For Now, Stay Ambiguous

Israel's nuclear program and the prevailing assessment in the international community that Israel has nuclear weapons have granted it significant advantages.

Israel's Atomic Energy Commission, in conjunction with other agencies, has held discussions over the last few months on how to respond to developments on the international scene in general, and in the U.S. administration in particular, which suggest that Israel may be pressured over the nuclear issue in the future.

Dimona nuclear power plant

Israel's nuclear policy is a taboo. Just a handful of decision makers are party to discussions on the matter; they include the prime minister, the defense minister, members of the security cabinet, and a few Knesset members from the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

The Atomic Energy Commission is under the government's orders. But because of the enormous amount of information it holds, it also advises the prime minister, and on the basis of its recommendations, policy is made. This is an unhealthy situation, and it conflicts with the values by which a democracy must operate.

However, the truth is that the absence of discourse stems not only from the wish of a few officials to suppress all public debate, but also from the fact that there has been little public interest in such a discussion. It is a complex issue that requires scientific and technological acumen.

Israel's nuclear program and the prevailing assessment in the international community that Israel has nuclear weapons have granted it significant advantages. In addition to conferring political stature, they have put it at the forefront of technological advancement. However, the main reason Israel decided back in the early 1950s to develop a nuclear program was deterrence.

Then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion and his aides believed that a nuclear potential would deter Arab states from efforts to destroy Israel. Those who believe that the nuclear deterrent justified itself base their assessment on Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's decision to initiate only a limited war against Israel in 1973, and then to agree on peace, on the assumption that the presumed existence of an Israeli nuclear arsenal would make it impossible to destroy it. The other example they point to is Saddam Hussein's decision not to launch missiles with chemical warheads at Israel in 1991. Neither prove the correctness of the deterrence thesis, but they do bolster its likelihood.

Over the past year, some Israeli analysts and experts have argued that Israel must alter its nuclear policy - namely, its famous "nuclear ambiguity," which was formulated by Shimon Peres in a moment of inspiration. Peres declared that Israel would not be the first country to introduce nuclear arms into the Middle East. Since then, however, no one has believed Israel. Therefore, argue those who support change, the old policy does not reflect reality.

Others propose that Israel make various gestures en route to changing its policy of ambiguity - for example, agreeing to talks on a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East, ratifying the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, agreeing to join the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (if and when it is adopted ), or declaring that it will not be the first to actualize its nuclear potential (as opposed to the declaration that underlies its ambiguity policy: that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region ).

All these are steps that ought to be considered in the future, but now is not the right time to alter Israel's policy. Any declaration that could be interpreted as a change in the policy of nuclear ambiguity would play into Iran's hands. It would divert attention from Tehran's nuclear program and focus attention on Jerusalem, thus weakening the American efforts to impose sanctions on Iran.

In short, its results would be the opposite of those desired by supporters of change. Instead of averting pressure on Israel, this would only make it more intense.