There is a prevailing expectation for the developing war in the Middle East – If Israel commits to a ground invasion the conflict will expand to the rest of the region. Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Yemen and others will react with a troop buildup or will engage with Israel outright, even with the presence of two US carrier groups. The rhetoric is swirling around what might happen should this chain of dominoes fall, but the most common prediction is that Israel would lose in a multifront war unless US forces intercede.
There is, however, another scenario that most analysts rarely if ever consider. It's one of the biggest non-secret secrets in the proliferation of armaments – Israel has a nuclear arsenal and has been developing it since the late-1950s.
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 launching 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. The word “introduced” has been interpreted very broadly to mean that Israel will not ever officially admit they have nuclear weapons, thereby spurring an arms race.
That said, a deterrent weapon is not much of a deterrent unless your enemies know you have it. This might explain why Israeli officials have hinted at the existence of nukes in the past, calling them “other capabilities” in discussions on Israeli defense.
The employment of nukes is another matter entirely. 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.
Strategically speaking, Israel is well placed for the employment of nukes, given all of its enemies are east or north of the nation's position, which means Israel would not have to worry about suffering from the radioactive fallout from its own weapons. But, this 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.
The real question is not “if” Israel would use nukes, but under what conditions? How bad does the situation have to get before a nuclear response is assured? Given the rhetoric of previous Israeli leaders on defense, it would not take much. A war on more than one front leading to an uncontrolled breach of Israel's border could be all the excuse the country needs.