The continuing release of Nixon presidential tape transcripts and archives has recently led observers to unearth something of a cringe-comedy goldmine. But the latest revalation, reported in the New York Times, is somewhat more sober. It shows Nixon's National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, was concerned not only that Israel might have stolen nuclear material from the US, but that...
“The Israelis, who are one of the few peoples whose survival is genuinely threatened, are probably more likely than almost any other country to actually use their nuclear weapons,” Henry A. Kissinger, the national security adviser, warned President Nixon in a memorandum dated July 19, 1969.
The phrase, 'one of the few peoples whose survival is genuinely threatened' is interesting in two ways. First, did Kissinger think that none of the declared nuclear powers were in this category? If not, what were those thousands of warheads actually for? And second, the remark begs for comparison with Israel's situation today.
I think Kissinger was right about Israel's predicament at the time; the real threat to Israel's survival justified the development of nuclear weapons. But what about now?
When the nuclear program was born in the 1950s, the military justification was obvious: Israel was surrounded by militarily superior states intent on her destruction. But due to a combination of factors — victories in the 1967 and 1973 wars, superior economic performance and political arrangements, peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, the end of Soviet military aid to the Arab world, continued strong domestic defence spending and US military aid — Israel has gradually become the militarily predominant state in the region.
And there is no prospect of Israel’s conventional military advantage eroding. In fact, in the recent past its position improved again with the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It would not be exaggerating to say that, based on its non-nuclear military forces alone, Israel is more secure today than it has been in its history.
There's one thing that could turn this around dramatically: regional nuclear proliferation. A nuclear-armed Iran, for instance, would present Israel, for the first time in its history, with the threat of almost instant physical annihilation by a regional adversary.
We know it will be difficult to dissuade Iran from its present course on developing nuclear capability, but one thing that might help is for Israel to consider the radical option of setting an example. Asking Israel to unilaterally abandon its nuclear deterrent might sound unreasonable and is probably politically not feasible. But it could create momentum for a settlement with Iran, and would actually have low strategic costs for Israel.
After all, if Israel gave up its weapons and joined the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state, it could still maintain a civilian nuclear fuel cycle at Dimona. Given Israel's far superior nuclear expertise compared to Iran, that constitutes a very advanced nuclear break-out capability. If Iran did continue down its present path, Israel could easily renege on the NPT and rebuild its deterrent much faster than Iran or any other regional adversary could do it.
Israel's nukes were necessary in the 1950s and possibly into the 80s. Today, they degrade Israeli security by encouraging the only kind of weapons proliferation that can really threaten Israel's existence.