Israel faces unprecedented pressure to abandon its official policy of “ambiguity” regarding its possession of nuclear weapons.
Israel’s equivocal stance on its atomic status was shattered by reports on May 24 that it offered to sell nuclear-armed Jericho missiles to South Africa's apartheid regime in 1975.
The revelations are deeply embarrassing to Israel given its long-standing opposition to signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has argued instead that it is a “responsible power” that would never misuse nuclear weapons technologies if it acquired them.
Reports of Israel’s nuclear dealings with apartheid South Africa will also energise a draft proposal from Egypt to the United Nations non-proliferation review conference that Israel — as the only nuclear power in the region — be required to sign the treaty.
Israeli officials are already uncomfortable with Washington’s decision in May to agree to a statement with other UN Security Council members calling for the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear arms.
The policy is aimed chiefly at Iran, which the US and Israel accuse of secretly developing a nuclear bomb. But it would also risk ensnaring Israel. The US has supported Israel’s ambiguity policy since the late 1960s.
Oversight of Israel’s program is also due to be debated at a meeting of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna in June.
As pressure mounts, Israeli analysts have been debating the benefits of maintaining the ambiguity policy. Most warn that an erosion of the principle would lead to Israel being forced to dismantle its arsenal.
Echoing the Israeli security consensus, Yossi Melman, a military intelligence correspondent for the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, also warned that declaring Israel’s nuclear status “would play into Iran's hands” by focusing attention on Tel Aviv rather than Tehran.
Israel refused to sign the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It had developed its first warhead a few years earlier with help from Britain and France.
Israel’s ambiguity stance — and a promise not to conduct nuclear tests — was accepted by the US administration of then-president Richard Nixon in 1969.
Analysts said the agreement between Israel and the US was driven in part by concerns that Washington would not be able to give Israel foreign aid — today worth billions of dollars — if Israel declared itself a nuclear state, but refused international supervision.
Revelations over the years have made it increasingly difficult for other governments to turn a blind eye to Israel’s arsenal.
Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at the Dimona nuclear energy plant in the Negev, was sent to jail after he provided photographic evidence and detailed descriptions of the country's weapons program in 1986.
Israel’s current arsenal is estimated at more than 200 warheads.
Damaging confirmation of Israel’s nuclear arsenal was provided by the May 24 British Guardian newspaper, which published documents unearthed for a new book — The Unspoken Alliance by Sasha Polakow-Suransky — on relations between Israel and South Africa's apartheid regime.
The top-secret papers reveal that in 1975, then-Israeli defence minister and now president Shimon Peres met with his South African counterpart, P.W. Botha, to discuss selling the regime nuclear-armed missiles. The deal fell through partly because South Africa could not afford the weapons.
Pretoria later developed its own bomb, almost certainly with Israel's help.
Despite publication by the Guardian of a photographed agreement bearing the date and the signatures of Peres and Botha, Peres’ office issued a statement denying the report.
Israel’s increasingly transparent nuclear status is seen as an obstacle to US efforts to impose sanctions on Iran and to damp down a wider potential nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Aware of the growing pressure on Israel to come clean, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined an invitation to attend a nuclear security conference in Washington in April at which participants threatened to question Israel about its arms.
At the meeting, US President Barack Obama called on all countries, including Israel, to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
A draft declaration being considered at the UN review conference again demands that Israel — and two other states known to have nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan — sign the treaty.
Egypt has proposed that the 189 states that have signed the treaty, including the US, pledge not to transfer nuclear equipment, information, material or professional help to Israel until it does so.