Israeli Nuclear Ambiguity

Josh Lange
September 25, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Aerial view of the Dimona power plant from the 1960's. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Israel is one of several countries that is suspected of having nuclear weapons but has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The country's politicians have asserted that they will not sign the NPT Treaty until a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is reached. [1] While some criticize Israel for its nuclear policy, often citing Israel's highly classified Negev Nuclear Research Facility in Dimona as an indication of the violation of the NPT (Fig. 1), Israeli officials believe that nuclear ambiguity is advantageous for Israel. There are various reasons for this policy, but the relevant factors generally fall into two categories: first the defense advantage that nuclear weapons offer and second, the Israel's desire to preserve its relationship with America. In this report I will detail some of the arguments for this nuclear opacity.

Strategic Deterrence

In the wake of the Holocaust, Israel demonstrated the determined desire to acquire nuclear weapons. In the early years following Israel's Independence in 1948, wars with the surrounding countries and the constant threat of destruction of the newly established country further augmented Israeli leaders' nuclear desires. [2] Given its size and unique geopolitical location, threat of nuclear attack is far more palpable for Israel, and the best deterrent for an attack of that scale is, of course, a counterattack. Professor Guy Ziv, a prominent Arab-Israeli conflict researcher, credited Israel's nuclear ambiguity with being a key factor in the abandonment of Arab leaders goal, if not their dream, of destroying the Jewish State. [3] Perhaps the most tangible example of this deterrence was Saddam Hussein's decision to refrain from firing chemical warheads at Israel during the first Gulf War, given that Hussein had expressed awareness of Israel's purported nuclear arsenal.

Neither denying nor admitting possession of a nuclear bomb has been advantageous to Israel for more than just the deterrence offered by a potentially nuclear Israel. Some might argue that Israel's nuclear ambiguity has led to its Arab neighbors growing uncomfortably complacent with a nuclear Israel. [2] For Israel, fewer questions into its nuclear arsenal implies that the deterrence factor of a nuclear threat can continue relatively unhindered.

On of the most important advantages maintaining nuclear ambiguity allows Israel is the ability to partially justify their policy of launching preemptive strikes to inhibit their enemies advances towards nuclear weapons. Known as the Begin Doctrine, this policy was named after former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin who codified Israel's intent to take preemptive action against any of its enemy countries that demonstrate efforts towards nuclear capability. This policy was affirmed after Israel launched an airstrike on a Iraqi nuclear power plant in 1981, known as Operation Opera. Under the presumption that Israel does possess nuclear WMDs, many would delegitimize and protest the double standard of this policy, thus nuclear ambiguity allows this doctrine to continue with less opposition. [3]

America's Aid

Perhaps the greatest advantage that Israel's nuclear ambiguity is the ability to continue its crucial relationship with America. America is Israel's most important ally: America give Israel $3 billion dollars a year in military aid, the most it gives to any country. If Israel were to officially declare itself as a nuclear country not under the umbrella of the NPT all of this aid would possibly be deemed illegal. In August of 2016, a Washington D.C. based NGO filed a lawsuit against the United States government, claiming that its aid to Israel is in violation of two longstanding amendments to the Foreign Aid Act of 1961, called the Symington & Glenn Amendments, which prohibit aid to foreign states that are not recognized by the NPT with nuclear weapon programs. [3] The NGO claimed that America's aid to Israel was in violation of these clauses, and that former-president Obama and his administration were knowingly ignoring the Act. For this reason, Israel's nuclear ambiguity allows the country to avoid complications with the military aid it receives from America.


Israel repeatedly affirms that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. [4] However, the obscurity surrounding their nuclear policy will likely have to change in the future given that it is improbable that Israel can continue its undeclared nuclear status without a compensatory Arab effort. Nonetheless, as Israel continues to benefit from its policy of nuclear ambiguity with relatively minimal resistance, a shift towards a more transparent nuclear policy is unlikely to occur until Israel has determined its national security is no longer a factor in the Middle East's geopolitical reality.

© Josh Lange. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Israel Official Defends Nuclear Ambiguity as 'Strategic Advantage", Haaretz News, 6 May 10.

[2] A. Cohen and M. Miller, "Bringing Israel's Bomb Out of the Basement: Has Nuclear Ambiguity Outlived Its Shelf Life?" Foreign Affairs, 89, No. 5, 30 (September-October 2010).

[3] "G. F. Smith, "Reply in Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss," Document 25, Case 1:16-cv-01610, United States District Court for the District of Columbia, 18 Jan 17.

[4] A. Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (Columbia University Press, 1999), p. 48.