms.


In my opinion, the benefits of the nuclear programme far outweigh the costs involved. Israel with its strong economy has been able to afford the substantial expenditure required for the programme. The indirect costs such as environmental issues are common to all nuclear powers. The United States, Russia and other nuclear powers have far larger nuclear arsenals. Consequently, issues such as prevention of accidents and radioactive leaks, disposal of nuclear waste, etc. are highly significant for these countries. The contribution of Israel in the escalation of these problems is at best marginal. The possibility of isolation in the international community is also not a major factor. Historically, Israel is known to take a highly nationalist and hawkish approach. As a consequence of the Arab-Israeli conflicts, it occupied Arab lands and refused to surrender them subsequently. The possession of nuclear weapons clandestinely does not make it an international outlaw any further. Ultimately, nations as sovereign entities, even while respecting the force of international opinion, have the right to take decisions that they think are right, in tune with their special security environment.

The benefits of nuclear capability are substantial. A position of strength will help the country and its people in shedding their hysterical phobia of possible annihilation. The country will mature as a nation and come out of the self-defeating cycle of war-like preparations and pronouncement. The absence of superpower rivalry and a powerful Israel should bring peace to the region. The crisis of the Middle East is essentially a clash of interests between two peoples, both of whom have felt persecuted and sinned against. Nuclear power should chasten Israel to assume larger responsibilities--beyond narrow nationalist interests. Israel cannot use nuclear weapons against Palestine. On the other hand, a heightened sense of security will prevent Israel from behaving like a coiled cat ready to retaliate at a moment's notice. Israel can now afford to be magnanimous to its neighbours. For all we know, some day the Gujral Doctrine may become relevant in the Middle East.