Missiles in the Holy Land

Israel's Nuclear Dilemma
March 24, 1995

Now the Cold War has ended, nuclear strategists are finding life hard. Gone are the academic certainties of mutual assured destruction and credible second strike capabilities. Deterrence theorists can no longer expound endlessly on the rationality of the actors in a post-Chernobyl world, where Russian and American economic strategy is more interesting than their nuclear thinking. Nevertheless, proliferation of weapons, and in particular weapons of mass destruction, is a world-wide concern. Yet even in this arena, the spread of this awesome power has been both slower and more limited than the prophets of doom have forecast.

The overt nuclear powers remain the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. They have each demonstrated a nuclear capability: the United States in 1945, Russia in 1949, Britain in 1952, France in 1958 and China in 1964. In the 30 years since the first Chinese test, only one other country has shown the world that it can successfully cause an atomic explosion: India with its "peaceful nuclear explosion" of 1974. Of the number of other states which are credited with a possible covert nuclear weapon capability, only Israel is universally assumed to have a stockpile, the means of delivery and a credible national nuclear strategy; and all this without a public acknowledgement of its nuclear status. Deterrence theorists can thrill again to the arcane calculus of game theory in the regional security structure of the Middle East.

Yair Evron is professor of international relations at Tel Aviv University, and has examined the nuclear politics of the region in detail. Given the secrecy which surrounds all nuclear matters in Israel, his research is based on the open international literature sources. This could of course mean that speculation is merely being given respectability by being recirculated as fact. Those familiar with the field are unlikely to come to such a verdict. Rather, Evron has carefully assembled a mass of commentary into a coherent and logical story. He makes it clear that he has no personal knowledge, and somewhat surprisingly he mentions the Vanunu story almost obliquely, and leaves the reader to follow up his references to it. Given that he uses the Vanunu revelations as a key event, it would have been helpful to have had them summarised with a commentary.

The book begins with a historical analysis of the development of an Israeli nuclear capability (assessed as perhaps around 100 warheads). Reactions of the Arab states are also considered. The difficulty they have had in procuring their own nuclear weapons is a useful reminder of the efficacy of the counter-proliferation measures which the world community has applied. Despite active pursuit of the nuclear goal, none of Israel's potential enemies managed to achieve a capability.

The author offers the thought that there are two options for the future. International efforts to limit proliferation could be expanded to slow progress yet more. On the other hand a relaxation of such efforts, especially if coupled with an overt Israeli nuclear doctrine, would be a powerful stimulus to the development of an Arab nuclear capability.

We then look at the implications of such proliferation. Would the advent of an Arab nuclear capability lead to greater stability in the region in the same way that mutual deterrence between the superpowers kept the peace? Unfortunately the book predates the current peace process in the region. Evron deduces, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the acquiring of nuclear weapons by some of the Arab states would not improve stability. He is not convinced that Israel's ambiguous nuclear posture was a factor in Iraq's Gulf War tactics.

This brings him to the dilemma in his title. He concludes that "in a situation where the alternatives are either a nuclearized Middle East or a Middle East in which no state (including Israel) has nuclear capability, the latter is preferable". The non-Israeli reader will doubtless find the deduction entirely reasonable. It is however interesting that a leading Israeli academic should come to this view.

The book concludes with an agenda for possible nuclear arms control measures in the region. These are perhaps more easily realised in the emerging new security environment in the Middle East. His hope is that the emergence of a region committed to economic and social development may, in the long run, bring complete denuclearization in the Middle East. That too is perhaps more likely now than when Evron penned the thought.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is commandant of the Royal College of Defence Studies and the author of Can Deterrence Last?

Israel's Nuclear Dilemma

Author - Yair Evron
ISBN - 0 415 10832 2
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00
Pages - 3pp

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