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Israel's Reaction to Nuclear Threat. The Case of the Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian Nuclear Programs
Since its establishment in 1948, the state of Israel has experienced many security incidents, some of which have posed a threat to its very existence. One of the prominent existential threats was the scenario of a hostile enemy state acquiring military nuclear capabilities, which would lead to an intolerable situation for the Jewish state. For the Israelis, such a scenario has repeated itself three times already: first, when Israel decided to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981; second, when Israel demolished the nuclear reactor built in Syria in 2007, and third, when the Israeli leadership confronted the question whether to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program in 2010-2011, but eventually refrained from this action. Empirically, these three incidents clearly demonstrate how Israel has responded to existential threats, taking into account its relationship with its main ally, the US.


     Since its establishment in 1948, the state of Israel has experienced many security incidents, some of which have posed a threat to its very existence. One of the prominent existential threats was the scenario of a hostile enemy state acquiring military nuclear capabilities, which would lead to an intolerable situation for the Jewish state. For the Israelis, such a scenario has repeated itself three times already: first, when Israel decided to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981; second, when Israel demolished the nuclear reactor built in Syria in 2007, and third, when the Israeli leadership confronted the question whether to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program in 2010-2011, but eventually refrained from this action. Empirically, these three incidents clearly demonstrate how Israel has responded to existential threats, taking into account its relationship with its main ally, the US.

     The Iraqi nuclear reactor was perceived by the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (in office in 1977-1983) as an existential threat to the State of Israel (Nakdimon, 2007: 83). Concurrently with the diplomatic efforts to persuade France to stop aid to Iraq, Israel has taken various steps to thwart the Iraqi nuclear program. On April 6, 1979, Mossad agents destroyed parts of the reactor core that was intended for Iraq, manufactured in a factory in Toulon, France, and in the summer of 1980 Mossad agents killed three Iraqi scientists associated with the nuclear program (Nakdimon, 2007: 97; Bergman, 2018: 343-344). Yet, Mossad Chief Yitzhak Hofi knew that these actions would not completely stop Iraq's nuclear program. Hence, he told PM Begin in October 1980 that the only way left is to bomb the reactor from the air (Bergman, 2018: 349-353). In order for Israel to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor, Begin had to obtain the approval of the Security Cabinet, which has the legal authority to go to war or launch a military operation. In May 1981, the Security Cabinet voted to destroy the nuclear reactor in Iraq, and in June Israeli air force planes destroyed the reactor (Nakdimon, 2007: 226-227). Yet, although he was in contact with the American administration under President Ronald Reagan on the issue of the Iraqi nuclear program, Begin did not involve them at all in his desire to destroy the reactor. In fact, Begin's decision not to inform the Americans about the bombing of the reactor stemmed from his fear that if he did so and the Americans would oppose Israel would have to attack before it was ready (Katz, 2019: 99).

     In contrary to Begin's perception, for the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (in office in 2006-2009), sharing information with the Americans was necessary because the potential benefit from having the US carry out the strike, greatly outweighed the risk of earlier attack when Israel was not ready (Katz, 2019: 100). Thus, after the Mossad found out in March 2007 that Syria was building a nuclear reactor, Olmert, who immediately wanted to destroy the reactor, decided to share the matter with the American administration (Katz, 2019: 40-43). Hence, Mossad Chief Meir Dagan was dispatched in mid-April to Washington and presented to the Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, his deputy Elliott Abrams, and CIA Director Michael Hayden, the evidence that Syria was building a nuclear reactor (Katz, 2019: 15-17; Olmert, 2018: 198-199). Shortly after the Americans had received the report, Olmert asked Bush to bomb the nuclear reactor. The American president replied that he needed some time to look at the intelligence and promised the Israeli prime minister to give him an answer (Katz, 2019: 47; Bush, 2010: 421). On June 17, President Bush convened his national security team to discuss the issue of the Syrian nuclear reactor. The general working assumption in the American administration was that if the US refused to destroy the reactor, Israel would do it itself. It was the impression that Hayden and Hadley received from Mossad chief Dagan during their April meeting, and that is what Bush understood from his conversations with Olmert. In addition, the Americans believed that destroying the reactor would be an easy task for the Israelis (Katz, 2019: 56). Basically, the Americans had a dilemma: while militarily there was no problem in destroying the Syrian reactor, diplomatically, bombing a sovereign country without a justified warning would create severe blowback. Hence, since a covert mission to eradicate the reactor was too risky, the favourite option was to brief US allies on the intelligence, jointly expose the facility and demand that Syria shutter and dismantle it under the supervision of the IAEA. Yet, if Syria refused to dismantle the facility, the American would have a clear public rationale for military action. Moreover, the CIA’s intelligence assessment had a low confidence of a Syrian nuclear weapons program, a fact that only enhanced Bush’s decision not to bomb the reactor but to follow a diplomatic path first (Bush, 2010: 421). This point was very crucial for the Bush administration, since the intelligence failure that led to the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was still hung in the air. Therefore, President Bush had to know with a hundred percent certainty that Israel’s information was accurate because he could not, politically or publicly, launch a military operation without an accurate intelligence justification (Katz, 2019: 44-45). Finally, the Americans, who were already involved in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, feared that after the bombing of the Syrian reactor, another war would erupt in the Middle East (Katz, 2019: 59-60). Eventually, the American president favoured the position of most of his administration and decided that the US would first follow the diplomatic path (Katz, 2019: 115-118). On July 13, Bush spoke with Olmert and informed him of his decision not to bomb the reactor and alternatively follow the diplomatic route. The American president stated that he cannot justify an attack on a sovereign nation unless his intelligence agencies confirm that it is a nuclear weapon program (Bush, 2010: 421). Thus, Bush proposed to send US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Israel to hold a joint press conference in order to press Syria to destroy the reactor (Olmert, 2018: 205). Olmert, who believed the Americans were still living under the trauma of their failure to assess intelligence before the war in Iraq and therefore feared from acting militarily against Syria (Olmert, 2018: 204), replied: “George, this leaves me surprised and disappointed. And I cannot accept it. We told you from the first day, when Dagan came to Washington, and I have told you since then whenever we discussed it, that the reactor had to go away. Israel cannot live with a Syrian nuclear reactor; we will not accept it. It would change the entire region and our national security cannot accept it. You are telling me you will not act; so, we will act. The timing is another matter, and we will not do anything precipitous” (Abrams, 2013: 246-247). Bush replied to Olmert that “the United States will not get in your way”, acknowledging that Israel had a right to protect its national security. After the conversation, Bush instructed his administration to maintain absolute silence, and to ensure that Israel could carry out its plan (Abrams, 2013: 246-247; Katz, 2019: 120-122). Later on September 5, Olmert convened his Security Cabinet in order to authorize the strike against the Syrian nuclear reactor. Eventually, all the ministers of the Security Cabinet, except one, voted in favour of attacking the reactor. That same night, on September 6, Israeli air force planes took off and destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor (Katz, 2019: 178-182; Olmert, 2018: 226-227).

     In comparison to Begin and Olmert’s successful securitization, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (in office in 1996-1999 and 2009-2020) failed twice to securitize the Iranian nuclear program during 2010-2011.


The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

     Despite clandestine actions taken by Israel against the Iranian nuclear program from early 2000s, actions that included the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotage operations in the nuclear facilities, which eventually led to its delay (Kfir, 2019: 69-71), Netanyahu, who returned to the post of prime minister in 2009, believed that nuclear facilities in Iran posed an existential threat to Israel and should therefore be destroyed (Kfir, 2019: 62). Unlike Iraq and Syria, each of which has built a single nuclear reactor in their territory that was eventually destroyed by Israel in 1981 and 2007 respectively, Iran has built several nuclear sites scattered around various places in the country, which were surrounded by air defence systems (Kfir, 2019: 90-92). In this situation, differently from Iraq and Syria where Israel had to destroy only one facility, destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities was a complex task that required a timely bombing operation at several different locations. In fact, from a military point of view, Israel had the operational capacity to attack Iran and bomb its nuclear facilities alone. However, while an Israeli attack would delay the Iranian nuclear program for a maximum of three years, which would require Israel to attack Iran again in the future, the United States, which had special measures that include bunker penetrating bombs and advanced aerial refuelling aircraft that Israel did not possess, could completely destroy the Iranian nuclear program (Kfir, 2019: 56). Therefore, the Israelis preferred to receive from Washington those special measures and an American green light for an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Already in its first meeting with US President Barack Obama in May 2009, the Israeli prime minister tried to persuade him to give Israel a green light to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and provide Israel with bunker penetrating bombs and advanced refuelling aircraft needed for the attack. Obama, who opposed military action against Iran, responded that efforts were being made to delay the Iranian nuclear program such as economic sanctions and non-military covert operations in electronic and cyber warfare (Kfir, 2019: 48-49). In addition, the Obama administration feared that an Israeli bombing would lead to a fierce Iranian response by launching hundreds of long-range missiles from Iran and tens of thousands of missiles from Lebanon by Hezbollah - which is actually a proxy organization for Iran - toward Israel, a scenario that could easily escalate to an overall war in the Middle East. In that context, there were also fears in Washington that in response to the bombing, Iran would shut down the Hormuz Strait in the Gulf for oil tankers, causing a global energy crisis, especially in Asian and European countries that depended on fuel from the Gulf countries (Kfir, 2019: 116-117). Thus, the debate between Israel and the US was not about the danger in the Iranian nuclear program, but on the way to deal with it. While Israel wanted to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities, the Obama administration preferred to pursue the path of economic sanctions, which would hopefully cause the Iranians to abandon their nuclear program, and if it would not work then to conduct a military attack. In other words, US President Obama has resisted a military attack in Iran as long as the diplomatic means and the economic sanctions are not fully exhausted (Kfir, 2019: 102-105).

     After they had realized that the Americans would not cooperate, both the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who also supported an Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, agreed that Israel should carry out the attack even without a green light from the Obama administration. Yet, in order to execute an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, Netanyahu and Barak needed to obtain the approval of the Security Cabinet, which according to the Israeli law, has the legal authority to approve such a military operation. But before raising the issue before the Security Cabinet, Netanyahu and Barak had to obtain the support of the “Seventh Forum”, which was in fact a limited body of the Security Cabinet that included the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, the Foreign Minister, and four other senior ministers. Eventually, in both attempts in 2010-2011, Netanyahu and Barak failed to securitize the Iranian nuclear program. In the first attempt in 2010, Defence Minister Barak said during the “Seventh Forum” meetings that an action must be taken soon before the “immunity space” in Fordow reactor, which was the hardest target to hit, would be blocked, and then an Israeli attack in Iran will no longer be possible. Barak argued that the Iranians were going to complete all the defence systems of their nuclear facilities, which included setting up bunkers that would be immune to bombs in Israel, and hence an Israeli attack could not be carried out any time soon. In September 2010, Netanyahu and Barak, who were determined to execute the attack in Iran, ordered IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi to move the Israeli army to the highest alert level. The request meant the IDF was preparing for action in Iran. Chief of Staff Ashkenazi refused Netanyahu and Barak’s request, indicating that the only the Security Cabinet has the statutory authority to order such a request. Ashkenazi, who believed that the IDF was operationally ready for action, thought that the mobilization of the army could lead the Iranians to conclude that Israel was going to attack, and so, without intention, Israel would find itself in a war that it did not anticipate. Moreover, Mossad Chief Meir Dagan and Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin also claimed that this order was illegal, and that the prime minister and the defence minister could not decide alone on an attack on Iran. As a result, Netanyahu and Barak realized that they had no way to carry out an attack in Iran at that point (Kfir, 2019: 108-111).

     In the second attempt, during 2011, Netanyahu and Barak again tried to persuade members of the Seventh Forum (who became Eighth when Minister Yuval Steinitz was joined to the forum) to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Yet, members of the forum were still hesitating to support the attack before an American support for the operation was obtained. In October 2011, a crucial meeting of the Eighth Forum was held in order to reach a decision of whether attack the Iranian nuclear facilities. During that meeting, which was attended also by IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, IDF Intelligence Chief Aviv Kochavi, Commander of the Air Force Amir Eshel, Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo, and Shin Bet Chief Yoram Cohen, Netanyahu and Barak believed that a decision would be made to step up the army in preparation for an attack on Iran. Since the Eighth Forum had no legal authority to instruct the army for an attack but only the Security Cabinet, Netanyahu and Barak had to obtain a majority within the Eighth Forum and then pass a resolution for the approval of the Security Cabinet. At the meeting, Gantz, Pardo, and Cohen expressed their support for the operational ability of Israel to attack Iran, but indicated that it must be coordinated with the Americans in advance, a scenario that Netanyahu and Barak objected to fearing that long alert time for the Americans would allow Washington to pressure Israel not to attack. Eventually, Gantz stated that although the IDF is ready and fully operational, he as the IDF chief of staff does not support the operation. Gantz believed that the Air Force could destroy the nuclear sites in Iran, though Israel had to harness the US for its own operation and for its future developments, such as a war with Iran.


F-15I Ra’am

     The problem was that Netanyahu and Barak could not guarantee that President Obama would be ready to support Israel in the event of a war against Iran. Thus, following Gantz's statement, the majority of the Eighth Forum opposed the attack in Iran as long as the American did not give their support, and hence the issue was not discussed in the Cabinet (Kfir, 2019: 135-140).


     These three case studies above clearly illustrate that despite the special relationship between Israel and the United States, Jerusalem acts in accordance with Israel’s national security interest, even if the course of action is contrary to the US position. In 1981, despite his contacts with the Reagan government, the Israeli Prime Minister Begin decided not involve the Americans at all in his desire to destroy the Iraqi reactor, as he feared that an American resistance could be an obstacle to an Israeli attack on the reactor. In 2007, the Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, who had an intimate relationship with US President Bush, also decided to destroy the Syrian reactor, although the American administration preferred a diplomatic solution instead of a military act. Yet, in a situation where there is fierce American opposition to an Israeli move, the hands of the Israeli prime minister, as it was the case with Netanyahu in 2010-2011, may be severely restricted if the majority of the Security Cabinet members believe that the American support for the Israeli act is essential.


Abrams, E. (2013). Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Cambridge University Press).

Bergman, R. (2018). Rise and Kill First (New York: Random House).

Bush, G. W. (2010). Decision Points (New York: Crown).

Kfir, I. (2019). Storm toward Iran (Israel: Miskal).

Katz, Y. (2019). Shadow Strike (New York: St. Martin).

Nakdimon, S. (2007). Tammuz in Flames (Israel: Miskal).

Olmert, E. (2018). In Person (Israel: Miskal).