New U.S.-Israeli Strategic Dialogue Announced; Israel Acquires New Submarine

Howard Diamond

HINTS OF ISRAEL'S normally hidden nuclear deterrent surfaced twice in July, first with the announcement of a new mechanism for U.S.-Israeli strategic dialogue, and then with the arrival in Israel of a new German-built submarine capable of providing a secure second-strike capability. Though neither of the two events was explicitly nuclear-related, their high profile was clearly intended to warn potential Israeli adversaries, such as Iran and Iraq. Long believed to be the only Middle Eastern country with nuclear weapons, Israel faces a security environment changed by Tehran's July 1998 test of its 1,300-kilometer-range Shahab-3 missile and Baghdad's continued success in preserving parts of its weapons of mass destruction programs in defiance of the UN Security Council.

On July 19, after meeting with new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, President Clinton announced the creation of a new U.S.-Israeli Strategic Policy Planning Group to consider ways to "bolster Israel's indigenous defense and deterrent capabilities, as well as the bilateral cooperation to meet the strategic threats Israel faces." Clinton said the new group would report directly to himself and Barak every four months. According to the Israeli paper Ha'aretz, the agenda for the group will include "Israel's security requirements...ways and means of assuring and increasing Israel's deterrent power by supplies of modern technologies and weapons systems…[and] a broad mandate to discuss joint strategic planning, over and above any other similar bilateral forums currently in existence."

The new strategic dialogue mechanism supersedes a joint planning committee created in October 1998 to secure Israeli acceptance of the Wye River Memorandum, a key step in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A memorandum of agreement signed October 31, 1998 by President Clinton and then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu committed the United States to "enhancing Israel's defensive and deterrent capabilities and upgrading the strategic and military relationships, as well as technological cooperation between them." The October agreement also said that the United States "would view with particular gravity direct threats to Israel's security arising from the regional deployment of ballistic missiles of intermediate range or greater. In the event of such a threat, the United States government would consult promptly with the government of Israel with respect to what support, diplomatic or otherwise, or assistance it can lend to Israel."

The joint consultative group established in October 1998 met twice but failed to make much progress, allegedly due to the sensitivity of the topics being discussed and the size of the two delegations. The new group will include only three or four "senior representatives" from each side, half as many as the previous effort. The strategic dialogue will be paralleled by a new Defense Policy Advisory Group meant to coordinate Israeli military planning with the U.S. Department of Defense.

Together with the new modes of consultation, President Clinton announced his intention to restructure U.S. aid to Israel by phasing out economic aid while increasing U.S. military assistance by one-third to $2.4 billion per year. The president said he would seek an additional $1.2 billion from Congress to subsidize Israeli military redeployments called for under the Wye River agreement and would request funding for a third battery of Israel's Arrow theater missile defense system.

Submarines and Deterrence

The July 27 arrival in Israel of the first of three Dolphin-class diesel-electric submarines may indicate further maturation of Israel's suspected nuclear arsenal. While refusing to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since the 1960s, Israeli officials have maintained that they would not be the first to "introduce" nuclear weapons into the Middle East. Although a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Israel has refused to accept international safeguards on its Dimona reactor facility, which is believed to house a plutonium reprocessing plant. At the submarine's acceptance ceremony in Haifa, Barak said the Dolphin (the first of class) and its two sister ships would "change the entire face of the [Israeli] navy and the long-arm capabilities of Israel."

Germany agreed to pay for two-and-a-half of the three $300 million Dolphin-class submarines in 1991, after the role of German companies in supporting Iraq's chemical weapons program became public. Israel's initial contract for the subs was canceled in 1989 for budgetary reasons. The Dolphin has 10 torpedo tubes (six 533-millimeter and four 650-millimeter) and can carry surface-to-surface missiles or torpedoes. Israel, which already produces several types of unmanned aerial vehicles and air-launched cruise missiles, is widely believed to be technically capable of building a submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM). The larger-diameter torpedo tubes would also provide additional flexibility to Israeli designers seeking to develop a long-range nuclear-capable SLCM.

In the past, senior Israeli officials have made statements suggesting the new submarines will have a nuclear role. In a 1995 interview with Ha'aretz, David Ivry, the director-general of the Ministry of Defense, suggested Israel needed a strategic deterrent force with a "second-strike" capability. Major General Avraham Botzer, former chief of the Israeli navy, said in a 1990 interview with Israeli television, "Submarines all over the world serve as part of the deterrent system against non-conventional warfare. They are a way of guaranteeing that the enemy will not be tempted to strike pre-emptively with non-conventional weapons and get away scot-free."

Based on plutonium production estimates, Israel's nuclear arsenal is thought to range from 75-130 weapons, including warheads for its 50 mobile 660-kilometer-range Jericho-1 missiles and an estimated 50 1,500-kilometer-range Jericho-2 missiles. The Israeli air force is also believed to be nuclear capable, and Israel's recent acquisition of 25 F-15Is and announced purchase of 50 F-16Is have emphasized extended range as a key performance criterion.