The Hypocrisy of Israel’s Nukes

For decades, the U.S. and Israel have played a game of not admitting what everyone knows that Israel possesses a secret nuclear arsenal. But this policy of dissembling has made the two countries look hypocritical when they press Iran on its nuclear program, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Some things, or possible things, are important enough that we would be foolish to presume or pretend that they do not exist even if we lack any official confirmation or acknowledgment that they in fact exist. One such possible thing is of high importance to security issues in the Middle East.

Almost everyone outside of government who writes or speaks about these issues takes as a given that Israel has long had an arsenal of nuclear weapons. No Israeli government, however, has ever said publicly that Israel has such weapons, and neither has the U.S. government, under any administration, said so either.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2012, drawing his own "red line" on how far he will let Iran go in refining nuclear fuel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2012, drawing his own “red line” on how far he will let Iran go in refining nuclear fuel.

Let us be very careful in how we discuss this subject. The world is full of widely accepted conventional wisdom, some of which turns out not to be true. After all, we do not know whether Israel has nuclear weapons. So let us not frame a discussion of this subject in terms of assertions of fact. Instead, we can play off the widely held consensus on the subject, discussing implications of the consensus itself and other implications if the consensus happened to be correct.

One disadvantage of this approach is that to adhere scrupulously to the agnostic qualifiers that the approach requires makes for clumsy prose that is uncomfortable to read. A way to cope with this problem is inspired by the late Alfred Kahn, the Cornell economist who served in Jimmy Carter’s administration. Kahn is best known for deregulating the airline industry as chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board. He later was Carter’s anti-inflation czar, in which post the blunt-spoken Kahn was once chastised by his political betters at the White House for warning of a possible “depression.”

Don’t use the word depression, he was told. Kahn complied, but rather than resort to some awkward circumlocution such as “an economic downturn that is more serious than what is customarily called a recession” he started using the term banana as a substitute for the word he was not supposed to utter. When the head of the United Fruit Company complained to him about this negative use of the term, Kahn switched to kumquat as his substitute word whenever he discussed the danger of a depression.

Using both Kahn’s technique and his term, in the rest of this essay let kumquats mean “Israel’s widely suspected nuclear weapons” or, in its more complete form, “Israel’s widely suspected nuclear weapons, so widely and strongly suspected that just about everyone who says anything about related topics takes them as a given, even though we cannot say for certain that they exist.”

Kumquats are not just a subject of conventional wisdom. They have been carefully addressed by serious historians and political scientists and have been taken into account in countless analyses of security problems in the Middle East. They also routinely figure into global rundowns of nuclear weapons arsenals, such as from the Ploughshares Fund or the Arms Control Association, with Israel listed alongside the eight declared nuclear weapons states.

The Arms Control Association’s inventory estimates the number of kumquats at between 75 and 200. Most other estimates are similar; a more detailed examination of kumquats and associated Israeli military forces that appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 12 years ago used the same range. The fullest understanding of the kumquat program can be found in the writings of the foremost historian of that program, Avner Cohen, including in his most recent book, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb.

Cohen and co-author Marvin Miller argued in an article four years ago that the policy of non-acknowledgment of kumquats has outlived whatever usefulness it had for Israel, and that Israel should change that policy. According to these authors, the policy was grounded in an understanding that Golda Meir and Richard Nixon reached in 1969, by which the United States would not make a public issue out of kumquats as long as Israel did not acknowledge their existence.

Cohen and Miller contend that being more transparent about this capability would enable Israel to demonstrate that it is a responsible nuclear power, to participate in arms control endeavors that are in Israel’s interests, and to diminish one of the grounds for the international community to treat Israel as an outlaw pariah state. Greater transparency also would facilitate useful discussion and debate among Israelis themselves of issues related to ownership of kumquats, such as questions of safety, command and control, and identification of circumstances in which the kumquats might ever be used.

From a U.S. point of view, the policy of not saying anything publicly about kumquats has also long outlived whatever usefulness it may have had, for the reasons Cohen and Miller offer as well as for others. The very fact that there is now such a broad and strong consensus about the existence of kumquats, which was not yet the case in 1969, is one reason. Moreover, keeping any mention of kumquats out of bounds inhibits full and fruitful discussion about Israel’s security, with the Israelis themselves as well as among American politicians and policy-makers. Anyone who professes to have high concern about Israel’s security, which includes almost every American politician, ought to favor uninhibited and fully informed discussion of the subject.

Arms control also is at least as important to U.S. interests as to Israel’s, at both regional and global levels. Regionally, proposals for a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone (or in some variants, a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone) are worth discussing, however much realization of such a goal will depend on resolution of political conflicts that will determine the willingness of regional states to give up whatever weapons they currently have. Any such discussion will be a feckless charade, however, as long as neither Israel nor the United States will say anything about kumquats.

That the United States is so out of step on this subject with the rest of the world is taken by the rest of the world as one more example of double standards that the United States applies to shield Israel. Even further, it is taken as not just a double standard but living a lie. Whatever the United States says about nuclear weapons will always be taken with a grain of salt or with some measure of disdain as long as the United States says nothing about kumquats.

The issue of Iran’s nuclear program, negotiations on which will be coming to a climax this fall, is highly germane to this problem. We have the spectacle of the government of Israel being by far the most energetic rabble-rouser on the subject of a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, to the extent of repeatedly threatening to attack Iran militarily.

Some might call this irony; others would call it chutzpah. Anyone would be entitled to say that any state that not only refuses to become a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) or to subject any of its nuclear activities to any kind of international inspection or control but also already possesses kumquats or their equivalents has no standing to conduct such agitation about Iran, which is a party to the NPT, has already subjected its nuclear activities to an unprecedented degree of intrusive inspection, and is in the process of negotiating an agreement to place even further limits on its nuclear program to ensure it stays peaceful.

The need for full and well-informed discussion of Israel’s security will play into any debate in the United States about a completed nuclear agreement with Iran. Fully taking into account kumquats, which, as noted above, private scholars and nongovernmental organizations estimate to number in the dozens or scores, also underscores how misplaced is the preoccupation with an Iranian “breakout” or feared rush to build one or even a few bombs. Whatever the United States may or may not say on the subject, it is safe to assume that Iranian leaders believe that kumquats really do exist, and probably in the numbers that private experts estimate.

The U.S. refusal to discuss this subject has other, less direct, distorting and stifling effects on discourse in the United States about Middle Eastern security issues. When the U.S. government takes a posture such as this, it has damaging trickle-down effects, not necessarily visible to the public, on the broader discourse. Then there is the sheer silliness of the posture.

With such a broad and strong consensus about kumquats and all the extensive discussion that has already taken place about them elsewhere, clearly the official U.S. posture serves no purpose in safeguarding U.S. security interests. It is only a legacy of a policy constructed to deal with a situation U.S. policy-makers faced 45 years ago.

The U.S. posture appears to outsiders inconsistent not only with the broader consensus but also with some of the United States’ own public revelations. Six years ago the U.S. government released a redacted and declassified version of an intelligence estimate from 1974 about prospects for nuclear proliferation, in which the lead judgment about Israel was “We believe that Israel already has produced nuclear weapons.” The kumquat program has since had, of course, 40 years to progress from wherever it may have been in 1974.

Within the past couple of weeks the U.S. government has publicly released another pertinent set of previously classified material: about 100 pages of documents from internal U.S. government deliberations about the kumquat problem in 1968 and 1969, spanning the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The documents make interesting reading, although so far the press has given almost no attention to them apart from an article in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

A strong refrain, spanning both U.S. administrations, running through these deliberations was that any Israeli development of nuclear weapons would be a major negative for U.S. interests. As one interagency assessment put it, “The disadvantages to U.S. global interests are such that a major U.S. effort to induce Israel not to produce nuclear weapons is justified.”

U.S. policy-makers faced several complications in trying to achieve this objective, however, including the already-emerging problem of Israeli colonization of territory conquered in the Six Day War less than two years earlier. An interagency study group described this part of the quandary this way:

“Use of leverage on the NPT/nuclear issue may seriously detract from our capability to influence Israel on the settlement issue. On the other hand, if we decide to defer using pressure on the nuclear question so as to preserve leverage on a possible peace settlement, we must ask how long we are prepared to do this in the face of Israel’s rapidly advancing program, and the knowledge that, the longer we put off making Israel feel the seriousness of our purpose, the harder it will be to arrest Israel’s program.”

Another complication was the fear that using the most obvious source of U.S. leverage over Israel, arms supplies, with shipment of F-4 Phantom jets being the top Israeli interest at the time, would only make the Israelis more determined than ever to push ahead with the development of nuclear weapons. The State Department in particular argued this point, and was generally in favor of relying only on persuasion rather than leverage to try to slow down the Israeli program.

The Department of Defense favored taking a harder line and using the arms spigot as a tool of leverage without fear of endangering Israel’s conventional advantage over its neighbors, noting that “for the present Israel’s military superiority is complete.” The documents do not take us to the end of this interagency debate or to whatever Nixon and Meir said to each other in private. But in effect the outcome was a passive don’t ask, don’t tell approach.

Even at that early stage the kumquat program, like the colonization program, involved a lack of Israeli cooperation with the United States. Israel already was playing the verbal game of saying it would not be the first state to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the Middle East. The declassified documents record repeated U.S. efforts to get Israel to state that not “introducing” weapons meant not producing or stockpiling them. The Israelis refused to do so and instead suggested that as long as weapons were neither tested or announced they would not have been “introduced.”

The timing of declassification of government documents can reflect many different and mostly mundane factors, such as when someone happened to submit a Freedom of Information Act request and how fast the wheels of the bureaucratic review process turn. It would be nice to think or at least to hope, however, that this latest release of documents signals a willingness by the current U.S. administration to take a step away from shielding Israeli activities that, even more now than when the policy-makers of 1969 were deliberating, involve significant “disadvantages to U.S. global interests.”

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

29 comments for “The Hypocrisy of Israel’s Nukes

  1. September 16, 2014 at 07:38

    Thank you!

  2. Hillary
    September 7, 2014 at 06:11

    “the true Israelites, are still is diaspora. They are around us.”
    [email protected] on September 5, 2014

    Sorry tm but over 80% of Jews are Ashkenazi from Eastern Europe with no historical roots in the Middle East & not ” true Israelites”.
    BTW there never was an Exodus.

  3. September 5, 2014 at 21:28

    I suppose Orwell was right, so was Ford. “First they steal the words, then they steal the meaning.” If this question is put to you – Do you love Israel? Check ‘it’s complicated’ because it is. Referring to Jacob by his other name, Israel, is denigrating the meekest people on earth. It’s a long story but Jacob’s children, the true Israelites, are still is diaspora. They are around us. They are a beautiful sensitive people. In the Orwellian adage, the true meaning of Israel, the Israelites and the Jew have been stolen. Identifying the thief is easy enough, but a harder story to tell.

  4. Hillary
    September 5, 2014 at 19:42

    The Shah of Iran bravely stood his ground when ” interrogated ” by the well well known Zionist Mr. Wallace.
    Interesting how very soon after this the Shah was diagnosed with cancer and died very rapidly.
    Shah of Persia states that US is controlled by Jews.

  5. John J
    September 5, 2014 at 18:07

    I would like to direct attention to Alan Hart’s 3 volume series, “Zionism: the Real Enemy of the Jews”, vol3 (Conflict Without End), the end of chapter 9, (The Yom Kippur War and “Nuclear Blackmail.”

    “He was a former IDF officer who had been at the heart of events during the Yom Kippur war. We talked.
    He told me what had happened when Dyan, apparently, panicked. Two missiles were armed with nuclear warheads and targeted; and the targets were Damascus and Cairo. I said, ‘I believe you.’ He replied: ‘You ought to. I was with those who received Dayan’s order and did the targeting.’ I recalled what Golda had said to me about Israel’s willingness in a doomsday situation to take the region down with it. The man who had decided that Israel was no place in which to bring up his children said: ‘One day they will do it.'”

  6. Abe
    September 5, 2014 at 16:56

    Norman Finkelstein on nuclear weapons, Israel and Iran

  7. September 5, 2014 at 14:06

    “When the head of the United Fruit Company complained to him about this negative use of the term, Kahn switched to kumquat as his substitute word whenever he discussed the danger of a depression.”

    Perhaps Kahn should have simply expanded his term to “banana republic” which is what United Fruit turned Central America into, and what the U.S. is becoming as it falls over itself not to offend Israel and it’s American lobby.

    • Yaj
      September 5, 2014 at 17:14

      The banana republic that the US is becoming has much more to do with reinstituting Gilded Age polices than US policy toward Israel.

      Bring back Eisenhower era tax rates, including the tax on financial transactions and reduce the banana republic thing immediately.

  8. Abe
    September 5, 2014 at 13:21

    Are threats to Israel’s security inflated to justify occupation and U.S. support? (2014)
    By Paul Pillar

  9. Joe Tedesky.
    September 5, 2014 at 13:02


    See this;

  10. Abe
    September 5, 2014 at 12:58

    Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (2014)
    By Gareth Porter

    Investigating the “Iran Nuclear Scare” since 2006, Porter debunk myths and disinformation that have been spread by the involved governments, and highlights the central role of Israel in the drive for using U.S. military force against Iran.

    Porter’s book and video interview are HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

  11. Abe
    September 5, 2014 at 12:36

    A “Nuclear-Free Zone” in the Middle East?
    Why Israel will not Join the Non-Proliferation Treaty
    Timothy Alexander Guzman

  12. Brendan
    September 5, 2014 at 12:15

    Israeli Nuclear Arsenal Prohibits US Foreign Aid Under Symington Amendment

    “credible reports from the US Army and a former president [Carter] confirm the existence of an Israeli nuclear weapons arsenal …
    The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 as amended by the Symington Amendment of 1976 and the Glenn Amendment of 1977 prohibit US military assistance to countries that acquire or transfer nuclear reprocessing technology outside of international nonproliferation regimes. Israel, unlike Iran, is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If Congress wishes to provide US taxpayer funded foreign aid to Israel in compliance with US law, it may do so only under a special waiver from the office of the President as in
    the case for Pakistan.”

    It looks like a policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”.

  13. Hillary
    September 5, 2014 at 10:38

    I am disappointed with Paul Pilar and his “Some things, or possible things” and “high importance to security issues in the Middle East.

    Ashkenazi Jews with no real historical connection to the original Jews of the middle east but from Eastern Europe led by Ben Gurion were determined to attain Nuclear Weapons for Israel and the US President JFK was determined against it.

    A state for 0.2% of the world’s population acquired “the Bomb” and Israel once or twice has successfully blackmailed the US by stating that it was about to activate their nuclear missiles which were aimed at Muslim capitals

    A Zionists entity the foreign intruder pushed and forced its way into the Middle East with agreements which they never had any intention of keeping and needed the nuclear capacity to dominate and get their way .
    The Hypocrisy of Israel’s Nukes but how did they do it ?

  14. Joe Tedesky
    September 5, 2014 at 01:53

    For those of you who may have never heard of Grant Smith I would like to recommend you check Mr Smith out. Smith zero’s in on freshly declassified government documents. Under the FOIA Grant Smith has done some great investigative work. Check out his site; pay close attention to what Grant Smith has uncovered going on in Apollo Pa back I believe in the sixties.

    …………. Remember around this time last year when all the talk was how our country was going down the same road as Neville Chamberlain Munich 1939, umbrella’s anyone? Just like the will for bombing Syria was happening, so was the p5+1 talks. Funny how there has been no resolve, only more escalations. Escalations such as regime change in the Ukraine have instead been added. Nothing has been accomplished on Iran’s nuke program or helping gain a Syrian peace. Aren’t we lucky we now have the excitement of IS or ISIS or ISIL or John McC…whoops, sorry, won’t happen again. How’s Benghazi these days?

  15. Zachary Smith
    September 4, 2014 at 23:31

    After all, we do not know whether Israel has nuclear weapons.

    Right about there in the essay I stopped taking this fellow seriously. An experienced CIA agent who spouts that sort of BS doesn’t deserve any respect whatever.

    Entire books have been written about every phase of the development of the Israel Nuke program. I’m sure Mr. Pillar had access to more information than those authors.

    There was a major league whistle-blower named Mordechai Vanunu.

    Finally, we actually caught the bastards in the act during their South Atlantic test of one of their nukes. That was when they actively assisted the South Africans in developing the White Apartheid Bomb.

    • Brendan
      September 5, 2014 at 06:09

      Israel effectively admitted to having nukes by jailing Vanunu.

      If he was just a liar or fantasist who invented a story about an Israeli nuclear weapons program, they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of kidnapping him after getting a female agent to lure him from London to Rome in a honey-pot trap. Neither would they have put him in solitary confinement for eleven of his eighteen year prison sentence. Neither would they still be restricting his freedom of speech and movement ten years after releasing him.

      Now where’s the evidence for the Iranian nuclear weapons program, the existece of which Iran denies? I haven’t seen any yet.

      • September 11, 2014 at 06:19

        Anyone with a sophisticated uranium enrichment program can make The Bomb if they want. Iran’s enrichment program is more modern than the one the USA used to make its gigantic arsenal. Given who Iran’s neighbors are, many of them nuclear armed, and given that Iran has the second or third largest oil reserves, it’s reasonable to assume they want a nuclear deterrent. Just because Israel has such an arsenal doesn’t mean that Iran might not want one, too. They’ve certainly got the technical skill to build one if they want it.

    • John
      September 5, 2014 at 08:28

      But Mr. Pillar is very right to question their existence.
      1. Quelling doubt is part of the weapon, because it can deter only with credibility, and its use precludes its goal by alienating the world.
      2. The books describing the weapons program could be simply the cheapest way to the same credibility; i.e., mere propaganda. I confess to having heard the reports rather than reading the books for this reason.
      3. It is not plausible to me that Israel developed its own nuclear weapons even with US help; it is too small. Equally plausible stories exist that weapons or essential parts were stolen or given to Israel from US stockpiles. The 100 small warheads which disappeared after the lone US ABM facility was closed in 1976 seem to match the description, but it could be others. Remember that Iran does not have them yet, although 24 Iranian nuclear science students were trained at MIT while I was there in the 1970s before the Shah was deposed.
      4. The question of their existence is therefore central to US policy as well as Israel’s, so attacking credibility to force proof is very proper. If you have 100 weapons, why not use up a few under international observation as proof? Why not admit them, especially when the West does nothing anyway? That would make the deterrent credible, the main goal.

      If they do not exist, then US policy can be far more demanding and should be. So let’s press the question!

      • John
        September 5, 2014 at 13:54

        No, I’m not a xenophobe, and yes, it is conceivable. It is indeed meaningful that 24 Iranian nuclear scientists were trained at MIT; my training was not in that but it was a major student issue.

        I am not arguing that we should not trace the development or supply of materials and components. Let us do so and consider the NPT issues as well.

        But let us not accept the possibility of a “joint test” as proof: to do so only enables Israel to claim a deterrent without proof or effort.

        Let us instead demand proof, as all other powers with such weapons are anxious to provide. It is not having the weapon, but having the proof, which constitutes the deterrent. If they are not willing to prove then they do not have the weapon, or have only one or two, or a few too big to deliver under the critical circumstances.

        And if that is true they are vulnerable to the coercion they deserve.

      • Yaj
        September 5, 2014 at 17:02


        Yes you are a xenophobe and read like a lot of Glenn Beck.

        • John
          September 5, 2014 at 19:11

          We should stay on the subject; I fear no xenos involved, and have no right wing interests.

      • Yaj
        September 7, 2014 at 10:50


        Right yes, Beck is right wing, but it’s right wing mixed in with a few other things. And those few other things most certainly overlap with what you’ve been saying: “But this minor state just doesn’t have the capacity and must have stolen the warheads because they’re not smart enough to build the bombs themselves”.

        And that certainly fits the definition of xenophobia.

        As do the comments about Iranian engineers in the MIT nuclear weapons engineering program in the 1970s.

        In fact Beck overlaps with other brands of conspiracy “thinking” that those exclusively of the right.

        • john
          September 7, 2014 at 19:47

          Pro-Israel propaganda. Cut the ad hominem attacks and stay on the subject or stay out of it.

    • Yaj
      September 5, 2014 at 10:53


      Quoting you,

      “3. It is not plausible to me that Israel developed its own nuclear weapons even with US help; it is too small. Equally plausible stories exist that weapons or essential parts were stolen or given to Israel from US stockpiles.”

      Are you joking? Or just such a xenophobe that you can’t imagine Israel doing significant development without US help? Have you looked at the state, current, of Israeli medical research, or computers, or materials, or a lot of other tcch.

      That you went to MIT in the 1970s is meaningless, unless you worked on nuclear weapons development at a post doctoral level.

      It’s pretty well understood that the French and Israelis co-developed nuclear weapons for their respective countries in the 1960s. This includes shared test explosions in French controlled parts of the South Pacific–that would count as public demonstration to anybody paying attention. Then in the later 1960s the Israelis and the South Africans worked together to develop, and test, nuclear weapons.

      (Here West Germany starts to enter into the mix as a supplier of so technology. And don’t think for a second that West Germans didn’t have designs on having an independent nuclear weapons program. In fact, such ideas were punted by various West German legislators, and indeed West Germany maintained a giant test area in Zaire, like the size of Connecticut.)

      It’s also real likely that Brazil Argentina had/have serious nuclear weapons programs, likely Taiwan and South Korea too.

      • Zachary Smith
        September 5, 2014 at 11:15

        This includes shared test explosions in French controlled parts of the South Pacific–that would count as public demonstration to anybody paying attention. Then in the later 1960s the Israelis and the South Africans worked together to develop, and test, nuclear weapons.

        Now that’s an excellent point, and one I’ve never seen before.

        I knew about the French connection with the Israeli nuke program, but didn’t have the wit to add 2 + 2 and discover the answer was “4”.

        • September 11, 2014 at 06:11

          The Israeli – French connection for their nukes (and the joint 1960 test in Algeria, not the Pacific) is discussed in detail in this book:

          Steve Weissman and Herbert Krosney, “The Islamic Bomb: The Nuclear Threat to Israel to Israel and the Middle East,” New York: Times Books (1981)
          (there’s a good chapter about the history of Israel’s nukes)

          also recommended:


          Warner D. Farr, LTC, U.S. Army

          The Counterproliferation Papers
          Future Warfare Series No. 2
          USAF Counterproliferation Center
          Air War College
          Air University
          Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama
          September 1999

      • Yaj
        September 5, 2014 at 12:03


        I only realized that the “French” tests would count as public acknowledgment while I was writing.

        I’d not known of the co-production and co-test of warheads by the Israelis and the French until a few months ago. Though knew of the general co-operation.

        Israel probably didn’t want to say publicly: “Yes, we have nuclear weapons”. So as not to encourage the Egyptians and Saudis; both known to have incipient nuclear weapons programs, and then of course in the early 1980s Iraq was working on an atom bomb. (The Iranians encouraged the Israelis to end that program.)

    • Yaj
      September 5, 2014 at 11:28

      Pillar is a guy who doesn’t appear to be aware of massive US involvement in Vietnam in the late 1940s (re-installing the French colonials) and then in the 1950s (keeping the French there and refusing to let the election winner, Ho Chi Minh take countrywide office).

      As for Israeli “kumquats”–they predate the Nixon and even Johnson administrations.

      If Pillar is an example of good analysis at CIA in the past, then there’s a much bigger problem than the likes of Robert Gates.

Comments are closed.