In a secret special national intelligence estimate (SNIE) in 1960, the American intelligence community concluded that “possession of a nuclear weapon capability . . . would clearly give Israel a greater sense of security, self-confidence, and assertiveness.” For almost half a century since, Israel has possessed a nuclear-weapons monopoly in the Middle East, a monopoly it has fought hard to preserve.
Israel has never acknowledged publicly that it is a nuclear-weapons state, but it has also never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Now the Arabs, led by Egypt, are demanding that Israel do so or they will sabotage the future of the NPT regime. They rightly argue that Washington has a double standard when it comes to Israel’s bomb: the NPT applies to all but Israel. Indeed, every Israeli prime minister since David Ben-Gurion has deliberately taken an evasive posture on the issue because they do not want to admit what everyone knows. Now that era may be coming to an end, raising fundamental questions about Israel’s strategic situation in the region.
Perhaps never before has the government in Jerusalem felt under greater threat than with the Iranian atomic program. The temptation is to attack. It is an exercise in futility with likely disastrous results. The United States should take steps to assure Israel’s deterrence remains strong, as this is the only way to both prevent an Israeli assault on Iran in the short term and to contain Tehran in the future.
For anyone in doubt of Israel’s nuclear capabilities, first a few facts. Israel’s longtime pursuit of the bomb is fairly well known; recent scholarship in Israel has clarified the details further still.