Despite heated headlines in the Mideast triggered by the recent nuclear tests in India and Pakistan, in Israel those tests are prompting a cold, hard look at this country's nuclear policy of "deliberate ambiguity."
Though Israel has long stated that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, Pakistan accuses it of providing critical components to India to enable Indian tests.
Pakistan is itself believed to have received so much help from China for its nuclear program that one joke here asks why Pakistan's tests came several days after India's, in May. The punchline? "Because the instructions were in Chinese."
Israel was the first nation in the Middle East to pursue atomic capability, beginning work in the 1950s. Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who led that effort, last week went further than any other Israeli official in acknowledging a weapons program.
"We built a nuclear option, not in order to have a Hiroshima, but to have an Oslo," he said in Amman, Jordan, referring to the peace accords signed with the Palestinians in Oslo in 1993. Last month he reportedly said that Israel "wanted a veiled nuclear option in order to prevent war."
Revelations in the 1980s led experts to believe that Israel already had a sophisticated arsenal of at least 200 nuclear warheads. True or not, the widespread belief that Israel has such weapons forms the basis for its deterrence strategy.
Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - a point of contention among some Arab states, who feel obliged to counter by holding chemical weapons. Though international inspectors have not visited the reactor at Dimona, Israel has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
The tests in India and Pakistan may eventually result in a recasting of Israel's policy. They come at a time when Israel's defense establishment is immersed in the first top-to-bottom strategic re-think in Israel's history.
"This is not an 'Islamic Bomb' that is a threat to Israel," says Gerald Steinberg, an arms control and security expert at the BESA Center at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. "But the fear is that this is going to cause the dam to burst, so that the 8th, 9th, and 10th nuclear members will join rapidly."
Since China's globally noted nuclear test in 1964, the official nuclear club has been fixed at five - the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and China. North Korea and Iraq were both "stopped before the goal line," Mr. Steinberg says, "but there will not be another 30 years of down time.
"If the NPT disintegrates because of these new tests," he says, "it will force Israel to change its 'deliberate ambiguity' and deterrent posture."
More potential targets
Those strategies have been effective until now. Though three major Arab-Israeli conflicts were fought in 1967, 1973, and 1982 since Israel's nuclear efforts were known, unconventional (chemical, biological, and nuclear) weapons never played a part.
Israel set back Iraq's nuclear ambitions in 1981, when its long-range jet fighters destroyed the reactor at Osirak.
But the battle lines were more easily drawn then, and preventing nuclear proliferation was simpler. "The days of the [doctrine] by which Israel would not allow another nuclear power in the region, are just about finished," Steinberg says. "Osirak is no longer an option, because there are no more single targets anymore."
From Israel's point of view, the number of targets are many. Iran is openly working on nuclear-powered reactors - safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. But many in the US and Israel say the Islamic Republic is secretly trying to make a nuclear device.
In Iraq, the IAEA is likely to report at the end of the month that Baghdad's once-advanced nuclear-weapons program has been dismantled. Israel worries that Iraq's design teams are still intact, however, and that if UN sanctions were lifted, a bomb could be just a year or two away.
Trading nuclear know-how
Another worry raised by some is that Pakistan may share its knowledge with Iran or other Muslim states. But this has been widely dismissed in Israel.
"Pakistan is not going to help Iran for one good reason: You don't give nuclear weapons to your neighbor," says Martin Van Creveld, a military historian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Shai Feldman, the director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, says that if Pakistan helped another Islamic state develop nuclear weapons, it would undermine Pakistan's own clout. And, he says, "[Pakistani leaders] don't want to provide a reason for closer Israel-India ties."
Just as worrisome for Israel have been reports - many originating in Pakistan - detailing Israel's close military and security ties with India. They allege that the Jewish state started links with India back in the 1960s, that the CIA facilitated those ties, and that the relationship has finally blossomed into a transfer of Israeli nuclear know-how.
Israeli and Indian officials and analysts dismiss such claims, but Pakistani Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan said in a June interview with Spanish Tiempo magazine that "Israel helped make those [Indian] tests possible" by providing electronic switches.
"The Israeli [international intelligence service] Mossad works with the Indian government.... Israel supplied India the activating devices that enable simultaneous tests within a fraction of a second. Only in Israel and in America can you find these devices, and we know these came from Israel," Mr. Khan was quoted as saying.
An expert quoted by the London-based weekly Defense News, Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington, noted that the minister may have referred to devices called krytons, 810 of which he said Israel had "smuggled" out of California in the early 1980s. Despite American diplomatic efforts, he said, only 469 were returned by Israel.
Defense News also quoted a Malaysia-based analyst, who noted that in the mid-1980s Israel and India jointly developed a relatively inexpensive separation technique that could extract weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods using a laser.
The US last year listed the state of Israel as a nuclear proliferator, but analysts here say that ties to India were never close enough to risk sharing such sensitive data. Still, Israel's largest newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, in late June quoted US officials as saying they were looking into the possibility that US-made components had been passed to India.
Under pressure from Washington, according to Yediot Ahronot, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai ordered Israeli defense officials to lower the profile of their ties to India.
But officials on both sides have indicated that they are pursuing close strategic links. Talks have been held, and deals reportedly made on intelligence-sharing and cooperation.
Israeli sources say that from the 1960s to the 1980s, Israel was in fact disappointed with New Delhi's early reluctance. Israel was itself wary of angering China - with which it also has close defense ties - and in a small sign that things could be better, Israel recently lost a bid to upgrade MIG jet fighters for the Indian Air Force.
"Why would India need Israel's help?" Mr. Feldman asks. "India has a huge nuclear program already. Why would countries with such sensitive interests expose themselves to the other?"
Drawbacks of coming out
The South Asia tests have had another result: debate within Israel about whether the time has come to openly declare itself a nuclear power. Debate is also under way about the need for a second-strike nuclear capability - the ability to strike back even after being hit by a nuclear weapon. That is reported to be met by Israel's recent purchase of three submarines from Germany.
The drawbacks for Israel of declaring itself a nuclear state are many and hinder Israel's strategic dependence on America. By law, the US must halt aid to nuclear-test states - which in Israel's case would end a $3 billion per year aid package.
"Israeli nuclear testing would result in an immediate and complete halt to the close defense ties it enjoys with the US," Feldman says. "As a result, Israel's ability to confront the strategic threats it now faces will be eroded."