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Israel debates going nuclear as balance of power shifts

Israelis are watching anxiously as petrodollars pump a flood of supersophisticated military equipment into the Middle East from both West and East.

In particular, some strategists here are moving closer to urging a preemptive , possibly nuclear, posture to compensate for Israel's apparently inevitable loss in conventional deterrent power.

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Until now, Israel's deterrent power has been based on the clear qualitative edge ot its armed forces and on maintaining an army sufficiently large so that the Arab states did not enjoy more than a roughly 2.7 to 1 advantage in terms of weapons systems.

But today Israeli see both these elements threatened by the Arab's new weaponry. The Israeli strategists fear that a basic change is taking place in the Arab-Israeli power balance, perhaps not least as a result of the Reagan administration's decision to sell AWACS electronic surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia as well as to upgrade the Saudis' F-15 fighters.

The possible need to go nuclear, rarely talked about publicly in Israel before, has been raised with increasing frequency in the past few months.

The Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, headed for former army intelligence chief Aharon Yariv, is presently completing a study on the subject. Former Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan told a closed political forum recently that Israel might have to consider a nuclear option because of the impossibility of keeping up with the arms race.

Although foreign sources have often said that Israel already possesses atomic weapons or at least the ability to assemble them almost instantly, Israel has always maintained that it would not be the first to introduce them to the region. In any case, Israel has rested its security heretofore on its superiority in conventional warfare.

Even if Israel does not fall back on a bottom line nuclear deterrent, it may have to rely increasingly on a conventional preemptive strike in order to offset the Arabs' increased offensive capability, says Jerusalem Post military analyst Hirsh Goodman.

"By allowing sophisticated weapons to flow into the Arab confrontation states ," he says, "the United States and the Europeans are pushing the region closer to war."

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The skills of Israel's Air Force pilots, which have been a major element in Israel's military superiority, are offset to a considerable degree by aircraft such as the F-15, say Israeli experts, because of their over-the-horizon kill capability. Israel ground crews are reputed to be the fastest in the world in getting aircraft back in the air, rearmed and refueled, after missions and thereby significantly overcoming the Air Force's inferiority in numbers.

With the F-15, however, even a mediocre Saudi ground crew can have it ready for takeoff in a matter of minutes rather than hours as with the Phantom. And in agreeing to supply the Saudi F-15s with special fuel tanks and bomb racks, Israelis contend, Washington is permitting those planes to reach Israel from any point in Saudi Arabia with a tripled pay load and return to base.

Israeli officials have expressed even more concern over the AWACS than the Saudi F- 15s. Deputy Defense Minister Mordecai Zipori has said the AWACS "could expose all of Israel's secrets." They are capable not only of picking up all Israeli air traffic, say Israeli sources, but of monitoring major troop movements and picking up and jamming most of Israel's military communications systems.

Despite a pro forma protest, Jerusalem has resigned itself to the F-15 sale. It did not wish to risk antoganizing the Reagan administration by staging a public confrontation on the issue. But it has made it clear that it will fight the AWACS deal which comes up for US Congressional debate this fall.

There has been some concern in Jerusalem that US Ambassador Philip C. Habib's attempt to involve the Saudis in the settlement of the Syrian missile crisis could bear a price tag: Israeli acceptance of the AWACS deal.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin's denunciation last month of Saudi society as feudal and corrupt is regarded by some observers as a signal that Israel would not permit Saudi help in the Syrian missile crisis to be used as a lever for getting the AWACS planes.

Although Washington has offered to offset the Saudi deal with more military assistance to Israel, officials in Jerusalem say it is impossible for Israel economically to keep up with the arms race. Israel is already in grave economic difficulty with roughly 100 percent inflation and expend 40 percent of its budget on defense. Hence it cannot exercise the options it already holds for the acquisition of advanced warplanes from the US.

The military budget of Saudi Arabia in 1979-80 was $14 billion compared to $3 .5 billion for Israel. The Saudis, Libya, and other Arab states are combing the West for advanced weapons, say Israelis, including West German Leopard tanks and ultra-modern Tornado jets built by Britain, Italy, and West Germany. The Syrian armored corps has been entirely reequipped with the most advanced vehicles in the Soviet bloc, according to Israeli Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan.

Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir warned the Knesset last month that Israeli could not keep up with this. He called on the West to halt the "unbridled flow" of weapons to the Middle E ast before there is an explosion.

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