Why won't Israel admit it has nukes?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 25 2010 5:29 PM

Nuclear Redaction

Why won't Israel admit it has nukes?

What would happen if Israel said it had nuclear weapons? Click image to expand.
What would happen if Israel said it had nuclear weapons?

Newly uncovered documents suggest that Israel tried to sell nuclear weapons to apartheid-era South Africa. Although President Shimon Peres claims the documents have been misinterpreted, it's pretty much universally assumed that Israel has nukes, no matter what the higher-ups say. * What would happen if Israel were finally to fess up?

Trouble in Iran. Israel's longstanding policy of "nuclear ambiguity" is based on strategic concerns, not legal obligations. It has not signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT, so its assumed nuclear program doesn't violate any international agreements. An openly nuclear Israel, however, might give Iran, an original signatory, cover to withdraw from the treaty, since members may drop out if "extraordinary events … have jeopardized the supreme interests" of the country. It would also complicate the diplomatic efforts of the United States, which would surely be accused of hypocrisy for its hard line against Iran.

Israel has been practicing nuclear ambiguity since 1963, when Peres promised President Kennedy that Israel would not "introduce nuclear weapons to the region." In 1969, Henry Kissinger asked Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin whether Israel would "refuse to 'possess' nuclear weapons." Rabin responded that they would not become "a nuclear power."

During that time period, however, it's widely believed that Israel was developing a nuclear arsenal. In 1960, CIA Director Allen Dulles called a meeting in which he informed President-elect Kennedy that Israel had made an atomic breakthrough. Many believe that Israel assembled its first nuclear bombs in 1968, when it became concerned that Egypt would attempt to destroy Israel's reactor. In 1979, U.S. satellites detected what may have been an Israeli nuclear test—possibly conducted with South Africa's cooperation.

For most onlookers, any remaining doubts regarding Israel's nuclear status dissipated in 1986, when Israeli scientist Mordechai Vanunu gave photos and detailed accounts of the country's underground weapons factory to the SundayTimes. Based on Vanunu's information, scientists estimated that Israel had stockpiled between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons. (Israeli intelligence officers quickly seized and drugged Vanunu in Rome. He spent 18 years in an Israeli prison.) There have also been a number of verbal slips here and there. In a 2006 interview with a German television station, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explicitly included his country in a list of nuclear states.

Israel wouldn't be the first non-NPT signatory to come out of the nuclear closet. India and Pakistan each tested a nuclear weapon only 15 days apart in 1998, suggesting that both countries had been harboring weapons of mass destruction for years. The United States and the G-8 nations imposed financial penalties against the South Asian rivals, but the G-8 lifted sanctions just a year later. The United States lifted its sanctions after Sept. 11, 2001. * There were no consequences at the U.N. level.

Even if Israel were an NPT signatory, it's unclear that acknowledging the nukes would trigger any serious penalties. The treaty does not include automatic sanctions for violators. Rather, a member state has to drag the miscreant country before the U.N. Security Council, where international alliances prevent swift action. Most experts agree that Iran has violated the NPT repeatedly. Sanctions, however, have been slow, sporadic, and relatively mild.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists. Like  Slate and the Explainer on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Correction, May 26, 2010: This article originally stated that the United States' sanctions against India and Pakistan lasted until Sept. 11, 2001. The sanctions were lifted on Sept. 22, 2001, as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, May 26, 2010: This article originally referred to Shimon Peres as the Israeli defense minister. He is the president of Israel but was defense minister at the time of the alleged attempted sale. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.