India-Pakistan Tests Prodding Israel to Lift the Veil on Its Nuclear Abilities

By Scott Peterson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 21, 1998 | Go to article overview

India-Pakistan Tests Prodding Israel to Lift the Veil on Its Nuclear Abilities


Scott Peterson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Despite heated headlines in the Mideast triggered by the recent nuclear tests in India and Pakistan, in Israel those tests are prompting a cold, hard look at this country's nuclear policy of "deliberate ambiguity."

Though Israel has long stated that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, Pakistan accuses it of providing critical components to India to enable Indian tests.

Pakistan is itself believed to have received so much help from China for its nuclear program that one joke here asks why Pakistan's tests came several days after India's, in May. The punchline? "Because the instructions were in Chinese."

Israel was the first nation in the Middle East to pursue atomic capability, beginning work in the 1950s. Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who led that effort, last week went further than any other Israeli official in acknowledging a weapons program.

"We built a nuclear option, not in order to have a Hiroshima, but to have an Oslo," he said in Amman, Jordan, referring to the peace accords signed with the Palestinians in Oslo in 1993. Last month he reportedly said that Israel "wanted a veiled nuclear option in order to prevent war."

Revelations in the 1980s led experts to believe that Israel already had a sophisticated arsenal of at least 200 nuclear warheads. True or not, the widespread belief that Israel has such weapons forms the basis for its deterrence strategy.

Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - a point of contention among some Arab states, who feel obliged to counter by holding chemical weapons. Though international inspectors have not visited the reactor at Dimona, Israel has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The tests in India and Pakistan may eventually result in a recasting of Israel's policy. They come at a time when Israel's defense establishment is immersed in the first top-to-bottom strategic re-think in Israel's history.

"This is not an 'Islamic Bomb' that is a threat to Israel," says Gerald Steinberg, an arms control and security expert at the BESA Center at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. "But the fear is that this is going to cause the dam to burst, so that the 8th, 9th, and 10th nuclear members will join rapidly."

Since China's globally noted nuclear test in 1964, the official nuclear club has been fixed at five - the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and China. North Korea and Iraq were both "stopped before the goal line," Mr. Steinberg says, "but there will not be another 30 years of down time.

"If the NPT disintegrates because of these new tests," he says, "it will force Israel to change its 'deliberate ambiguity' and deterrent posture."

More potential targets

Those strategies have been effective until now. Though three major Arab-Israeli conflicts were fought in 1967, 1973, and 1982 since Israel's nuclear efforts were known, unconventional (chemical, biological, and nuclear) weapons never played a part.

Israel set back Iraq's nuclear ambitions in 1981, when its long- range jet fighters destroyed the reactor at Osirak.

But the battle lines were more easily drawn then, and preventing nuclear proliferation was simpler. "The days of the {doctrine} by which Israel would not allow another nuclear power in the region, are just about finished," Steinberg says. "Osirak is no longer an option, because there are no more single targets anymore."

From Israel's point of view, the number of targets are many. Iran is openly working on nuclear-powered reactors - safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. But many in the US and Israel say the Islamic Republic is secretly trying to make a nuclear device.

In Iraq, the IAEA is likely to report at the end of the month that Baghdad's once-advanced nuclear-weapons program has been dismantled. …

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