CIA declassifies report on Israel’s nukes

The 1960 report defends Israel's nuclear ambitions, offers guidance on handling today's nuclear-hopefuls.

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    North Koreans rally in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang in protest of the UN Security Council's threat of sanctions in response to North Korea's nuclear test in May. The December 1960 intelligence analysis of Israel's nuclear capabilities, which still has elements redacted, is interesting in today's context as the Obama administration confronts the nuclear weapon ambitions of North Korea and Iran.
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"We do not believe that Israel will embark on the development of nuclear weapons with the aim of actually starting a nuclear war," reads the declassified 48-year-old CIA Special National Intelligence Estimate.

The estimate, publicly released June 5 by George Washington University's National Security Archives, continues, "Possession of a nuclear weapon capability, or even the prospect of achieving it, would clearly give Israel a greater sense of security, self-confidence and assertiveness."

"In any public announcement concerning their nuclear reactor program, the Israelis would almost certainly stress the peaceful nature of their efforts, but they would also, as time goes on, make plain that henceforth Israel is a power to be accorded more respect than either its friends or its enemies have hitherto given it," reads the estimate.

The December 1960 intelligence analysis, which still has elements redacted, is interesting in today's context as the Obama administration confronts the nuclear weapon ambitions of North Korea and Iran.

Does the understanding of why a friendly country seeks a nuclear weapon apply when the analysis involves two countries that are potential U.S. enemies? No, is the safe bet when public reaction is considered.

But shouldn't intelligence analysts recognize that friends - and potential foes - may have similar reasoning for nuclear ambitions: to deter potential invaders and to promote their standing among allies and enemies alike? Wouldn't that be worth understanding even in unpredictable and potentially unstable governments? It might when trying to talk them out of it - though it has to be noted that it didn't help with Israel, a stable ally.

The authors of the 1960 estimate suggest the possession of a nuclear weapon - in this case, Israel's - would be used to deter others from attacking it. "It probably would make it increasingly clear that an Arab attack on Israel would be met with nuclear retaliation," reads the estimate.

On the diplomatic side, however, the analysts saw that a nuclear weapon could also make a country more of a challenge. The estimate noted: "Israel would be less inclined than ever to make concessions and would press its interests in the area more vigorously."

That certainly rings true today for North Korea and Iran.

In another ironic twist, the estimate said Israel's enemy, the UAR (United Arab Republic, the then-combination of Egypt and Syria) "as a last desperate resort ... might try to destroy the Israeli program through preventive military action."

U.S. military experts today have argued that any Israeli attempt to knock out Iran's nuclear program would fail and create havoc. Back in 1960, American intelligence analysts believed that the main Arab leader attempting such an effort against Israel also would have been counterproductive. "Given present relative military capabilities," the estimate said, Gen. Gamal Abdel Nasser, UAR president, "would almost certainly realize that such military action would precipitate a war which he is likely to lose."

According to recent estimates, Israel has approximately 200 nuclear bombs and warheads.

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