When Israel Would Give Up Its Nukes

There is just one scenario in which Israel would relinquish its nuclear weapons and it seems further from reality than ever, wrote Joe Lauria on May 4, 2015.

By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News
May 4, 2015

[In the eight years since this article was written, the idea of a single, democratic Palestinian-Israeli state with an Arab majority seems today impossible, with Israel implementing an ethnic cleansing plan in Gaza that would lead to a different kind of one-state solution, one in which the remaining Palestinians in the now Occupied Territories would still have no rights.

Before the current slaughter began, Israel had already begun to openly advocate for annexation of West Bank settler colonies. However, since then international opposition to Israel has also begun to grow and has now accelerated during Israel’s genocidal operation in Gaza.]

Israel last week [in 2015] sent its first observer in 20 years to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, which is held every five years at U.N. headquarters in New York. Israel, which is not a NPT member and has never confirmed that it possesses nuclear weapons, also has taken part in five rounds of negotiations in Geneva on establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

However, the veil fell away for the world’s worst kept secret when the U.S. Defense Department recently released a document making it clear that Israel indeed has the bomb. 

A 1987 Pentagon document declassified in February  [2015] unequivocally declares that Israel’s nuclear weapons program was then at the stage the U.S. had reached between 1955 and 1960. It also says Israel had the potential to develop hydrogen weapons.

A photograph of a control room at Israel's Dimona nuclear weapons plant in the 1980s. (Photograph taken by nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, who was later kidnapped and imprisoned by Israel as punishment for revealing its secret nuclear arsenal.)

A photograph of a control room at Israel’s Dimona nuclear weapons plant in the 1980s. (Photograph taken by nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, who was later kidnapped and imprisoned by Israel as punishment for revealing its secret nuclear arsenal.)

The document was released just days before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his highly controversial March 3 speech to a joint session of Congress in which he argued why Iran had to be stopped from getting the bomb. As the only nuclear power in the region, Israel has an unequaled strategic advantage.

There doesn’t appear to be any scenario in which Israel would willingly give up its nuclear arsenal to fulfill a 1995 Security Council resolution calling for a nuclear-free Middle East. Or is there?

The only country to ever voluntarily relinquish its nuclear weapons is apartheid South Africa. President F.W. de Klerk gave written instructions to that effect in February 1991 (the same month Nelson Mandela was released from prison). When he announced in March 1993 that Pretoria’s six, airplane-borne weapons had been dismantled, De Klerk said it was done to improve South Africa’s international relations. (It was also the first time South Africa had ever confirmed that it had the bomb).

De Klerk’s reason has not been entirely accepted by experts. Speculation has led to various theories. One was that with the Soviet Union gone, South Africa no longer needed its nuclear deterrent. Another was that it no longer needed the bomb as a means of blackmailing the U.S. to come to its defense.

One credible theory is that Pretoria saw the writing on the wall: apartheid was doomed and South Africa would soon be led by a black government. The apartheid rulers concluded that it would be better to ditch the bomb altogether rather than letting it fall into the hands of the African National Congress and possibly shared with other African governments.

A former South African diplomat was quoted as saying Pretoria was “motivated by concern that it didn’t want any undeclared nuclear material or infrastructure falling into the hands of Nelson Mandela.”

De Klerk had already scrapped apartheid laws and released Mandela by the time the bombs were dismantled. When he announced that the nukes had been destroyed, de Klerk said, “This country will never be able to get the nuclear device again, to build one again, because of the absolute network of inspection and prevention which being a member of the NPT casts on any country.”

Israeli Admissions of Apartheid

South African President Nelson Mandela with members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus including Representative Kweisi Mfume, 1994. (Maureen Keating, Library of Congress)

The parallels between South Africa and Israel are on the rise. After Netanyahu renounced his support for a Palestinian state in the heat of the final days of his re-election campaign (only to try to reverse it immediately afterward), both the United States and the United Nations strongly implied that the alternative would be an apartheid Israel.

“A two-state solution is the only way for the next Israeli Government to secure Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” said Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, on March 18, [2015], the day after Netanyahu’s re-election. U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said the same day that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “firmly believes” that a two-state solution and an end to the settlements is “the only way forward for Israel to remain a democratic State.”

Not quite believing my ears, I asked Haq if what he meant was that the alternative was an apartheid Israel. “I’ve said what I said,” he responded.

While many critics of Israel say it is already running a de-facto apartheid system in its rule over 4 million Palestinians without rights, legal apartheid would come with annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. That appears to be the reason annexation has been resisted. But the longer a two-state solution remains a dream, the more a one-state solution becomes possible.

No less than two former Israeli prime ministers have said so. “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state,” said Ehud Barak in 2010.

Three years earlier, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.”

A former Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, Alon Liel, put it even more bluntly. “In the situation that exists today, until a Palestinian state is created, we are actually one state. This joint state, in the hope that the status quo is temporary, is an apartheid state.”

Without full Palestinian suffrage, Israel is increasingly facing a hostile international reaction. Israel fears the budding boycott, divestment and sanctions movement could grow to the scale of sanctions that pressed Pretoria to end apartheid.

A one-state solution, in which all Palestinians would have a vote, might mean the election of a Palestinian government to rule both Arabs and Israelis, much as a black South African government rules blacks and whites. Despite its violent past, South African has shown how the communities could coexist.

It seems nearly inconceivable today that Israel would become a single state with a Palestinian Arab government. But it was once inconceivable that South Africa would be led by a black government. 

If that day of a peaceful transition to a single, democratic state to replace Israel should come, is it conceivable that Israeli leaders would allow their nuclear arsenal to be controlled by an Arab government?

Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former U.N. correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers, including The Montreal Gazette, the London Daily Mail and The Star of Johannesburg. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London, a financial reporter for Bloomberg News and began his professional work as a 19-year old stringer for The New York Times. He is the author of two books, A Political Odyssey, with Sen. Mike Gravel, foreword by Daniel Ellsberg; and How I Lost By Hillary Clinton, foreword by Julian Assange. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe


6 comments for “When Israel Would Give Up Its Nukes

  1. David H
    November 19, 2023 at 09:28

    Yes, sanctions movement growing out of scale. Things might change then. Israel could fix water, power, and sewage no problem. The international community could provide food, habitat, and help rebuild hospitals. With everyone voting Israel might give’em up first. But prior to that maybe all nations with’em could work on a step-back-(again)-from-launch-on-warning-treaty that would also prohibit automated. Eliminate the biggest dangers first? It’s been a period where everything’s truly gotten away from us, so probably we’ll need to get most things back in focus as calmly and rationally as possible.

    “But Schneider told me she was most unsettled by a different strategy, pursued with surprising regularity. In many games, she said, players who feared a total breakdown of command and control wanted to automate their nuclear launch capability completely.”


    Be interesting to see how you’d verify.

    The Wikipedia article on neutron bombs I thought was sort of left hanging.

  2. Rafael
    November 19, 2023 at 01:15

    That theory about S. Africa makes a lot of sense.

  3. Realist
    November 18, 2023 at 13:56

    Only when Palestine or some other remnant of the opposition to global take-over by Zionism is able to pry the nukes from Israel’s cold dead fingers will nukes diminish in the slightest as a factor in the calculus of the next world war. But, as inspiring as such an event might be to those who still believe that a universal peace on Earth could ever be possible, all of the other holders of such weapons, including the dependably glib and posturing United States, would remain militantly opposed to giving them up under any circumstances. Such a move would be considered naive by the “great thinkers” in the employ of world capitalism or universal socialism.

    Believe the following or consider it just fantasy, it still proves the point. Reportedly back in the early 1950’s President Eisenhower was taken for a personal summit with some god-like space aliens. The aliens offered a treaty to the Earthers in which we gave up all our nukes and they gifted us with technology that would provide limitless free energy, enough to transform our planet to a veritable heaven on Earth. No longer any need to toil for our needs and in the process despoil and pollute our environment! According to legend, Ike said not on your life, unless you force the same deal upon the Russians. Clearly the Russians must have responded in a like fashion (“Not unless you coerce the US!”), condemning us all to this intractable morass. No human will completely trust his follow man–he knows himself too well!

  4. November 18, 2023 at 11:28

    Interesting hypothesis. But paraphrasing Lloyd Benson’s rebuke to Dan Quayle during the vicepresidential debates way back when: “we knew South Africa back then, we rebuked South Africa back then, but Israel is no South Africa; it is much, much worse, and utterly unrepentent”.

    • Joseph Saccone
      November 18, 2023 at 18:12


  5. anon
    November 17, 2023 at 22:50

    Either nobody should have nuclear weapons, or everybody should have them.

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