In biblical times, the Israelites relied on God to triumph miraculously over their enemies.
Modern Israelis rely for protection on weapons with God-like powers that could destroy entire nations.
The frightening possibility that Israel may unleash these weapons of mass destruction is preoccupying strategic planners and analysts as Israel prepares to launch a ground attack on Gaza, with hostile fire directed at it from Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen and others who threaten to engage with Israel outright, even with the presence of two US carrier groups.
The Samson Option (Hebrew: ברירת שמשון, b’rerat shimshon) is the name that some military analysts and authors have given to Israel’s deterrence strategy of massive retaliation with nuclear weapons as a “last resort” against a country whose military has invaded and/or destroyed much of Israel.
In the 1991 Gulf War Saddam Hussein hit Israel with Scud missiles. But he used only conventional warheads, which did not cause significant casualties. This helped the US to make a deal with Israel’s then prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, not to fire back at Iraq.
Saddam had good cause to think twice about going a step further and using biological or chemical weapons against Israel, as the consequence could be that he and his country might have ceased to exist.
Israel, of course, does not officially admit that it has nuclear weapons. Since 1965 it has “refused to confirm or deny”, although it has said that it “will not be the first to introduce them into the Middle East”.
It has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, saying it cannot rely on international safeguards when it is in a permanent state of war with much of the Arab world.
In declarations to the United Nations, Israel has instead offered to negotiate a multi-lateral agreement involving all the nations in the region to transform the Middle East into a nuclear-free zone.
Israel’s nuclear deterrent
In 1958 the Eisenhower Administration discovered a secret nuclear reactor in Negev desert of Israel that was disguised as the development of a textile manufacturing plant.
Also known as the Dimona nuclear site, the reactor was built with French assistance and utilized heavy water purchased from Norway through a deal brokered by the UK government. The project was designed to experiment with plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.
A Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE 100-8-60 from 8 December 1960) formally determined that “Israel is engaged in construction of a nuclear reactor complex in the Negev near Beersheba” and “plutonium production for weapons is at least one major purpose of this effort.”
The SNIE estimated “that Israel would produce some weapons grade plutonium in 1963-64 and possibly as early as 1962.” A significant portion of the SNIE is still classified.
The Israeli nuclear arsenal is now suspected to include hundreds of warheads capable of being delivered by several methods.
These include gravity bombs dropped by F-16s, cruise missiles fired from mobile platforms and even submarines with modified cruise missiles.
Interestingly, Israel just launched a large new class of submarine this summer called the DolphinI/II which appear to carry much bigger missiles than previous submarines.
These subs may in fact be capable of carrying and launching nuclear weapons and could strike almost anywhere in the world.
The most likely use of nuclear weapons by Israel, though, would be as a deterrent to wider war. The international agreement Israel follows requires that they not be the first nation in the Middle East to “introduce” such weapons.
In 1999 the US Department of Energy ranked Israel, one of the smallest countries on Earth, sixth among nations possessing nuclear weapons. And many believe it would be prepared to use them.
The possibility of Israel using its secret arsenal against Iraq was first raised in the Gulf War by the then US defence secretary, Dick Cheney.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, then a Foreign Minister at the time of the Gulf war, also offered the clearest public admission that Israel has nuclear weapons.
“We felt that the reason why Israel was attacked five times, without any provocation, was because some of our neighbours thought they could overpower us, and we wanted to create a situation in which this temptation would no longer exist,” he said.
The Samson option
The American journalist Seymour Hersh has referred to the “Samson option”, referring to the biblical figure who pushed apart pillars to bring down a temple in Gaza, killing 3000 Philistines and himself.
“Should any Arab nation fire missiles again at Israel … a nuclear escalation, once unthinkable except as a [last] resort, would now be a strong possibility,” Hersh wrote in 1991, more than 30 years ago.
Analysts say Israel uses the Samson Option to ensure that any attacker knows that winning is losing (from their point of view).
The first time this strategy helped was during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where the US understood that if Israel loses there is a good chance of a nuclear war and so the US provided Israel with much needed conventional ammunition that helped it win the war.
The US didn’t want to risk the option of what would have happened in case Israel lost.
Arab nations did better than expected in the opening phases of the war (largely by restraining themselves and only advancing as far as SAM coverage could be maintained).
Israel at the time had a short range ballistic missile system and a handful of nuclear warheads (probably).
The premise of the Samson option was the same as the US’ MAD policy. Deter an initial attack with the threat of nuclear retaliation. The main difference is that the existential threat to the US was the USSR’s nuclear arsenal, to Israel, conventional invasion by Arab armies.
So, if the Yom Kippur war had been won decisively by Arab nations, there was the threat of a nuclear last stand.
On October 7, the day after the war started, then-PM Golda Meir rejected out of hand the possibility of using nuclear weapons.
By the early morning of October 9th, the Israeli position looked dire. As a result, Israel started assembling nuclear missiles and bombers, in an easily detectable manner.
The US found out several hours later, and begun to resupply Israel. At the same time, the US reportedly informed Egypt of the potential.
Will Israel be forced to detonate nukes?
The employment of nukes in today’s conflict may be a remote possibility if the war between Israel and Hamas spirals out of control.
It would seem that a number of nations are ready to engage with Israel in direct warfare in the wake of the attack by Hamas, merely waiting for Israel to strike back with a significant ground force.
These governments might have forgotten Israel has nukes, or, they might believe that Israel would never dare use them. This is a dangerous assumption.
Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid noted in a discussion on defense last year that Israel has “other capabilities” (i.e. nukes):
“The operational arena in the invisible dome above us is built on defensive capabilities and offensive capabilities, and what the foreign media tends to call ‘other capabilities.’ These other capabilities keep us alive and will keep us alive so long as we and our children are here…”
In other words, Israel intends to use their nuclear capabilities should their civilization come under threat.
But, such a fallout could affect nations like Iraq and Iran, thereby giving them license to join in the war when they might otherwise abstain. Obviously this would have far reaching implications for the rest of the world, including escalation with nuclear powers such as Russia and China.