Admit We Have Nukes, Top Israeli Military Figure Says
Transparency could lead to realistic arms talks with Iran, says retired Gen. Isaac Ben-Israel.
Breaking with most of Israel’s security establishment, one of the country’s foremost strategic planners says it’s time the country’s leaders accept some inconvenient truths about the limits of Israeli military power and prepare for the inevitability of a nuclear-armed Iran.
With negotiations in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal stalled, and Tehran just months away from fielding a nuclear device if it chose to, Maj. Gen. Isaac Ben-Israel, a well-known and highly respected figure in Israeli security circles, wants the government to level with the public and admit that the time has passed when Jerusalem could obliterate Iran’s nuclear capability with an air campaign.
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Even if Israel were to launch a massive Israeli airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Ben-Israel says, Iran would simply rebuild and harden those facilities and eventually produce a nuclear device “within a year or two.”
It’s “too late,” he told Bloomberg late last year. “Ten years ago, maybe that would have been possible. But today, all the technology needed to produce a bomb is already in Iranian hands. The only question is whether Iran will decide to go ahead [and develop a bomb] or not. And that’s just a matter of time.”
Due to a busy religious holiday schedule, Ben-Israel was unavailable to speak to SpyTalk, but he conveyed through his assistant Rotem Biran that he still stood by his Bloomberg interview.
In 2019, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released a report claiming that Israel has nearly a hundred nuclear warheads, “more than previously thought,” according to Mint Press News. In 1986, a disgruntled nuclear technician. Mordechai Vanunu, leaked details of Israel’s weapons program to the British press.
Hardline former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hopes to return to power in Israel's elections Tuesday. But no matter who wins, Jerusalem is likely to continue a policy of subversion, sabotage and assassinations against Iran and its nuclear scientists—even though the two-decades long campaign has little to show for it: Tehran has continued its march toward becoming a nuclear-armed power, more so after former President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal the Obama administration worked out with Iran. Iran has also continued to build up Hezbollah’s missile stocks in Lebanon.
So Ben-Israel, a military scientist and weapons specialist who currently serves as the chairman of the Israeli Space Agency, is urging the government to try a radical new tack: Discard its policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” confirm its land, sea and air-based atomic arsenal and challenge Iran to do the same. Transparency like that, negotiated between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. via a series of arms reduction treaties during the Cold War, helped the superpowers avoid a nuclear armageddon.
“If and when [Iran gets the bomb], everything changes. We will need a new national security doctrine—deterrence—based on a nuclear balance of power,” Ben-Israel said. “It requires ending the policy of nuclear ambiguity and making our capabilities and intentions completely transparent to the enemy.”
Ben-Israel believes the public acknowledgement of each country’s nuclear weapons will create the same sobering guarantee of mutually assured destruction that successfully prevented nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In Israel, these are, to say the least, highly controversial ideas. To this day, Israel has never publicly confirmed it is a nuclear-armed state, much less admitted it can no longer destroy the Iranian nuclear program.
“The most Israel has said on the subject is that it won't be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East,” Avner Cohen, author of the authoritative “Israel and the Bomb,” told SpyTalk.
But Cohen, now a nuclear nonproliferation expert with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., calls Israel’s unofficial status as a nuclear power “the world’s worst kept secret,” and estimates it has around 100 nuclear weapons, which it can deliver by missiles, planes and missile-firing submarines.
According to Cohen, Israel secretly became a nuclear power on the eve of the 1967 Middle East war. Its policy of nuclear opacity came about in 1969 as a result of an unwritten understanding between then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon, who pledged the United States would not pressure Israel to give up its nuclear arsenal as long as Israel did not officially acknowledge its existence. Since then, Cohen notes, every U.S. president and Israeli leader has quietly reaffirmed that understanding.
According to Cohen and others who know him, Ben-Israel is neither a hardliner nor a dove, but a realist.
He supported the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, which lifted international economic sanctions on Tehran in return for limits on its nuclear program. Those restrictions extended the time Tehran would need to produce enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear device to more than a year.
Ben-Israel also has called former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s success in convincing Trump to abandon the accord in 2018 “the worst strategic mistake in Israel’s history.” Israeli nuclear experts agree the technological advances Iran has made since then have whittled down the time it would need to produce a nuclear device to as little as six months.
“Previous Israeli governments under Netanyahu have not thought clearly about the limitations of Israel’s influence,” he said. “Now is the time for realistic thinking.”
Few would dispute Ben-Israel’s security credentials. As a brilliant young Israeli air force officer, he helped plan the successful 1981 air strike that successfully destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor and ended Saddam Hussein’s dreams of regional hegemony. During his 40-year military career, Ben-Israel served as the chief of air force intelligence and head of the Israeli military’s research and development division, where he directed the creation of the Iron Dome and David’s Sling anti-missile systems. He retired from the military in 2002 and later served as Netanyahu’s cyber adviser.
With doctorates in both physics and philosophy, Ben-Israel, 73, now runs Israel’s National Space Agency and co-chairs the country’s National Artificial Intelligence Initiative. He also holds a professorship at Tel Aviv University, where he heads two think tanks, one dealing with cyber security, the other focused on the scientific and technological aspects of national security.
Yet despite Ben-Israel's impressive resume, Netanyahu and his successors have rejected his advice to drop their opposition to a revived Iran nuclear accord, threatening they will destroy the Iranian nuclear program if any deal emerges that leaves Israel insufficiently protected. To underscore the message, Israeli warplanes conducted exercises this past summer over the Mediterranean at distances that equal those between Israel and Iran. The exercises included mid-air refueling.
Mossad chief David Barnea has said a renewed accord would be a “strategic disaster” for Israel. Citing sunset provisions in the original agreement that would lift restrictions on Iran's nuclear enrichment program after a few years, the Israeli spymaster recently said once those restrictions are gone, the accord “gives Iran license to amass the required nuclear material for a bomb.”
Barnea added that even if an agreement is eventually signed, it won’t stop the Mossad from launching covert operations against Iran in the future to protect Israel’s security.
Over the past decade, operatives believed to be working for the Mossad have killed a half dozen Iranian nuclear scientists and detonated explosives that severely damaged a key nuclear facility at Natanz. In a joint operation in 2010, the Mossad and the CIA infected Iran’s nuclear program computers with the Stuxnet virus, causing its centrifuges to spin out of control and self-destruct.
Others in Israel’s security establishment have been cool to Ben-Israel’s policy proposals for dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran, essentially arguing Israel’s sabotage campaign inside Iran and its nuclear opacity policy are working just fine. These critics say they’ll address the challenge of an Iranian bomb when Tehran actually has one.
Gilead Sher, a former top aide to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, takes issue with Ben-Israel’s proposal to end the government’s policy of nuclear ambiguity.
“There is neither need nor justification to replace a policy that has proven itself to be deterrence-efficient for over six decades,” Sher told SpyTalk. With Iran racing toward a bomb, Sher said “at some point,” Israel, together with the United States, “will need to conduct a comprehensive reassessment of the eventuality that Tehran will get one.”
Ariel Levite, the former principal deputy director of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission and now a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, a Washington think tank, acknowledges that if Israel were to act unilaterally in attacking Iran's nuclear program, it would only be a matter of time before Iran rebuilt its facilities. Such an attack, he says, "will inevitably have only time-bound effects in retarding Iran’s nuclear progress."
Iran's emergence as a nuclear-armed power would be a very serious and worrisome development, Levite says, but “it would not be the end of the world." It would, however, require Israel to "consider a different Iran strategy, based on many pillars -- diplomatic, conventional as well as nuclear, ” he says.
“Right now, for example, we have a highly restrained nuclear posture," Levite says. "Were we to reach the point where Iran has the bomb, Israel would naturally have to consider whether such posture would still be well-suited for the new reality.”
Not surprisingly, Levite won’t say how the posture would change. But he notes Ben-Israel spoke of only one scenario—one in which Israel is alone in facing a newly nuclear-armed Iran. "Which does not have to be the case," he's quick to point out.
“The number one issue for Israel will be how the United States reacts to this new reality,” he says. “Are we on our own?”
Given the longstanding U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, Levite says he assumes Washington and Jerusalem would try to coordinate their responses. He adds both the United States and Israel also would also have to factor in the responses of Iran’s Arab and other neighbors. Would they also seek U.S. security guarantees? Might they seek to obtain their own nuclear weapons? Or might they hedge their bets by drawing closer to Iran?
Most critically though, "there’s no reason to look at [an Iranian bomb] at present as if it's a fait accompli.” Levite said of Ben-Israel's scenario. "It is not. And besides, there’s too much at stake in making such a judgment call now, prematurely and perhaps even unnecessarily.”
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This is an excellent article illustrating the immense strategic complexity for all nuclear armed actors. Nothing remains simple when you think harder about this subject. Any first thoughts of what makes sense rapidly gets undone by second and third thoughts.
For example, I wrote an article for the Cipher Brief that mirrors the “unthinkable” thoughts of Herman Kahn regarding nuclear strategies, updated for the current situation with Israel, Iran and the Palestinians. Will Iranian rocket science become so accurate that nuclear-armed missiles aimed at Tel Aviv will kill only Israelis and no Palestinians? Israelis and Palestinians live on top of each other. Given a mere 2-3% targeting error, it’s far more likely that most Palestinians would perish along with most Israelis at the very same time. Thus, Iran would solve the impossible Israel-Palestinian problem by destroying both peoples simultaneously. How would Palestinians feel about that? Plus, probably say goodbye to the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third holiest site. How would Iranians feel about that as their historic legacy?
Check out my article: https://www.thecipherbrief.com/column_article/how-iran-makes-israel-protector-of-the-palestinian-people
To my humble opinion, it does make no sense (and it is a waste of time) (for Israel) to enter into nuclear arms talks with a rogue mafia-state like the one in Iran.
And BTW the same reasoning goes with China, North Korea, and Russia. I am not saying that you should not have open diplomatic channels between both countries. But why would one expect sincerity from a dictatorship? Talks for such a dictatorship are merely a way to gain time and throw sand into our eyes.
We are very naive to project our sense of rationality with such dictatorships.
The only aim for the ayatollahs (and Putin, CCP, Kim Yong-un) is to stay in power by all means possibly, including treachery. And unfortunately in the case of Iran (and also Noth Korea), they have (both) understood that possessing a nuclear umbrella protects them from Western military retaliation. Look at the situation in Ukraine: why does NATO not get involved in the war? Simply because Moscow has nuclear weapons.
As for Israel , I do not see the added value for Tel Aviv in revealing their possession of nuclear weapons. It is public secret, and when you are in geostrategic standoff, it is not transparency that one must herald, but instead strategic ambiguity.
A good example for the use of strategic ambiguity is the position of Washington about Taiwan. It is not very clear for the CCP whether the U.S. would really directly get involved into a shooting war about Taiwan. The TRA is not explicit about it, but then the US president said the U.S. would fight back China in case of an invasion of Taiwan. Such ambiguity poses a strategic uncertainty for Beijing, and thus it makes strategic planning more difficult.
Plus, the problem is here not whether Israel has nuclear weapons or not (we all know they do, and that is fine), but whether Iran should itself get nuclear weapons. And the answer is NO.