IN BIBLICAL times, the Israelites relied on God to triumph over their enemies. These days the Israeli government puts its faith in the godlike power of its formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons to annihilate its foes.
The alarming prospect of Israel unleashing its weapons of mass destruction is high on the list of concerns of strategic planners and analysts as the United States prepares to attack Iraq as part of its ‘War on Terror’.
According to experts, a retaliatory nuclear strike against Baghdad in the event of a chemical or biological weapons attack against Israel has never been more likely - particularly with Ariel Sharon in power.
Saddam Hussein has good cause to think twice about going a step further than he did during the Gulf War in 1991, when 39 conventionally-armed Scud missiles were fired against Israel. If he uses biological or chemical weapons, the consequence could be that he and his country would be obliterated.
Sharon - who is courting extreme right-wingers to prop up his teetering government following the withdrawal of the Labour Party last week - has spoken openly of his willingness to strike back, and strike back hard, should his country be attacked by Iraq.
The Israeli military has already said anti-radiation pills will be distributed as part of its civil defence preparations. And Sharon’s latest appointment, General Shaul Mofaz, the new defence minister, is well known for his hawkish views and the harsh tactics he has used to suppress the Palestinian uprising.
"Israel is not interested in being involved in the campaign against Iraq," said Sharon.
He added: "If our citizens are attacked seriously - by a weapon of mass destruction, chemical, biological or by some mega-terror attack act - and suffer casualties, then Israel will respond."
The commander of the Israeli air force, Major General Dan Halutz, has made similarly ominous noises: "You can’t take what happened then in 1991 and think that it will also happen this time, neither in the way the war will be conducted... nor in the manner of Israel’s reaction."
Many believe Sharon would be prepared to use his deadly arsenal. As Israel’s most respected military affairs commentator, Ze’ev Schiff, put it: "If Iraq strikes at Israel with non-conventional warheads, causing massive casualties among the civil population, Israel could respond with a nuclear retaliation that would eradicate Iraq as a country."
The possibility of Israel using its secret arsenal against Iraq was raised during the Gulf War by the then US defence secretary, Dick Cheney, who is now vice-president.
"This assessment has only been strengthened since then because, according to all the signs, Iraq now has biological weapons that could cause mass casualties," said Schiff.
During the conflict in 1991 the US struck a deal with Israel’s then prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, not to retaliate, arguing that to do so would shatter the Arab coalition. But Shamir’s restraint was not met with universal support. One of the leading dissenters was Sharon, who claimed Israel was abandoning responsibility for defending its citizens.
The prospect of nuclear retaliation by Israel was also highlighted in 1991 by the Pulitzer-award winning American journalist Seymour Hersh in his seminal work The Samson Option.
Hersh warned: "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."
He added that "the size and sophistication of Israel’s arsenal allow men such as Ariel Sharon to dream of redrawing the map of the Middle East, aided by the implicit threat of nuclear force".
Earlier this year, Professor Anthony Cordesman, a fellow at the Centre for Strategic Affairs, raised the same horrifying scenario in his presentation to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stating: "Israel has also concluded that the credibility of its deterrent would be undermined if it rode out another series of such attacks, as it did during the Gulf War."
Officially, Israel does not admit that it has nuclear weapons. Since 1965 it has "refused to confirm or deny" claims that it possesses a nuclear arsenal . 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 1999 the US Department of Energy placed Israel sixth on its list of nations possessing nuclear weapons. The document claims Israel has 300kg to 500kg of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to produce at least 250 nuclear warheads.
Sharon’s blunt admission that a retaliatory strike would be ordered in the event of an attack on Israel with non-conventional weapons came after discussions with US President George W Bush.
Israeli officials later interpreted the president’s stance as giving the green-light to Sharon to attack Baghdad only if Iraq launched a pre-emptive strike against the Jewish State before an American military campaign had got underway.
The officials said if an American military offensive had already begun, then Israel should show restraint and allow the US forces to retaliate.
1949 Israeli Defence Force Science Corps begins surveying the Negev desert seeking uranium reserves.
1952 Israeli Atomic Energy Commission is created. Its chairman, Ernst David Bergmann, advocates an Israeli bomb to ensure "that we shall never again be led as lambs to the slaughter".
1953 Process for extracting the uranium found in the Negev.
1957 France agrees to provide Israel with a research reactor at Dimona.
1958 US first becomes aware of Dimona after the facility is spotted by U-2 spy planes.
1967 Six Day War.
1968 CIA concludes Israel has started production of nuclear weapons.
1973 Egypt and Syria attack Israeli forces in Sinai and Golan Heights on the Jewish fast in Yom Kippur War.
1986 Mordechai Vanunu a Dimona technician, is abducted by Mossad agents in London and sentenced to 18 years in jail for providing information about Dimona, including pictures, to a British newspaper.
1999 US Department of Energy document ranks Israel sixth among countries with nuclear weapons, ahead of India and North Korea.
2000 Knesset debates Israel’s nuclear weapons programme for first time.