Israel’s Well-Known Nuclear Secret: Best to Stay with the Policy of “Don’t Show, Don’t Tell”


[Yossi Melman, co-author of Every Spy a Prince and the new history of Israeli espionage and security, Spies Against Armageddon, wrote this article for the website of the 24-hour privately owned news channel that broadcasts in English, French, and Arabic from Tel Aviv — on the internet at]

Israel recently appointed a new ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna – Merav Zafari-Odiz, a senior official of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC).

She faces three main tasks:

First, to be Israel’s eyes and ears at the IAEA, which is a hub for important information on Iran’s nuclear program. Secondly, to lead Israeli diplomatic efforts at the IAEA and other UN organs aimed at keeping the diplomatic pressure and the economic sanctions on Iran.

Her third, and most sensitive assignment, will be to repel the growing demands that Israel join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to counter the diplomatic efforts to establish a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone (NFZ).

This has been a traditional Arab demand raised in almost every IAEA and UN forums. The most vocal on this topic is, naturally, Iran which argues that the international community is picking on it while ignoring Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

But when Russia’s President Vladimir Putin talked recently about Israel being a nuclear power, Israeli officials began to be more concerned.

Given this international discourse, more and more Israeli commentators are suggesting that Israel should change its nuclear policy, known as “nuclear ambiguity” or “nuclear opacity.”

The policy was defined in April 1963 by Shimon Peres, then deputy director of the ministry of defense – three years after France completed construction of a plutonium producing nuclear reactor in Dimona. During a visit to the White House, Peres was taken by surprise when President John F. Kennedy told him he was very concerned about Israel’s nuclear potential. Peres did not blink and intuitively responded with a sentence which anchored Israel’s official position on the subject. “I can tell you clearly that we shall not be the ones to introduce nuclear weapons into the area. We will not be the first to do so.”

That was a rhetorical stroke of genius designed to divert Kennedy’s pressure. Since then, for five decades, Israeli governments continue to use the phrase.

Surely it is an out and out falsehood. But it helps Israel get off the hook.

The entire world knows that Israel has nuclear bombs – estimates vary from 80 to 200 warheads. But Israeli officials neither confirm nor deny it.

Recent accounts based on documents from Israel’s state archives, testimonies of former officials and foreign publications reveal that Israeli authorities came close twice to using “the bomb.”

The first time was in the tense crisis between Israel and the Arab world in the days leading to the June 1967 Six Day War. Feeling militarily threatened, some in the military and scientific community suggested “parading” the bomb in order to deter the enemy. The government rejected the idea.

The second occasion was the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 — this week 40 years ago.

Taken by surprise in the face of a coordinated attack by the Egyptian and Syrian armies, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan panicked. He argued that a defeat would mean “the end of the Third Temple” and suggested making the nuclear arsenal “operational.” Luckily Prime Minister Golda Meir and military chief of staff, General David (“Dado”) Elazar, rejected the idea.

The calls to abandon the nuclear ambiguity are not wise, especially not now when Israel and the international community are trying to force Iran to dismantle its nuclear program. A declaration at this stage by Israel that it is a nuclear power will only harden Iran’s stand and increase its desire to assemble a bomb.

Nuclear ambiguity is one of the cleverest, most sophisticated and imaginative strategic concepts ever created in Israel. It has enabled Israel to develop a deterrent force against its enemies, weakened their desire to annihilate the Jewish state and brought them to the realization that even if they wanted to, they would not succeed.

No less important, this policy helps maintain the unique strategic alliance with the United States. Israel has several verbal and tacit understandings with America, crystallized over decades of meetings between Israeli prime ministers and US presidents. These understandings can be summed up in the phrase: don’t ask, don’t tell. If Israel does not talk about its nuclear capabilities, certainly does not boast about them, the US does not ask too many questions. The practical result is that the United States has never pressed Israel to join the NPT, meaning to dismantle its nuclear weapons, and has consistently repelled international effort to force Israel to do so.

October 14, 2013

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