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International Security 28.2 (2003) 44-77

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The Mixed Blessing of Israel's Nuclear Policy

Zeev Maoz

Most observers seem to agree on three issues regarding Israel's nuclear policy. First, Israel's acquisition of a significant nuclear capability occurred over a relatively long period of time. Second, its policy of nuclear ambiguity has been balanced and sound, enabling Israel to develop a nuclear arsenal while maintaining close relations with the United States and other countries committed to nuclear nonproliferation. Third, and most important, Israel's decision to build a nuclear capability while publicly adhering to a policy of nuclear ambiguity has proven effective, perhaps exceeding even the expectations of the country's founders.

According to the conventional wisdom, which not only appears in much of the scholarly literature but also reflects the predominant belief within the Israeli policy and security communities, Israel's nuclear policy has accomplished three fundamental objectives. First, as its creators anticipated, the policy has deterred an all-out Arab attack since the 1967 Six Day War. Second, it has been instrumental in modifying the military objectives of Israel's adversaries, forcing them to shift their operational planning to limited war scenarios. Third, by helping to bring Arab states to the negotiating table, it has provided impetus to the conclusion of several peace treaties.

On closer inspection, however, these conclusions require fundamental revision. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, I argue that the balance sheet of Israel's nuclear policy is decidedly negative: Not only did the policy fail to deter Arab attacks in 1973 and 1991, but it has been unrelated or only marginally [End Page 44] related to Arab decisions to make peace with the Jewish state. Moreover, the policy has had two major adverse side effects, the magnitude of which is only now becoming clear in light of developments in the Middle East in the last decade. First, the policy has been instrumental in fueling a nonconventional arms race in the region. Second, it has had negative implications for Israel's democracy and political control of national security affairs. Given these findings, I argue that Israel should refocus its nuclear policy to explore ways to leverage its nuclear capability to bring about regional agreement on a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East.

This study is organized as follows: First, I review the major arguments suggesting the continued success of Israel's nuclear policy. I present the evidence on which these arguments are based and show why it is tautological, nonexistent, weak, or only marginally relevant. Second, I examine the policy's anti- democratic implications. Finally, I derive policy implications for the future of Israeli nuclear deterrence and arms control policy.

Israel's Nuclear Policy: Arguments, Data, and Problems

Any policy evaluation must begin with a clear conception of the underlying goals of that policy. In light of these goals, it is then possible to assess whether and to what extent the policy has achieved its stated objectives. It is also necessary, however, to consider the policy's side effects—that is, outcomes other than the policy's declared aims. 1 A key problem in analyzing a state's strategic decisionmaking involves efforts to determine the impact of a counterfactual policy on a given historical process. 2 Despite this difficulty, once the goals and side effects of a policy are specified, an evaluation becomes more feasible (although a definitive assessment may remain beyond reach). Finally, as with administering medicine to a patient, an assessment of whether the medicine is doing more harm than good is essential.

In evaluating Israel's nuclear program, it is useful to discuss its political origins. Following the Sinai/Suez War of 1956, the French government agreed [End Page 45] to supply Israel with a nuclear reactor and natural uranium. The reactor was built secretly near the city of Dimona in southern Israel. Initial details of its existence were revealed in 1961, when the Israeli government announced that the facility would focus on nonmilitary nuclear research. Meanwhile, Israeli policymakers debated the pros and cons of developing a nuclear weapons...


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