In the shadow of the Holocaust, Israel made a determined and ultimately successful effort to acquire nuclear weapons. Just as fear of genocide is the key to understanding Israel’s nuclear resolve, that fear has also encouraged nuclear restraint. After all, if Israel’s enemies also acquired the bomb, the small Jewish state might well face destruction. Moreover, the specter of killing large numbers of innocent people was morally unsettling.
This combination of resolve and restraint led to a nuclear posture known as opacity, which is fundamentally different from that of all other nuclear weapons states. Israel neither affirms nor denies its possession of nuclear weapons; indeed, the government refuses to say anything factual about its nuclear activities, and Israeli citizens are encouraged, both by law and by custom, to follow suit.
Opacity was first codified in a secret accord between President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Golda Meir of Israel in September 1969. As long as Israel did not advertise its possession of nuclear weapons, by either declaring it had them or testing them, the United States agreed to tolerate and shield Israel’s nuclear program. Ever since, all U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers have reaffirmed this policy — most recently, President Obama in a July White House meeting with President Benjamin Netanyahu, during which Mr. Obama stated, “Israel has unique security requirements. ... And the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine [its] security interests.”
Opacity continues to have almost universal support among members of the Israeli security establishment, who argue that, by not publicly flaunting its nuclear status, Israel has reduced its neighbors’ incentives to proliferate and has made it easier to resist demands that it give up its nuclear shield before a just and durable peace is established in the Middle East.
But this policy has now become anachronistic, even counterproductive. In the early days of its nuclear program, Israel had no concerns about legitimacy, recognition and responsibility; its focus was acquiring a nuclear capability. Today, the situation is different. Israel is now a mature nuclear weapons state, but it finds it difficult under the strictures of opacity to make a convincing case that it is a responsible one. To the extent that opacity shields Israel’s nuclear capabilities and intentions, it also undercuts the need for its citizens to be informed about issues that are literally matters of life and death, such as: Whose finger is on the nuclear trigger and under what circumstances would nuclear weapons be used?
Opacity also prevents Israel from making a convincing case that its nuclear policy is indeed one of defensive last resort and from participating in a meaningful fashion in regional arms control and global disarmament deliberations.
Israel needs to recognize, moreover, that the Middle East peace process is linked to the issue of nuclear weapons in the region. International support for Israel and its opaque bomb is being increasingly eroded by its continued occupation of Palestinian territory and the policies that support that occupation. Such criticism of these policies might well spill over into the nuclear domain, making Israel vulnerable to the charge that it is a nuclear-armed pariah state, and thus associating it to an uncomfortable degree with today’s rogue Iranian regime.
Indeed, while almost all states publicly oppose the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, there is also growing support for dealing with this problem in an “evenhanded” manner, namely, by establishing a nuclear weapons free zone across the entire region.
However, if Israel takes seriously the need to modify its own nuclear posture and its approach to the peace process, there will likely be stronger international support for measures designed to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold and to contain a nuclear-armed Iran if those efforts fail.
Israel was not the first state to acquire nuclear weapons, and given its unique geopolitical concerns, it should not be expected to lead the world into the nuclear-free age. But in order to deal effectively with the new regional nuclear environment and emerging global nuclear norms, Israel must reassess the wisdom of its unwavering commitment to opacity and realize that international support for retaining its military edge, including its military edge, rests on retaining its moral edge.
Avner Cohen, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and Marvin Miller, a research associate in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A longer version of this article will appear in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs.