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Israel's `sputnik'

ISRAEL joined an exclusive club on Monday by launching its first satellite into orbit from a site in the Negev Desert. Seven other countries have that capability. Israel also moves toward a more dubious roster: nations able to deliver nuclear weapons anywhere on the globe.

Perhaps with unintended irony, Prof. Yuval Neeman, head of Israel's space agency, likened Monday's launch to that of Sputnik 1 in 1957. Sputnik touched off the US-Soviet space race. But it also confirmed the US military's reading that the Soviets were developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. Once a country can accurately put a payload into its intended orbit, control it while there, and has missiles powerful enough to lift the weight of a warhead, the ingredients for a long-range nuclear delivery system are there.

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Clearly there is a difference between an evolving technical ability and intentions to use it. Japan launches satellites. But it also eschews nuclear weapons, so its capability is not perceived as threatening or destabilizing, regionally or globally.

Israel, however, is widely understood to possess nuclear weapons, some intended for delivery via its Jericho 2 medium-range missile. Several of its Arab neighbors also possess medium-range missiles, as well as chemical munitions. Some are trying to develop nuclear capabilities - the so-called Islamic bomb.

Israeli leaders say the launch was part of a technology, not an arms, race. Along with scientific instruments, the satellite is suspected to carry a small experimental surveillance package. Israel's military has long complained it can't get from the United States the satellite-gathered data it sought, so it needs its own capability.

Decisions on uses for Israel's newfound capability lie with its political leaders. For now the nation's space technology appears aimed at gathering intelligence. From a military standpoint, Israel probably has a sufficient deterrent. But military balances are not static; the sufficiency of one's deterrent changes. And the superpowers have given the world several lessons in the political use of their long-range arsenals.

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