Israel, a non-signatory to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), is regarded as the first and only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons.

Believing a nuclear weapons capability to be Israel’s ultimate insurance policy vis-à-vis its Arab adversaries, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion established a nuclear weapons program in the mid to late 1950s. [1] Consistent with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s later declaration that “Israel will not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East,” Israel currently maintains a policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” or “nuclear opacity,” refraining from overt admissions that it possesses nuclear weapons. Israel has also made extensive efforts to deny other regional actors the ability to acquire nuclear weapons, most prominently in the air strikes against Iraq’s Osiraq Reactor in 1981 and Syria’s suspected reactor near Al-Kibar in 2007.


1950s to the 1967 Six-Day War: Establishing a Nuclear Capability

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, firmly believed that science and technology could provide the ultimate defense against superior external enemies. [2] Only technology, Ben-Gurion maintained, could provide Israel the qualitative edge necessary to overcome its inferior population, resources, and size. As Shimon Peres (his senior aide at the time) once put it, “Ben-Gurion believed that science could compensate us for what Nature has denied us.” [3] By the mid- to late- 1950s, Ben-Gurion’s scientific and technological vision for Israel became synonymous with its nascent nuclear program.

Two men were instrumental in helping Ben-Gurion achieve his strategic plan. The first, Professor Ernst David Bergmann, an organic chemist by training, was Ben-Gurion’s trusted scientific advisor who steered Israel’s nuclear project from 1951 until 1955. In 1952, Ben-Gurion directed Bergmann to secretly establish and chair the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC). [4] The second, Shimon Peres, the director-general of the Ministry of Defense throughout most of the 1950s, was the architect of the “special relations” between Israel and France in the mid-to-late 1950s. Peres played a key role in the French-Israeli nuclear deal which produced the Dimona nuclear facility. While Bergmann had convinced Ben-Gurion in the early 1950s that an Israeli nuclear weapons project would be scientifically possible, it was Peres who pushed him to initiate it in 1955-57. [5]

The Israelis first sought nuclear assistance from the United States under the Atoms for Peaceinitiative. In 1955, the two countries signed a nuclear cooperation agreement through which the United States provided Israel with a small research reactor under bilateral safeguards and with peaceful-use provisions. Understanding this agreement would not provide Israel with the technology needed for a weapons program, Bergmann asked the Americans for an upgrade, “something like a real reactor,” to produce plutonium. [6] U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chairman Lewis Strauss told Bergmann that the United States would not provide Israel plutonium or hot cells, and that any nuclear reactor it built would be safeguarded. [7] Recognizing that the United States could only provide limited nuclear assistance, Bergmann advised Peres in mid-1956 that Israel would need to build two reactors at the same time, one with American assistance and another one on its own. [8] Peres turned down that suggestion; instead attention quickly was given to France as another potential nuclear supplier.

Indeed, in the mid- to late-1950s, Israel developed strong relations with France through conventional arms purchases, intelligence sharing and nuclear research collaboration. [9] Partnerships between French technology centers and Israeli scientists began as early as in 1953, when two Israeli scientists were invited to study reactor physics; one at the Institute of Nuclear Science and Techniques, and the other at the Chatillon Nuclear Establishment, the home of the first French nuclear reactor. [10] During the summer of 1955, additional Israeli scientists were sent to Saclay and Chatillon after receiving security clearances and being explicitly informed that they would work on a secret project to build an Israeli nuclear device. [11] Shimon Peres recognized by 1956 that France could provide Israel with the critical nuclear assistance needed to produce a weapon. [12]

Amid preparations for the Suez operation during the October 1956 Sèvres conference, Israel reached an understanding in principle with France on the sale of an EL-3 type research reactor. [13] In Israel and the Bomb, Avner Cohen maintains that the nuclear deal was not exactly a quid-pro-quo condition for Israeli participation in the Suez operation, but rather an “implicit incentive for both nations.” [14] The military operation which became known as the Suez Crisis in October-November of 1956 proved a watershed for the French and Israeli nuclear programs. Following British, French, and Israeli military action against (Soviet-allied) Egypt, the Soviet Union issued an ultimatum calling for all three states to withdraw or risk nuclear retaliation. The Soviets singled out Israel with the sternest of warnings, stating that it was “irresponsibly playing with the fate of its own people…which puts in jeopardy the very existence of Israel as a state.” [15] Fearing greater Soviet involvement in the conflict and global escalation, the United States condemned its allies’ military action and cooperated diplomatically with the Soviet Union to end the conflict. The Soviet threat, combined with the perception that the United States had abandoned France and Israel during the crisis, reinforced both countries’ commitment to a self-sustained nuclear deterrent. [16]

After being humiliated in the 1956 Suez Crisis, France all but cemented its own decision to pursue a nuclear weapons program. [17] Previously opposed to a nuclear weapons program, French Prime Minister Guy Mollet, in an about face, authorized the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique (CEA) to “carry out research on atomic explosions, produce design prototypes of nuclear devices, and prepare for nuclear testing” a week after the crisis ended. [18] The decision by the French government opened the door for Israel to renegotiate its previously modest nuclear cooperation agreement in order to obtain the much broader nuclear capabilities it had surreptitiously sought from the beginning. The Israelis requested a larger heavy-water reactor, similar to the 40MWt French G1 and G2 reactors at Marcoule, and the technology for a reprocessingfacility. [19]

By the fall of 1957 Shimon Peres convinced the French government to grant Israel’s request. Prime Minister Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury signed a letter approving the cooperation on the day after he was voted out of office, 1 October 1957, but backdated his signature to 30 September so that the letter would be valid. [20] By 3 October, Peres had finalized a technical cooperation agreement on the reactor and reprocessing plant, and a political agreement that Israel would only use the plutoniumfor peaceful purposes. [21] However, the full scope of the project was not manifested in the official agreement, and in fact many technical aspects of the project remained unspoken at the state-to-state level. [22] France went to great lengths to conceal its activities in Israel in order to maintain a degree of plausible deniability. [23] For example, the contract for the reprocessing facility was signed directly between Israel and a front organization for French manufacturer Saint Gobain. French government officials did not want to deal with the international fallout from the discovery of an “unprecedented level of international nuclear cooperation.” [24] Therefore, construction on the facility began in the Israeli Negev Desert near Dimona under extreme secrecy in 1958.

Members of the U.S. intelligence community suspected the Israelis were likely constructing a nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert as early as 1958, thanks to U-2 spy plane photo reconnaissance. [25] It appears that the Eisenhower administration sat on the information until new information was collected in the summer and fall of 1960. It was in December 1960 that the U.S. government started to ask Israel for explanation, and by mid-December AEC chairman John McCone leaked the story to the press. [26] Prime Minister Ben-Gurion was forced to go public about the nuclear project days later, on 23 December, stating that Israel was building a 24 MWt nuclear reactor “under the direction of Israeli experts” and “designed exclusively for peaceful purposes.” [27]

Months earlier, newly-elected French Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle had decided quietly to end French assistance after learning about the extent of the secret project. [28] However, after subsequent negotiations a new deal was reached whereby the French government ended its direct involvement, but allowed French companies to fulfill existing contracts in exchange for an Israeli acknowledgement of the project and its peaceful purpose. [29] French contractors finished work on the reactor and left the country by 1965, while the Israelis were left to finish the reprocessing facility. [30] According to U.S. officials who visited Dimonain January 1964, the reactor went critical on 26 December 1963, although it initially operated at low power. [31] The reprocessing facility became operational in 1965 or 1966. [32]

Israel also received critical assistance from Norway, which provided it with the heavy water necessary for moderating the Dimona reactor, a sale the United States had refused in the absence of more rigorous bilateral safeguards. [33] In 1960, Norway repurchased 20 tons of heavy water that it had originally sold to the United Kingdom and exported it directly from the U.K. to Israel. [34] Although Israel promised both countries that the heavy water would be used for exclusively peaceful purposes, declassified intelligence reports indicate that the U.K. suspected that Israel planned to use the heavy water to facilitate plutonium production. [35]

Whereas Eisenhower seemed to vacillate on the Israeli nuclear program, President Kennedy made nonproliferation a priority from the beginning of his administration. Under pressure from the newly elected American president, Israel reluctantly agreed in 1961 to U.S.-Israeli bilateral inspections of the Dimona nuclear facility. [36] The inspections at Dimona were tightly controlled by the Israelis, and restricted to the first floor of the facility. U.S. inspectors were not allowed to bring their own technical instruments, take measurements, or see the control room, instead being shown a mock-up. It was later learned that the Israelis went so far as to wall-up elevator banks down to the underground reprocessing facility in order to evade discovery. [37] When inspections ended in 1969, the visits had not produced any evidence of weapons-related activity or a plutonium-reprocessing facility, but inspectors remained highly suspicious of illicit activities. [38]

In the crisis leading up to the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel is now believed to have rushed to assemble its first three rudimentary, but deliverable, nuclear explosive devices. [39] In an interview published in 2011, former chief of staff Zvi Zur (Chera) acknowledged that Israel in those days “checked what could be done” in the nuclear field. [40] Shimon Peres hinted decades later, when he was no longer in government, that he proposed a demonstrative test of the new nuclear capability for deterrent purposes, but the Levi Eshkol government ultimately abstained. [41] Prime Minister Eshkol held fast to the pledge he made in March 1965 that “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Arab-Israel area.” [42] The Israeli leadership understood that introducing its nascent nuclear capability at that time would have been a tremendous gamble without clear political or military benefits. [43]

Late 1960s to 1973: From Nuclear Ambiguity to Nuclear Opacity

It was in the period 1967-70 that Israel gradually shifted from a posture of “nuclear ambiguity” to a more subtle posture of “nuclear opacity,” the posture Israel still maintains today. [44] As Cohen and Frankel explain it, nuclear opacity is not an issue of “uncertainty” regarding Israel’s nuclear capabilities, but rather “the result of a political, even cultural, refusal to incorporate its [Israel’s] nuclear status into its ongoing political and military practices and thinking.” [45] Two major events during this period can be viewed as facilitating this transition: the introduction of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 and the secret Nixon-Meir deal in September 1969.

The advent of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, co-sponsored and signed by the United States in the summer of 1968, reshaped the U.S.-Israeli dialogue on the nuclear issue. By November 1968, against the background of strong U.S. pressure to join the NPT – a demand linked to the first sale of Phantom aircraft to Israel – Israel conditioned its signature on the following preconditions: provision of a positive security assurance from the United States, especially against the Soviet Union; guaranteed long-term supply of U.S. conventional arms to Israel; and establishment of a link between Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories to regional peace. [46] These were conditions Israel likely knew the United States could not meet. These preconditions effectively told the Johnson administration that Israel’s security interests did not permit it to join the NPT. [47] Ultimately, President Johnson approved the Phantom deal without linking the sale to an Israeli concession on the NPT issue. [48]

Richard Nixon’s ascendancy to the U.S. presidency all but ended American pressure on Israel to sign the NPT and on its nuclear program at large. President Johnson had submitted the NPT to the U.S. Senate for ratification, and while Nixon had his reservations about the treaty, he did not veto its ratification. His administration, however, had no intention of pressuring any U.S. allies into signing the treaty, including Israel. [49] In September 1969, Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir reached a secret understanding, known as the Nixon-Meir deal, whereby Israel vowed not to declare or test its nuclear weapon capability and in exchange the United States agreed to stop inspections and not to pressure Israel to sign the NPT or put limits on the Israeli nuclear program. [50]

By this time, the U.S. intelligence community recognized quietly that Israel had developed nuclear weapons, or at least had obtained all the necessary components to construct one on short notice. [51] Israel is believed to have deployed its first nuclear-capable ballistic missile around 1973. [52] The 1973 Yom Kippur War thoroughly tested Israel’s resolve to maintain nuclear opacity. Israeli Defense Minister Dayan is thought to have proposed demonstrating the country’s nuclear capability, and took some actions to place the nuclear forces on “strategic alert.” [53] However, Prime Minister Golda Meir, who had the ultimate authority, decided against demonstrating Israel’s nuclear capability because she did not believe Israel’s survival was at stake. The crisis delimited Israel’s nuclear posture to use only under the gravest of circumstances—an imminent existential threat. [54]

1974 to 1991: Entrenchment of Nuclear Opacity and the Begin Doctrine

Throughout the 1970s Israel improved its operational nuclear arsenal both quantitatively and qualitatively, perhaps to the point of developing a two-stage nuclear weapon. [55] In 1975, news reports claimed U.S. intelligence analysts believed Israel to have produced more than 10 nuclear weapons, as well as the aircraft and missiles to deliver them. [56] Israel had received 10 tons of uranium yellowcake under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards from South Africa in 1965 and continued to receive regular shipments of yellowcake that were stored in Israel and subject to yearly inspections by the South African Atomic Energy Board. [57] In 1976, the two countries reached an agreement to remove these bilateral safeguards – freeing an additional 500 tons of uranium for use in Israel’s plutonium production reactor at Dimona – and South Africa sold an additional 100 tons of uranium to Israel in exchange for 30 grams of tritium. [58]

On 22 September 1979, a U.S. Vela satellite detected a double flash of light hundreds of miles off the eastern coast of South Africa. Double flashes are associated with nuclear detonations, where the initial fireball of a nuclear explosion is “rapidly overtaken by expanding hydrodynamic shock wave,” which hides the fireball. [59] A declassified U.S. National Security Council report from October 1979 stated that the intelligence community “ha[d] high confidence, after intense technical scrutiny of satellite data, that a low yield atmospheric nuclear explosion occurred.” [60] There was no official consensus on who conducted the nuclear explosion, but some U.S. officials admitted that they privately believed that Israel was responsible. [61] Avner Cohen argues that Israel, if indeed developing a thermonuclear weapon, had strong motivation to test in 1979, as development of a two-stage nuclear device typically requires testing in order to ensure the functioning of the trigger (or primary). [62]

Israel added another dimension to its nuclear posture when it carried out a preemptive strike, codenamed Operation Opera, on Iraq’s Osiraq reactor on 7 June 1981. The Israeli government argued that the nearly completed 70 MWt Osiraq reactor had been designed for weapons purposes, and that the strike therefore preempted future peril to the state of Israel. [63] Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin explicitly stated the strike was not an anomaly, but instead called the event “a precedent for every future government in Israel.” [64] Israel’s preventive strike counter-proliferation policy became commonly known as the Begin Doctrine and it still remains a feature of Israeli security planning three decades later. [65]

On 5 October 1986, the Sunday Times published Mordechai Vanunu’s account of the nuclear activities at Israel’s top-secret Dimona facility. [66] The former Dimona technician’s revelations challenged the steadfastness of nuclear opacity. Vanunu’s claims reinforced some of the U.S. intelligence community’s suspicions, such as the fact that Israel had expanded the cooling capacity of the Dimona reactor. His testimony also confirmed the existence of the long-suspected reprocessing plant, as well the layout of subterranean levels at Dimona. [67] The credibility of Vanunu’s account was strengthened by the 58 photographs he took of equipment, such as a full-scale model of a hydrogen bomb and glove boxes where plutonium discs were fashioned into pits. [68] Based on his revelations, some experts estimated that Israel had built between 300 and 400 nuclear weapons of varying yields and complexity. [69]

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Vanunu testimony was how little impact it had on nuclear opacity, both in Israel itself and in the region. Within Israel, while the Vanunu affair was dramatic and unprecedented—never before had anyone from within the nuclear program dared to shatter the Israeli societal taboo over the subject—the revelations hardly weakened that taboo. On the contrary, the revelations highlighted the taboo’s strength. As shocking as they were, they did not generate any “serious questioning of Israel’s nuclear program.” [70] Nor did the international community turn the episode into a political issue. Instead of shattering Israel’s nuclear opacity, the Vanunu affair provided further credence to unconfirmed reports of Israel’s possession of a formidable nuclear deterrent. [71]

By the time of the Gulf War in 1991, the enduring consequences of Israel’s decision to bomb the Iraqi Osiraq reactor became apparent. Within months after the destruction of Osiraq, Iraq had secretly revived its nuclear program, made it more aggressive, and literally and metaphorically took it underground. Ironically, the great military success of Israel in executing Operation Opera likely contributed to Israel’s failure in identifying the revived Iraqi nuclear program, which was much more extensive and advanced than it had been in June 1981. [72] Subsequent UNSCOM inspections would determine that Iraq was vigorously pursuing a nuclear weapon capability, and during the months before war even initiated a “crash program” to build a nuclear device. [73]

It is widely believed that during the Gulf War, Israel put its strategic forces on alert in response to concerns that Iraq might use chemical weaponsagainst Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir issued veiled nuclear threats toward Iraq, stating “all those who threaten us should know that whoever dares strike Israel will be struck hard and in the most severe way,” adding that “Israel has a very strong deterrent capability.” [74]

1991-2007: Monopoly Maintained – From Iraq to Syria

While the Gulf War ended without Israel having to openly reveal its nuclear deterrent, the conflict had a definite impact on Israel’s security calculus. The failure to detect Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in addition to Iran’s renewed interest in nuclear power in the 1990s played a significant role in Israel’s decision to develop a sea-based second-strike capability. [75] Israel’s German-built diesel-powered Dolphin-class submarines are widely assumed to have the capability to deploy nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. [76] Purportedly, the submarine-launched cruise missiles are indigenous to Israel and assembled after the subs arrive from Germany. Israel commissioned its first three submarines in 1999-2000; this was believed to be enough to maintain a continuous at-sea deterrent. [77] Nonetheless, in November 2005 the outgoing German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder approved the sale of the fourth and fifth Dolphin-class submarines for a total of $1.17 billion, with a third of this cost to be financed by the German government. [78] The first of these was delivered to the Israeli Navy in May 2012 and the other is expected in 2013. [79] Germany and Israel also agreed to a sixth Dolphin submarine sale in February 2012. [80] Based on these developments, Israel has in effect developed a nuclear triad, completed by its Jericho ballistic missiles and modified fighter jets. [81]

During the 1990s there was increasing rhetoric regarding the establishment of a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (MEWMDFZ). Proposals for a Nuclear-Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) in the region had been around since 1974, but the idea of a MEWMDFZ did not appear until Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak proposed it in 1990. [82] The issue gained further momentum at the 1995 NPT Review Conference when states parties adopted the Resolution on the Middle East calling upon all states in the region to accede to the NPT and place their nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards. [83] Israel’s official position on the establishment of a Middle East WMD-Free Zone has remain unchanged since 1990 – Tel Aviv insists that regional peace is a precondition to any such agreement, while the Arab states have generally asserted that peace will only be possible after Israel has renounced the right to possess nuclear weapons. [84] Israel has also resisted pressure from Arab states to accede to the NPT and accept full-scope IAEA safeguards prior to a comprehensive peace settlement. [85]

Israel signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on 25 September 1996, but has not yet ratified the treaty. The Israelis operate two auxiliary seismic stations for CTBT nuclear test monitoring at Eilath and Mount Meron, along with a planned radionuclide facility at the Soreq Nuclear Research Center to detect nuclear tests. [86] Israel chose not join the consensus at the Conference on Disarmament in August 1998 to begin negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), thereby derailing the issue singlehandedly. At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated “we will never sign the [FMCT] treaty, and do not delude yourselves – no pressure will help.” [87]

The initiation of the U.S.-India nuclear deal in 2005 soon led Israel to explore seeking a similar pact with the United States. The unique arrangement circumvented U.S. law and Nuclear Supplier’s Group guidelines by providing India with access to peaceful nuclear assistance in the absence of both NPT membership and comprehensive IAEA safeguards. [88] Israel believed it too deserved such an arrangement based on its track record of responsibility in the nuclear domain. However, the George W. Bush administration and subsequently the Obama administration chose to deny Israel a similar arrangement. [89]

On 6 September 2007, Israel carried out a preventive air strike, subsequently to be known as Operation Orchard, against a facility suspected to be a Syrian nuclear reactor near Al-Kibar. Key intelligence, including ground photos of the facility, obtained in Vienna from the computer of the head of the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria, suggested that the reactor was configured for producing plutonium and built with close North Korean assistance. [90] Following top-level consultations with the Bush Administration, and realizing that the United states was not willing to take military action on its own, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to adhere to the 1981 Begin Doctrine and unilaterally strike to prevent a Syrian nuclear weapons capability, despite serious concerns about Syrian retaliation. [91] However, in stark contrast to the 1981 Osiraq raid, the airstrike against Syria did not elicit international outcry. One primary reason is that Israel maintained total and complete silence regarding the attack, and Syria covered up its activities at the site and did not cooperate fully with the IAEA, which nonetheless concluded in 2011 that the destroyed building was “very likely a nuclear reactor.” [92] The international silence may have been a tacit recognition of the inevitability of preemptive attacks on “clandestine nuclear programs in their early stages.” [93] If true, the Begin Doctrine has undoubtedly played a role in shaping this global perception.

2008-Present: Iran and Beyond

In recent years there has been essentially only one issue dominating the Israeli nuclear discourse: the significance of the Iranian nuclear program to Israel and how Israel should respond to that program. While the Iranian nuclear issue was addressed with a great deal of circumspection and caution during the past decade with Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert as prime ministers (2001-2009), under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the Iranian nuclear issue has openly turned into the nation’s number one security issue. [94] Prime Minister Netanyahu, along with his key cabinet ministers, such as Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon, has repeatedly referred to a nuclear Iran (even a nuclear-capable Iran) as unacceptable and a threat to the existence of Israel. [95]

While virtually all Israelis agree that Iran should be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, there is an ongoing bitter debate among policymakers on how best to achieve this goal. So far, the Israeli government has been willing to allow the U.S. and Europe to implement economic sanctions and pursue diplomatic solutions, while also carrying out covert operations designed to stall Iran’s nuclear program. Such actions reportedly include measures to disrupt Iran’s equipment supply networks; computer viruses, such as the so-called Stuxnet and Flame viruses believed to be jointly developed with the United States to infect Iran’s Natanz Enrichment Complex; and assassinations of key Iranian scientists. [96] Although these operations have probably caused Iran some delays, Iran has continued to install centrifuges and produce progressively more low-enriched uranium (LEU). [97]

Given the perceived severity of the Iranian nuclear threat and inefficacy of alternative measures, some senior Israeli officials have increasingly called for military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. In an interview in November 2011, Minister of Defense Barak argued that the timescale for Iran to reach a “zone of immunity” – wherein military action would be ineffective due to redundancy of nuclear sites – could be measured in months rather than years. [98] A strike would incur many risks, including the strong likelihood that Iran could respond with missile attacks against Israel, directly or through proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. However, proponents of force argue that the consequences of a nuclear Iran – including a shift in the balance of power, protection for “militant proxies,” and further proliferation in the Middle East – would be worse, and action must be taken soon. [99] As Ya’alon put it, “it is preferable to pay the steep price of war than to allow Iran to acquire military nuclear capability.” [100] This is what has become known in Israel as the dilemma of “bomb or bombing” – whether to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear bomb, or bomb Iran to prevent this possibility. Since late 2011 there have been a number of reports claiming that Netanyahu and Barak had already asked for the cabinet to authorize the use of force against Iran. [101] Those reports were denied in Israel, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta noted in August 2012 that the United States believes that Israel has not made such a decision. [102]

Despite these calls for action, many in the Israeli defense establishment have come out against a military option for various reasons. Former Mossad head Meir Dagan asserted that an attack against Iran would be “stupid” because it would only delay Iran’s nuclear program and cause retaliatory attacks that could lead to a regional war. [103] Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt. General Benny Gantz stated that the Iranian leadership is “rational,” implying that Iran would not take the risk of actually producing nuclear weapons. [104] And Former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi suggested that the Iranian threat is not as imminent as Netanyahu portrays it, and that Israel should continue the path of sanctions and covert operations rather than resort to military force. [105] In addition, some outside analysts believe that Iran has not yet made a political decision to build a nuclear weapon, and that an attack would actually engender support for the Iranian regime and spur an increased commitment to develop the bomb. [106]

Militarily, an airstrike would require flying long distances, evading Iranian air defenses, and targeting hardened or underground facilities. [107] Former U.S. CIA Director Michael Hayden said such a mission was “beyond the capacity” of Israel, although Israeli news reports argued that it would be difficult but feasible. [108] Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed the concern that an Israeli action could “clearly delay, but probably not destroy, Iran’s nuclear program.” [109] Given this challenge, Shimon Peres – currently serving as Israel’s (largely ceremonial) president – and others have argued that Israel should not act alone, but rather should cooperate with the United States, which has more advanced military capabilities. [110]

Although the U.S. has not taken “any option off the table,” to preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon, the Obama administration has declined Netanyahu’s calls to declare a “red line” that would automatically lead to military action. [111] Furthermore, the two countries have different perceptions of what a “red line” might be. The Obama administration sees an Iranian nuclear weapon as unacceptable, but believes that Iran has not made the decision to produce nuclear weapons so there should is still be time for sanctions and diplomatic measures. [112] Israeli officials, on the other hand, argue that a “red line” should be drawn at a nuclear capability – defined vaguely in terms of “a stage in the enrichment or other nuclear activities that they cannot cross.” [113] Israeli Minster of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz equates the “red line” to Iran’s possession of 250-300 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent. [114] As of May 2014, Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched U-235 is 56 kg. [115] Israel not been enthusiastic about the P5+1 brokered Iran interim deal, however during the time of the negotiation Israel has kept a low profile in terms of its public statements on the Iranian nuclear deal. As negotiations on the Iranian comprehensive deal progress, Israel is becoming increasingly concerned that the deal will not prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program in secret while simultaneously making it more difficult for the United States to verify its nonproliferation compliance. [116]

Recent Diplomatic Developments: The MEWMDFZ Conference

The 2010 NPT Review Conference’s consensus final document singled out “the importance of Israel’s accession to the Treaty” and “the importance of a process leading to full implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East,” and as such stated, “The Secretary-General of the United Nations and the co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution, in consultation with the States of the region, will convene a conference in 2012, to be attended by all States of the Middle East, on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the States of the region, and with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon States.” [117]

The impetus for the conference arose out of a compromise between the United States and Egypt to achieve consensus on a final document at the RevCon. [118] Subsequently, Finnish Under-Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava was chosen by the three NPT custodians as the conference facilitator and Finland was named as the host country for the conference, tentatively planned for December 2012. [119] On 23 November 2012, the U.S. Department of State issued a press release postponing the conference indefinitely. [120] Tel Aviv continues to insist on delinking the conference from the NPT Review Conference (as Israel is not an NPT party), and linking firmly the issue of a MEWMDFZ with peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, while the Arab states still conversely insist on Israeli nuclear disarmament as one of the conditions for regional peace. [121] On 29 April 2013, Egypt protested the postponement of the conference, and in particular what it referred to as Israel’s “obstruction,” by walking out of the NPT Preparatory Committee Meeting in Geneva. [122] As of May 2014, the impasse over the MEWMDFZ has not been resolved and no time has been set for a conference.

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