Text size

The effectiveness and success of Israel's nuclear policy could be attributed to the high degree of responsibility and restraint exhibited by decision makers, even at times when the state faced threats that were deemed existential in nature.

Even at the start of the Yom Kippur War, when Moshe Dayan feared for Israel's fate and considered ordering the army to arm the doomsday systems, this was done modestly and without fanfare or proclamations. To Prime Minister Golda Meir's credit, she immediately ordered Dayan to "forget" the idea of activating the nuclear arsenal, which further contributed to the image of a nuclearly responsible Israel. Similarly, in the Gulf War, when, according to foreign sources, Israel weighed the idea of using nonconventional weapons, the prime minister and his senior ministers maintained restraint and did not issue any open threats.

The advantages of this policy, called "nuclear ambiguity," were numerous. Deterrence was attained without any need to openly threaten the use of weapons whose existence Israel has never acknowledged; American and international sanctions, which would have been imposed had Israel openly declared the existence of nuclear arms or conducted nuclear tests, were sidestepped; Israel was seen around the world as being a responsible state, with levelheaded leadership - this prevented the exertion of pressure on Israel to disarm, as is the case for Iran and North Korea.

Nevertheless, the Sharon government has in recent months seemed to be stretching the envelope of its militant policy in the war against the Palestinians, as reflected by the air strike in Syria. The policy envelope has been stretched to include the nuclear realm, as well. Although only hinted at, of course, the nuclear threat has become an increasingly legitimate device employed by Israeli decision makers. This is not only a mistake; it is liable to erode the successes of the time-honored nuclear policy. Not only does increased use of the threat not contribute to deterrence, it testifies to a lack of good judgment and a dangerous predisposition for panic. Regrettably, those issuing the threats do not understand the critical difference between threatening the deployment of conventional military force and crossing the threshold and making nuclear threats.

So when Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatens to bomb the Aswan Dam and the prime minister fails to admonish him, Israel's image as a state with sensible leadership is further eroded. On the eve of the war in Iraq, thick hints were again leaked about Israel's nuclear potential. The intention was to strengthen Israel's deterrent capacity, but in essence it was an admission that the Israeli leadership is not able to withstand even the most minimal threat of Iraqi nonconventional warfare, even though the probability of their making good on the threat was practically nil. In the end, use of the nuclear threat did serious harm to Israel's image of deterrence, as it was obvious that its leadership lacked self-confidence and was not demonstrating the steadfastness that is the requisite basis for the success of any deterrence.

The latest leak, to The Los Angeles Times, should be judged against this background. The report alleges that Israel has adapted American-made cruise missiles to carry nuclear warheads that would be launched by submarine. According to the report, the "Harpoon" missiles, which are designed for sea-to-sea warfare, have been converted for use as nuclear-tipped missiles with a long-range sea-to-land capacity. Of course, this is not the first leak about the building of an Israeli "second-strike capacity" through the use of Dolphin-class submarines. That same day, the German weekly Der Spiegel published a report that Israel plans to launch an air-force attack on Iran's nuclear sites.

Is this an Israeli attempt to put pressure on Iran by trying to frighten it? If so, it is misguided. It is obvious that Iran will not liquidate its nuclear program merely because its leaders suddenly hear that Israel has nuclear missiles aboard its submarines. The only chance of the Iranians abandoning their development of nuclear arms is through international pressure, led by the United States. In fact, leaks about Israel's nuclear capability and a threatened attack on Iran's nuclear facilities hurt the chances of this scenario unfolding. The leaks only serve to provide the Iranians with the best argument of all: Why should they stop their nuclear program when another state in the Middle East has nuclear arms and is threatening to attack Iran? First deal with Israel's nuclear facilities, which are not under international supervision, the Iranians will say.

Our decision makers are inclined to believe that presenting Israel as a "lunatic state" will help deter its enemies. This is almost certainly not true in the face of conventional threats, but it does real harm when one moves into the nuclear realm. Anyone who believes that making Israel the nuclear neighborhood bully will strengthen its image of deterrence is liable to find that it could do lethal harm to its nuclear deterrence, weaken its international status, and invite pressure on itself in the nuclear realm.