Dwight D. Eisenhower is not a US president fondly remembered by Israel. During a time of constant terrorist threat, porous armistice lines and revolutionary stirrings within the Arab world, Eisenhower held firm to the Arabist position of the US State Department. In 1956, Eisenhower gave the young Jewish State its first nuclear shock. At the height of the Suez War, Soviet Prime Minister Bulganin had sent terse notes to the British and the French warning them that the USSR was prepared to crush the “warmongers” by use of “every kind of modern destructive weapon”. Israel never received a note of its own, but Soviet intentions were crystal clear. Eisenhower sent Ben-Gurion two letters. In the first letter, he referred to the possible cessation of “friendly cooperation between our two countries” without an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. In the second dispatch, Eisenhower bluntly warned that in the event of a Soviet attack on Israel, the Israeli government should not count on American help. Ben-Gurion got the message. The US had its own strategic interests.
In the nearly six decades that have passed since Israel’s first nuclear existential episode, any official talk of a deterrent counter-measure has remained mum. Some call this silence a deliberate policy of nuclear ambiguity. Others simply refer to it as opaque. Whatever it is, it is a translucent secret. Information has gotten out, but only in the hushed tones of an extremely aging insider (the “Sini” Azaryahu interview). Occasionally, an engineer or technician might go “rogue” (Mordechai Vanunu). Certainly, other intelligence agencies have their pictures and their reports. Many books and articles have been written about the secrets at Dimona, some serious, others mere expose. But if an Israeli nuclear weapons program does exist (I have no personal knowledge), then we can be certain of two crucial facts. First, the program has from its inception been a regional nuclear monopoly. Second, this monopoly might very well be challenged in the next six months.
Ask any business-person and I’m certain they’ll tell you that monopolies are great. Rockefeller and Carnegie loved them. But unlike business, when competition disrupts nuclear monopoly, the ensuing uncertainty is not merely about losing money. Enter the gray world, somewhere between MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and first strike (use it or lose it). In this twilight zone of nuclear warfare fog, competing nations attempt to set-forth policy based on some kind of theory to explain the military value of these weapons-of-mass-destruction. During the Cold War, the two superpowers achieved a MAD parity based on what became the certainty of a second strike. In other words, if you bomb us, you can be certain that we’ll bomb you back. But MAD is not the whole story.
After WWII, the division of Europe was not in any way conventionally balanced. Soviet ground forces far out-numbered and out-gunned NATO. The nuclear policy of the US was first strike. To deter Soviet conventional superiority, the US was prepared to use nuclear weapons. Simply put, if the Soviets dared to cross the Elbe or invade West Berlin, a nuclear attack could ensue. But what kind of nuclear attack? Would it be an attack on Russian cities, thereby exposing the US to a counter-attack? Or, would it be a first strike attack on Soviet nuclear forces, thereby denying Russia a second strike capacity? The consequence of this uncertainty ushered in the costly era of a vast nuclear arms race. The Cold War was a very dangerous world. Even with diplomatic relations, a red phone hotline, cultural exchanges, sports competitions and the business of oil and grain, US-Soviet nuclear competition was not completely rational. A large part of the policy was based on fear not reason. It was driven by emotion and human frailty. Psychology ruled the roost, especially paranoia. And on a certain October weekend in 1962, the gray world almost caused the real world to go black.
Iran and Israel have no diplomatic relations, everyone knows that. The Shield of David is not on display in Tehran before sixty thousand screaming football fans. Iran has plenty of oil and Israel has no grain to offer. An exchange of philharmonics would appear to require a miracle. Instead, there will either be a deal, an attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear program or the gray world of nuclear weapons theoretical uncertainty. The worst of these options is the gray world. But Israel is not negotiating the deal. The US is doing the negotiations. They will either succeed or fail, depending on American criteria. Is there daylight between the two countries? Maybe, because the people of the United States are not about to go to war in the Middle East, period. The Netanyahu government cannot count on either the White House or Congress for active military help. If Israel doesn’t like the deal or there is no deal because Congress intensifies the sanctions, the IDF will be on its own.
But what if Bibi is bluffing? Is Israel really prepared to enter a world of nuclear uncertainty, somewhere between MAD and first strike? The original point of Israel’s nuclear weapons program (if they have one) was simple MAD deterrence. If the Soviet Union dared to attack, the Jewish State would have the capability to go MAD. The same was true with the Arab States. With a nine mile wide border, Israel was totally vulnerable from a three front conventional war. Hence, the Sampson option, if the Third Commonwealth could be destroyed by armies and tanks, a nuclear arsenal might make the enemy think twice. And I must admit, without the security of the West Bank, there was certain utility in nuclear monopoly. But what is the purpose of an Israeli nuclear arsenal now, without monopoly?
Recently, President Putin of Russia proposed that the international conference on a nuclear-weapons-free-zone in the Middle East be convened in Helsinki, Finland. If Bibi is bluffing, he’s going to need a radically new policy to alter either the gray world of a nuclear Middle East or the regional consequences of an American-Iranian deal based on US strategic interests. Maybe, it is time for Israel to join the NPT (non-proliferation-treaty). Israel could demand a high price. Putin would, at least, listen. Perhaps, a football match in Tehran is not completely out of the question.