President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look out a window before their lunch at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO / PETE SOUZA)
There was real concern in Jerusalem last week that the Obama administration would allow a UN conference to force Israel to end the ambiguity surrounding its nuclear arms capability.
President Barack Obama, however, lived up to his promise to Israel that America “has your back.” Late on Friday, the US, together with Canada and the UK rejected a resolution proposed by the UN’s Review Conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in New York.
The last time the conference met five years ago, it produced a resolution that accused Israel of violating the NPT but failed to mention Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Obama said at the time: “We strongly oppose efforts to single out Israel, and will oppose actions that jeopardize Israel’s national security.”
But for a number of reasons, officials in Jerusalem were concerned that this time things might be different.
First, relations between the US president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have reached a new low in recent months. After Netanyahu seemed to backtrack on his support for a two-state solution on election eve, Obama said he would be reviewing the US relationship with Israel. American officials said that would include rethinking the longstanding US policy to veto UN resolutions that singled out Israel.See the latest opinion pieces on our Opinion & Blogs Facebook page
Second, the Obama administration is trying to close a deal aimed at preventing Tehran from building nuclear weapons. Iran regularly attacks Israel as being a threat to the region because of its purported possession of a nuclear arsenal. Forcing Jerusalem to abandon its policy of ambiguity would be a concession to the Iranians that might help the US to move them toward a nuclear arms agreement.
Third, Sunni states in the region – particularly Egypt, but also Saudi Arabia – have been pushing since the 1990s to get Israel to comply with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. These same states are skeptical about the deal the US is attempting to reach with Iran, which would allow the Islamic Republic to maintain thousands of centrifuges for nuclear enrichment and for the Iranians to continue to develop their nuclear knowhow. Getting tougher with Israel might help the US to improve relations with these Sunni regimes.
The Obama administration chose not to go down that road.
Like previous US administrations dating back to president Richard Nixon, the Obama administration acknowledges the benefits of Israel’s four-decade-long policy of ambiguity, according to which the Jewish state neither confirms nor denies its alleged nuclear capability.
Forcing Israel to abandon nuclear ambiguity could spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and unravel the NPT. In March 2008, the Arab League’s member states announced that they would withdraw from the treaty if Israel acknowledged it had nuclear weapons.
The US, Canada and UK understand that Israel’s many detractors in the region would never accept the type of deal reached in July 2005 between India and the US, which allowed India to join Russia, Britain, France, China and Pakistan in openly possessing nuclear arms without violating international obligations.
Israel has proven it is a responsible political actor. Even in the most critical situations of existential threat, such as during the 1973 Yom Kippur War when Israel was on the verge of being overrun by the combined armies of the Arab nations, the Jewish state refrained from deploying nuclear arms that it reportedly already had in its possession.
Maintaining the deterrence factor of being thought to hold nuclear weapons capability is imperative for Israel’s welfare. We are situated in a dangerous neighborhood.
Under the present geopolitical circumstances, ambiguity is the best policy. It allows for a situation in which Muslims nations in the region can ignore Israel’s purported nuclear arsenal as long as the Jewish state refrains from staging tests or making declarations.
At the same time, it provides Israel with an important deterrent. Despite the rocky relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, the principle of ambiguity remains a cornerstone of our relationship with the US as well as with Canada and the UK.