On a late September night in 1979, an American satellite picked up two super-bright flashes in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The next day, then-President Jimmy Carter called a meeting in the Situation Room. Everyone agreed this was a secret nuclear test, but who was responsible?
The first suspect was South Africa since the blast was so close to their shores. But they didn’t have the technology. So the U.S. looked at one of South Africa’s close military allies — a nation technologically advanced enough to stage a massive nuclear test, and secretive enough to pull it off in the dead of night.
There was just one problem. Nobody knew for sure whether Israel even had nuclear capabilities. And this is still true today — even though the whole world assumes they do, Israel will neither confirm nor deny it. What’s behind this policy of secrecy and does the Jewish state have nuclear weapons or not?
Israel’s nuclear policy
There’s a Hebrew word for Israel’s nuclear policy: amimut. It basically means “deliberate ambiguity.” Experts guess that Israel has between 80 and 400 nuclear warheads today. But nobody knows for sure.
Israeli leaders have always been quiet about their nuclear ambitions. A strong military defense has been the cornerstone of Israel’s survival since its creation in 1948. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was apparently “obsessed” with developing nuclear weapons, seeing them as the only way to protect Jews in their homeland. In those early years, France was one of Israel’s biggest supporters, and the two countries worked together to develop both of their nuclear abilities.
By the 1960s, Israel had constructed two nuclear research centers: Dimona and Soreq. It’s around this time that Israel is thought to have developed their first nuclear warhead. Listen to our podcast on Israel’s “secret” nuclear weapons in Dimona.
During a meeting with President John F. Kennedy in 1962, Shimon Peres, then Israel’s deputy minister of defense, was asked about Israel’s nuclear plans. He responded with a line that would come to define the country’s nuclear policy: “I can tell you most clearly that we will not introduce nuclear weapons to the region, and certainly we will not be the first.”
That line was the birth of amimut as a political policy. Other politicians, like Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol, didn’t like Peres’s answer. But they ended up adopting it, never confirming nor denying anything about their nuclear power because it basically summed up their position: Israel has no intention of being the first to attack their enemies with nuclear weapons.
By the 1970s, Israel’s Arab neighbors — who had spent the last two decades waging wars against the Jewish State — were suddenly worried. Like the rest of the world, they had no idea how many nuclear warheads Israel had. By keeping quiet, Israel let rumors fly across the Arab world. Eventually, these hostile countries stopped waging wars so often — some believe this was in part because they were scared of what might happen. As Peres put it in his autobiography: “We learned there is tremendous power in ambiguity… Doubt was a powerful deterrent to those who desired a second Holocaust.”
In fact, there’s a nickname for the kind of situation Israel would have to find itself in before they’d consider nuking their enemies: the Samson Option. This evokes the biblical character of Samson who famously killed many Philistines in his final act, killing himself in the process.
The debate over amimut
Critics of amimut see it as something Israel hides behind to avoid international scrutiny. Along with India, Pakistan, and South Sudan, Israel is one of the only UN member nations not to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, precisely because of amimut. They just don’t talk about their nuclear program. Because they never signed the treaty, international inspectors haven’t been able to check their facilities.
Supporters of amimut argue that dropping the policy now could lead to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. If Israel were to show its cards, it could create an arms race, particularly with Iran. Right now, Israel’s main goal is to prevent nuclear proliferation at all costs.
Sometimes, that means keeping secrets. Other times, it means being proactive. Over the last few decades, Israeli forces have attacked and destroyed nuclear facilities in Syria and Iraq to stop their nuclear expansions. Cybersecurity experts believe that in the early 2000s, Israel teamed up with the U.S. to create the malware called Stuxnet, which caused one of Iran’s nuclear facilities to malfunction. These aggressive measures share the same goal as amimut: making sure there are as few nukes as possible in the Middle East.
Although every country is cagey about this subject, Israel takes that a step further. It’s a strategy they’ve made clear, both in words and actions, aimed at keeping the peace. If Israel drops amimut and shows its cards, it probably means that nuclear war has become a real threat, or maybe the threat is finally over and we have achieved world peace. Here’s to hoping it’s the second one.