Since Israel first built its Dimona nuclear facility in the late 1950s it has been harshly criticized from a variety of quarters for its lack of transparency and candor regarding its nuclear capabilities. Significant international pressure has been applied on Israel over several decades to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and disclose the exact nature of its nuclear capabilities. Israel's failure to do so has been the result of a shrewd cost/benefit analysis, and common knowledge of its capability has proven to be a useful means of promoting a balance of power in the Middle East. Given the political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa this year, can this balance of power be maintained, and is Israel's nuclear ambiguity likely to help or hurt Israel in the long-term?
Israeli ambiguity has undoubtedly helped deter existential attacks, and not joining the NPT has enabled Israel to maintain its sovereignty with respect the use of its nuclear arsenal. Israel's low profile on the subject has also been central to enabling it to avoid becoming the subject of U.S. laws banning providing funding for states developing nuclear weapons, as has been the case with Pakistan for example. Doing so has proven lucrative: From 1976 to 2004, Israel was the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, and since 1985 the U.S. has provided more than $3 billion per year in grants to Israel.
But there are a number of ways nuclear ambiguity has hurt Israel. It has complicated Israel's diplomatic ties and has at times strained Israel's bilateral relationship with the U.S. Israel's secrecy has similarly complicated the Middle East peace process and contributed to an atmosphere of distrust among the parties. Although Israel believes concealment of its program has been central to preventing Arab countries from developing nuclear weapons, acknowledging its nuclear arsenal could have helped deter Iran and other states in the region from wanting to become nuclear states.
Given the political upheaval in the region this year, it is only natural to wonder whether Israel's decades-old policy of nuclear ambiguity is likely to benefit Israel in the longer-term. From the perspective of prolonging the balance of power that still exists, maintaining the ambiguity will probably serve Israel well. As long as Israel's neighbors and enemies presume Israel has a substantial nuclear capability, Israel should remain secure from existential attack, but only until other regional powers themselves go nuclear. Then the calculus may change, and become more an issue of demonstrating that Israel's nuclear arsenal is larger than that of any other regional power. At that time, Israel will presumably have no choice but to formally declare its capability.
Israel has been anything but ambiguous more generally about defending itself and its interests, and this will surely not change any time soon. At a time when Israel is feeling surrounded - with dramatic political change either having occurred or in the process of occurring in so many states in the region - anything it can do to inject stability and a sense of security into the arena will of course be in its own interest. The problem is, there is very little Israel can do. It is hostage, as is the rest of the region and the world, to merely witnessing the outcome of events in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. As NATO has experienced firsthand in Libya, it is difficult and even unrealistic to presume to be able to influence the outcome of such deep-seated political change.
Israel has been a net beneficiary of its policy of nuclear ambiguity, but whether Israel will be able to maintain a balance between its security and foreign policy objectives, and the ideals of transparency in a democratic society and a globalized world, remains to be seen. One thing is for certain - Israel cannot afford, and has no intention, of either admitting its capability or changing its geostrategic posture until and unless lasting peace is reached with the Palestinians and all of its neighbors. For that reason, it must be expected that Israel, and the world, will be waiting quite some time for Israel to either clarify its status or adhere to the NPT. At this juncture it is hard to imagine a scenario in which any disadvantages of maintaining nuclear ambiguity will outweigh the benefits of keeping it in place.
Daniel Wagner is managing director of Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut, USA. He is also senior advisor to the PRS Group. Ruth Sigalus is a research analyst with CRS.