Key point: Israel has maintained ambiguity over its nuclear program, which may have reduced its contributions to Israeli security.
Since the early 1970s, Israel has informally maintained a nuclear deterrent. In order to prevent the activation of a variety of legal instruments that would disrupt Israeli relations with the United States and Europe, Israel has not acknowledged the program. It remains, however, the worst-kept secret in international politics.
But a country always has options. What if Israel had never developed these nukes? What impact would a different decision have had on Israel’s security, and on regional politics more broadly?
Origins of the program
Israel started research into nuclear weapons in the late 1940s, under the belief that only a nuclear deterrent could prevent national destruction. Israel was hardly alone in this conviction; at the time, many analysts expected the wide proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. Copious French assistance made the program possible, along with covert funding from groups in the United States. Great Britain also periodically delivered supplies necessary to the program. Washington helped mainly by looking away.
As Israel’s security dilemma became more stark in the 1950s and 1960s, the program accelerated. The Israel Defense Forces won stunning victories in 1948, 1956, and again in 1967, but with only a thin margin of error; the hostility and growing strength of Soviet client states in Syria, Iraq and Egypt made the future uncertain.
Israel probably constructed its first nuclear device around 1966, with an arsenal of usable weapons available by the early 1970s. The first delivery systems were fighter-bombers (reports vary as to whether Mirage IIIs, F-4 Phantoms, or A-4 Skyhawks bore the primary burden), supplemented before long by ballistic missiles.
Impact on regional politics