The Nuclear Threat to Israel's Economy

One wonders if, under the nose of Israeli society, there hasn’t sprung up another predatory monster of wasteful spending, inflated salaries and sky-high pensions.

Uri Misgav
Uri Misgav
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The nuclear power plant in Dimona
The nuclear power plant in DimonaCredit: Archive
Uri Misgav
Uri Misgav

Defense Ministry director general Dan Harel recently revealed that the 2014 outlay for “special means” is 4.5 billion shekels ($1.3 billion) and that it’s expected to grow next year by 600 million shekels. Haaretz Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn, writing in this newspaper on June 3, derived from this information that in closed rooms, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows how to be decisive. But the emphasis shouldn’t be on the prime minister’s decision-making abilities, but on the closed rooms. Given these scary numbers, one suspects that the heavy veil of secrecy Israel imposes on its nuclear capabilities has nothing to do with security, but simply enables an absurd budget free-for-all.

Israel has never officially admitted that it has a nuclear military option, which has choked off any effort to conduct a debate about it. How can one discuss something without information? When such a debate emerges here and there, it focuses on the moral issue: Is it right for Israel to maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons when it keeps trying to prevent other countries from acquiring the bomb? But that’s a debate that’s limited from the start to the philosophical realm, and is in any case perceived as being relegated to bleeding-heart pacifists from Israel’s leftmost fringe. The real debate, the one that should occupy every responsible and concerned citizen, is the debate on quantity-cost-benefit. The right question to ask is not necessarily whether Israel needs an atom bomb, but how many bombs it needs.

Foreign sources over the past decade have cited various numbers when assessing Israel’s arsenal. If you single out the most serious estimates, the range is between 75 and 200 bombs. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter claimed in 2008 that there were 150. Perhaps he was exaggerating. The Pentagon in 1999 said there were only 80. Nuclear researchers Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris believe that in 1999 there were just 70 bombs, and only in 2004 did the number reach 80. They also claim that during that year Israel decided to stop the production of new bombs but that it retains fissile material sufficient for anywhere from 115 to 190 warheads, should the need arise.

But what need are we referring to? Under what scenario did Israel’s nuclear planners think 70 or 80 bombs wouldn’t be enough? And why over the years did it produce so many bombs, even as it was observing the dynamics (crazy as they were) of the Cold War being conducted by the two world powers? Even if we assume there’s a need to disperse means among several geographic locations and for the simultaneous arming of several planes and submarines to allow for the famous “second strike” option, where does one draw the line? For how many first or second strikes does a small country have to prepare?

Benn, in his article, described the ongoing investment of billions as reflecting the prime minister’s priorities: Strengthening deterrence, or, as he put it, “a strategic insurance policy.” But nuclear deterrence can be achieved with only one bomb, and Israel in any case isn’t revealing how many it has. It’s akin to a man taking out 80 life insurance policies. It looks like an illogical decision. There are apparently people who made a lot of money out of this.

We’re not just talking about the possibility of a historic economic blunder. There’s a problem right now. Based on publications here and abroad, if 10 years ago, Israel had stopped making new bombs, then is it possible that storage, upkeep and maintaining readiness would cost 4.5 billion shekels a year? And if production has indeed stopped, then why is a budget increase of 13 percent slated for next year? One wonders if, under the nose of Israeli society, under the wings of the director of security of the defense establishment and out of fear of the Holy of Holies, there hasn’t sprung up another predatory monster of wasteful spending, inflated salaries and sky-high pensions.

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