What’s ambiguous about Israel’s nuclear policy is not whether the country has these weapons, but how it plans to use them.

By Arvind Dilawar, The Progressive

On September 22, 1979, U.S. surveillance satellite “Vela 6911” detected a double flash of light in the Indian Ocean midway between Africa and Antarctica that appeared to be consistent with the detonation of a nuclear weapon. As researchers with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) note in their paper, “Israeli Nuclear Weapons, 2021,” U.S. intelligence at the time of “the Vela incident” believed the double flash to be an Israeli nuclear test, conducted with logistical support from the Apartheid-era South African government. A panel assembled by President Jimmy Carter, however, rejected this conclusion based on a premise that the Administration knew to be false, but did not want to challenge politically—that Israel did not possess nuclear weapons.

Israeli “nuclear ambiguity,” its lack of official confirmation or denial that it possesses nuclear weapons, persists to this day. Nevertheless, as of 2021, researchers estimate that the country possesses ninety nuclear warheads, capable of being delivered by aircraft, land-based ballistic missiles, and sea-based cruise missiles. Israel is reserving these weapons for “the Samson Option”: an all-out assault on the civilian population centers of its opponents.

missiles sit in a lot near Israeli army personnel

Researchers have been able to reconstruct the history and current status of Israel’s nuclear program through declassified materials, as well as statements by Israeli politicians and officers themselves.

“Israeli officials do not explicitly discuss the country’s nuclear doctrine, but the country still needs to implicitly signal the circumstances under which it would use nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes,” says Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, which advocates for nuclear disarmament. “Reading between the lines of statements from former and current officials and military planners provides insights into how the country may use its nuclear weapons, such as the Samson Option.”

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