Understanding Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity: A Strategic Choice
The Israeli policy of neither acknowledging nor denying the existence of its nuclear arsenal came under scrutiny after a minister contemplated a nuclear strike against Gaza. The reason for Israel’s commitment to a policy of nuclear opacity, involving non-admission of their nuclear arsenal’s existence, is a subject of debate amongst experts.
Controversial Remarks from an Israeli Minister
On November 5, Amihai Eliyahu, the Israeli Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage, implied that a nuclear attack against the Gaza Strip is one of the possible outcomes of the escalating conflict. However, shortly afterward, the official clarified that his statement was metaphorical. Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, classified these remarks about the potential use of atomic weapons against the Gaza Strip as “provocative and absolutely unacceptable”. In her view, the minister’s speech continues to raise questions that the international community should consider.
The statements by Amihai Eliyahu were also condemned by countries like the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consequently suspended him “until further notice”, claiming that the statements “have no basis in reality”.
The International Perspective on Israel’s Nuclear Capabilities
The international community generally assumes Israel possesses a nuclear arsenal, even though the country refuses to confirm its capability. Estimates from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute suggest that Israel has approximately 80 nuclear weapons, with 30 gravity bombs deliverable by aircraft and 50 targeted for the medium-range Jericho II ballistic missiles. “This arsenal underpins Israel’s military superiority in the region, which is unquestionable even when considering conventional armament,” noted Marcos José Barbieri Ferreira, a professor from the State University of Campina (Brazil).
Open data also suggests that Israel has terrestrial, maritime, and aerial delivery systems that could serve as vectors for the deployment of nuclear weapons. Foremost, Israel possesses F-16 and F-15 fighters, which can carry nuclear weapons; secondly, the country has ballistic and cruise missiles from the Jericho family with atomic warheads; and thirdly, it is equipped with conventional German Dolphin submarines that could easily be fitted with nuclear arms.
However, Israel’s policy of opacity prevents it from conducting nuclear tests or even showcasing its capabilities to ensure enemy deterrence. “Nuclear deterrence implies showing your power to inflict loss on your adversary to prevent an attack. In this context, nuclear countries demonstrate their power, just as North Korea does, for example”, explained Barbieri Ferreira. He added that Israel is “one of the only countries with nuclear weapons that does not adopt this posture.” The lack of public atomic trials raises questions about the effectiveness of Israel’s nuclear weaponry. Nevertheless, indications suggest that Israel conducted tests during the 20th century with the aid of ally nations such as the USA, France, and South Africa.
Why Israel Chooses Nuclear Opacity
The reason behind Israel’s choice of a nuclear opacity policy is debated by experts. “Some authors point out that there exists an internal taboo in Israel leading to non-recognition. At the dawn of the nuclear era, Israel positioned itself by saying it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the already tumultuous Middle East region. In practice, that was not what happened, but the weight of history remains,” Raquel Gontijo, a professor from the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, told Sputnik.
According to her, another reason is to avoid triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. “It appears that Israel does not admit to having these weapons so that this does not serve as an argument for other countries in the region to develop their own nuclear programs. We know that Israel has adopted a forceful policy to prevent their neighbors from acquiring nuclear arms,” the expert stated. She recalled incidents like the Israeli attacks on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, attacks on facilities at al-Kibar and Deir ez-Zor in Syria, and unconfirmed Stuxnet and Flame cyberattacks against the Iranian nuclear program.
Potential Nuclear Weapons Use in the Gaza Strip
Ex-minister Eliyahu’s statements were not the only instances in which Israeli authorities considered the use of nuclear weapons against targets in the Gaza Strip. Following the Hamas attacks on October 7, Israeli lawmaker Rivatal Tally Gotliv called for the state to resort to a “judgment day weapon” in retaliation. Raquel Gontijo, however, does not see Israel deploying its atomic arsenal at this time. “The probability of Israel using a nuclear weapon in this conflict against Hamas is low. The conflict is extremely asymmetrical, as the Israeli armed forces have far superior capabilities than Hamas and their Arab neighbors,” she emphasized.
Furthermore, international support for Israel would erode among both public opinion and governments typically sympathetic to its cause. Gontijo does not rule out the possibility that Israel could use these weapons if faced with an Arab alliance that “truly poses an existential threat to the State of Israel,” but she repeats that “this is not what is happening now.”
The Israeli ground operation in the Gaza Strip began on October 27, aimed at retaliating for the attacks carried out by the Palestinian group Hamas on their territory earlier that month. According to figures from the Gaza Health Ministry published on November 9, the Israeli forces have caused the deaths of 11,025 civilians in the Gaza Strip, including 4,506 children, and have inflicted injuries on more than 27,000 civilians.
Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity stands as a central pillar of its strategic defense, shaping not only its approach to regional conflicts but also the dynamics of Middle Eastern geopolitics. In the shadow of possible nuclear capabilities, the state maintains a stance that is as much about deterrence as it is about preventing the proliferation of nuclear arms in an already volatile region. As the debate continues on the implications of such a policy, the world watches closely to see how Israel’s narrative and actions evolve in the face of conflict and global pressure.