Israel and Iran have engaged in a shadow war for more than four decades, and Israel views its top adversary’s nuclear program as a red line. While Israel keeps its own suspected nuclear program under wraps, it is widely believed to possess weapons of mass destruction.
When Israel was founded in 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was adamant about protecting the country’s new borders from hostile neighbors.
Around this time, a unit within the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Science Corps dubbed HEMED GIMMEL began initial geological surveys of the Negev.
Over the next decade or so, the unit would continue to pursue atomic energy studies. In the 1960s, Israel teamed up with the French aerospace company Dassault to create the Jericho ballistic missile program.
Ultimately, France withdrew from the program, but Israel powered on and produced the two-stage solid-fuel Jericho-1 missile on its own.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Jericho missile was reportedly put on high alert.
Many experts assert that nuclear weapons were loaded onto these missiles when the IDF was unable to thwart incoming surprise attacks in the Sinai Desert and at the Golan Heights. As the conflict progressed, however, Israel was able to successfully combat enemy forces through combat.
The Jericho Missile Specs & Capabilities
With a range of around 500 kilometers, the Jericho-1 could hit Egypt and Syria from the Negev. As detailed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the first Jericho variant was “13.4 m long, with a 0.8 m diameter, and a total launch weight of 6,700 kg.8 The missile used a two-stage solid propellant engine and could be launched from a railroad flat truck or a TEL vehicle. The Jericho could carry a payload of up to 650 kg, reportedly equipped with a 450 kg high explosive warhead, a 20 kT nuclear warhead, or potentially a chemical warhead.”
Over the years, a second Jericho variant was developed, with an even longer range. Although Israel maintains its official status of nuclear ambiguity, it is widely believed that the Jewish state has a newer Jericho-3 ballistic missile with even more enhanced capabilities.
What Drives Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity?
If Iran or any other country in the Middle East were to acquire nuclear weapons, Israel’s longstanding policy of ambiguity could change.
According to the country’s Begin Doctrine, the Israeli government is tasked with maintaining a preventative strike policy to ensure that no hostile country could develop these weapons.
Considering Iran’s proximity to the nuclear threshold, Israel’s policy of opacity could change in the near future.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.