This article was published in The Jerusalem Report on May 24, 2010. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report, click here.
Over the past few weeks, signs of a brewing international onslaught on Israel's presumed nuclear weapons' capability have been mounting. In April, the United States and Egypt discussed the terms of a new Egyptian working paper calling for a "Middle East free of nuclear weapons," and a senior American official was quoted as saying the US was prepared to go further on this than ever before. In early May, the US initiated a statement by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council backing "full implementation" of a resolution passed at the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference calling for a verifiable Middle East zone free of all weapons of mass destruction, (WMD), nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems.
A few days later, news leaked that the International Atomic Energy
Agency, (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, had placed a discussion of
"Israeli nuclear capabilities" on the provisional agenda of its
forthcoming board meeting in Vienna in early June, and that its new
Director General, Japan's Yukiya Amano, had reportedly asked foreign
ministers of the agency's 151 member states to propose ways of
"persuading" Israel to sign the NPT, a move that could compromise its
right to nuclear weaponry.
The Egyptian working paper included paragraphs demanding that all
NPT signatories reveal what they know of Israel's reputed nuclear
arsenal, deny it nuclear materials and equipment and insist on the
dismantling of its nuclear warheads. A letter to the IAEA from the Arab
member states made similar demands.
But more than the Arab anti-nuclear machinations, which have been
standard for more than two decades, Israeli officials are concerned at
a possible shift in American policy. In Barack Obama, the United States
has a president committed to a world free of nuclear weapons, and
therefore, at least theoretically, receptive to regional nuclear
disarmament ideas. And the fear among some Israeli officials is that
this could spill over into pressure on Israel's nuclear arsenal and its
policy of nuclear "ambiguity" or "opacity," under which it refrains
from acknowledging its nuclear power status and, in return, the US asks
no questions and heads off potentially inimical international moves.
Obama outlined his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons just over
a year ago in Prague, followed it up with the April 8 new START
agreement with Russia on nuclear warhead reduction, a US-initiated
Nuclear Security Summit in Washington a few days later and a leading
American role at the current five-yearly NPT Review Conference in New
York. Still, despite Obama's activism, analysts point out that his
global nuclear free goals are long-term – he himself has said that they
are not expected to be reached in his life-time – and that, therefore,
nuclear pressure on Israel may be less immediate than Israeli officials
fear, or their Arab counterparts hope.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave some inkling of this at the
NPT Review Conference. In the hall, she confirmed the public support
for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. But in a follow-up media
conference, she seemed to take on board Israel's central argument that
it needs to have peaceful relations with all its Middle Eastern
neighbors before it can be expected to disarm. "Now, given the lack of
a comprehensive regional peace and concerns about some countries'
compliance with NPT safeguards, the conditions for such a zone do not
yet exist," she declared.
Be that as it may, Obama's nuclear philosophy and his coordination with
the Egyptians on a nuclear-free Middle East raise profound questions.
If and when it comes to the crunch, how much pressure is he likely to
exert on Israel to help create a nuclear-free Middle East or to sign
In early May, the US announced the precise number of nuclear warheads
it had stockpiled -- 5,113 -- raising further questions for Israel. For
example, in this gathering new climate of transparency in nuclear
affairs, will Israel be able to maintain its policy of secrecy and
opacity? And, more importantly, if forced to come clean, will it be
able to keep its reputed nuclear deterrent? The American moves also
fueled renewed debate in Israel over the morality and wisdom of the
Some leading Israeli nuclear strategists are concerned at the inherent
ambivalence in the new American approach. Emily Landau, Director of the
Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Tel Aviv University's
Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), points out that Obama's
nuclear vision is long-term and that in the here and now there is a
huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality of his nuclear policy.
For example, Obama's much touted new START agreement with Russian
President Dmitry Medvedev cuts significantly less warheads than the
2002 SORT treaty between George Bush and Vladimir Putin did, and still
leaves the US and Russia with over 95 percent of the world's nuclear
weapons. More importantly, Obama makes it clear that the US will retain
its nuclear deterrence until there is no commensurate threat to its
security. All of this adds up to a world with nuclear weapons for many
years to come. Therefore, Landau argues, there is no immediate need for
pressure on Israel to disarm in the interests a far distant theoretical
On the other hand, Landau notes Obama's vulnerability to Egyptian
pressure on the nuclear-free Middle East idea, partly because of his
own declared theoretical objectives and also due to the fact that he
very much wants the current NPT Review Conference he has taken under
his wing to succeed. The Egyptians have couched their proposal in
alluring terms, arguing that the best way to derail Iran's nuclear
ambitions is through the imposition of a regional nuclear free zone
that includes Israel. In other words the Egyptians are saying to Obama:
"If you want to denuclearize Iran, then pressure Israel."
This kind of thinking invokes what Landau calls the misguided "equality
norm," treating all states as if they face the same security problems
and have the same nuclear weapons' needs. "And that can end up leading
to pressure on Israel," she declares. "If people ignore the fact that
Obama says there is a real security value to nuclear weapons and the US
will only give them up when there is no more danger, and instead latch
onto the "equality norm," then they can very easily fall into the trap
of saying: 'If Israel is an assumed nuclear state, then why can't Iran
be?'" she tells The Report.
Ironically, though, on the substance of the Egyptian proposal for
regional security dialogue, Landau is enthusiastically in favor. She
argues that the "equality norm" blurs the huge differences between Iran
and Israel, the fact that Iran threatens to destroy Israel and promotes
regional terror, whereas Israel's existence is seriously threatened and
it has never threatened to use the nuclear weapons it is presumed to
have had for over four decades. And whereas blanket international
treaties like the NPT fail to make these crucial distinctions, regional
arrangements, reached between states that are relevant to each other
from a security point of view, could do a better job, precisely because
they would be able to focus on the detailed security concerns of
Therefore, Landau argues, Israel has nothing to lose from entering a
regional security dialogue, as long as it insists on two conditions:
That the dialogue deal with all weapons of mass destruction, including
chemical and biological weapons in the hands of countries like Syria
and Iran and that any WMD agreements that may be reached only be
implemented after Israel has peace with all the other regional players.
"It's really all about the way states relate to each other. There must
be a new kind of diplomatic engagement with no questioning of any state
in the region's right to exist. We can't brush all these things aside
just because we are talking about nuclear weapons or WMD. It must all
be part of the same peace and security discussion," she insists.
In Landau's view, the chances for this kind of regional security
dialogue any time soon are virtually non-existent, because, for it to
have any meaning, Iran, as the main threat in the WMD realm, would have
to take part. And, she says, there is no way delegates from President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran would agree to sit down in the same room
with Israelis to discuss regional disarmament issues, including
Tehran's clandestine nuclear weapons program.
This blanket Iranian rejectionism was not always a given. Indeed, just
a few years before Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, Israelis and
Iranians did sit in the same room discussing regional security in a
nuclear context. Over a four year period starting in the late 1990s,
the IAEA sponsored a series of conferences in Vienna on progress
towards a Middle East nuclear weapons free zone. The meetings of
"experts" were of a highly technical nature and dealt with issues like
verification should the parties reach disarmament agreements.
The Israeli expert, Gerald Steinberg, of Bar Ilan University, recalls
that then the Iranians were very much part of the process. "I sat next
to the Iranian delegate. There was a dialogue. It wasn't about the
immediate future, more about the conditions under which we would no
longer need these kinds of nuclear capabilities. We discussed things
like how we might conduct regional inspections, because the current
system of international inspection did not meet our needs. There was
some serious discussion. But it was all theoretical, because we were
nowhere near any political breakthrough," Steinberg tells The Report.
After running their allotted course, the meetings were not renewed,
partly because it was obvious that without a political breakthrough
they served little purpose. There was also a significant change in
Iranian attitudes after Ahmadinejad came to power. "With Ahmadinejad as
president, people who spoke to Israelis were often harassed and then
prevented from participating in IAEA meetings. And the Iranians who
were allowed to come tended to be more propagandists and less experts
on arms control," Steinberg recalls.
As for American pressure on Israel following the renewed calls for
regional security dialogue, Steinberg is not overly concerned. For one,
he sees Obama's vision of a nuclear-free world as not very different
from traditional Democratic Party rhetoric. More importantly, he
recalls the way a similar situation played out in the mid-1990s with
the Clinton administration.
Then, too, during the course of a critical NPT Review Conference, the
Egyptians pressed for Israeli concessions on the nuclear front.
American officials came to Jerusalem to urge Israel to at least set a
time for when it might sign the NPT or say something about its nuclear
stockpile. But, the Israelis were adamant, especially in the light of
the then ongoing peace process with the Palestinians. "One of the
things that came out of the Clinton experience was an American
realization that having a peace process, where Israel is being pressed
to take security risks, and at the same time putting the nuclear issue
on the table, is simply too much," Steinberg asserts.
Most experts agree with Steinberg's assessment. Avner Cohen, author of
the 1998 "Israel and the Bomb," which gives a detailed account of the
development of Israel-US relations on the nuclear issue, argues that
Obama may give the nuclear free zone idea more prominence than his
predecessors, but will not exert serious pressure on Israel to take it
on board or to sign the NPT.
Cohen, a senior research fellow at Maryland University's Center for
International and Security Studies, maintains that the Americans are
well aware that, like the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons,
the idea of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East is essentially a
noble aspiration with no immediate practical significance. In his view,
the most they might do is work on the theoretical conceptualization by,
for example, initiating the appointment of a special envoy to clarify
the issues and lay the groundwork for future dialogue.
Cohen observes that when Obama took office, there were concerns on the
Israeli side that the new president's efforts to cut a deal with Iran
on its nuclear program might compromise Israeli nuclear interests. The
issue came up in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first meeting with
Obama in May 2009, and, according to Cohen, the president reaffirmed
the long-standing American position (dating back to a September 1969
meeting between Richard Nixon and Golda Meir and which is the basis of
the Israeli policy of nuclear opacity) that as long as Israel doesn't
declare its presumed nuclear arsenal or test a nuclear weapon, the US
will not pressure Israel to join the NPT or to take any practical steps
on nuclear disclosure or disarmament.
Nevertheless, Cohen believes the time has come for Israel to drop the
opacity policy and come clean on its nuclear holdings of its own
accord. He argues that the policy served Israel well for over 40 years,
but that it has become an anachronistic relic which prevents it from
being engaged as a player in the nuclear world order and opens the way
to charges of double standards. "If you can't acknowledge it, it looks
like something that is sinful," he tells The Report.
Israel, he says, would be better off as an acknowledged nuclear power
not signatory to the NPT, like India or Pakistan. "I think we have the
right, more than any one else in the modern age, to have nuclear
weapons for security purposes. Moreover, we have been very responsible.
Even in our most vulnerable moment in the 1973 war, we didn’t even
demonstrate our capability. So we don’t have to be afraid of coming
clean," he declares.
In "The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with Bomb," a new book due
out next September, Cohen argues further that the opacity policy leads
inevitably to an undemocratic lack of accountability to Israel's
citizens. "Israel is today the least transparent nuclear state. It
never took moral and national responsibility for what it did. And I
think that's wrong," he charges.
Cohen also calls for legislation on Israel's nuclear activities, which
today fall under "the residual power" of the government, which governs
the legality of anything not covered by any other law. "This legal
limbo, one of the defining features of Israel's unique bargain with the
atom, (opacity), highlights the non-democratic and non-normative nature
of this bargain," he wrote in an article calling for nuclear
legislation in Israel in the June 2009 issue of the INSS journal
Cohen, however, cautions against dropping the opacity policy overnight.
He says he realizes it will take a great deal of consultation and
coordination both in Israel and with others, (especially the United
States which fully shares responsibility for the opacity policy with
Israel), to do it in the least provocative way possible. "It's one
thing to advocate this philosophically and another to come up with a
blueprint for implementing it. And I don't pretend to have a blueprint
for this in my pocket," he acknowledges.
Cohen's is not a lone voice. Uzi Even, an ex-Meretz Knesset member and
former senior scientist at the nuclear reactor in Dimona, argues that
the opacity policy is holding back nuclear science in Israel. He says
it prevents supply of materials and equipment necessary for
state-of-the art nuclear development and the training of nuclear
scientists. Worse, he says, it is preventing the closing down of the
Dimona plant, which, he claims, is old and dangerous, and the building
of a new modern nuclear facility to replace it.
Eyal Zisser, director of Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for
Middle Eastern and African Studies, contends that if Israel declared
its nuclear power with American approval, it would remove one potential
lever of US pressure on Israel. More importantly, Zisser suggests that
if Iran succeeds in going nuclear, a not impossible scenario, a
declared and transparent Israeli nuclear capability might make for a
more effective deterrent.
Most Israeli experts, however, are staunchly against any change in the
opacity policy. The most common argument is that as soon as Israel
comes clean, other Middle Eastern countries will either demand similar
weapons for themselves or drum up enormous international pressure on
Israel to disarm.
"I don't buy any of that. Israel won't dismantle anything it doesn’t
want to dismantle. Nobody can force Israel's hand on this. It is a
strong country. Just as nobody can force the United States or France to
dismantle," Cohen declares.
Landau, however, insists that lifting Israel's nuclear opacity would
have seriously detrimental regional consequences. Co-author with Ariel
Levite of the 1994 "Israel's Nuclear Image: Arab perceptions of
Israel's Nuclear Posture," she argues that it's a big mistake to think
of opacity simply in terms of secrecy versus openness and transparency.
"Israel coming out of ambiguity is not all about how cooperative and
open Israel is being about things. It won’t work that way in the
region. On the contrary, if Israel came out of ambiguity, it would be
received in the region as an aggressive step, not a confidence-building
measure. Last year, for example, there was a statement during an Arab
League summit to the effect that if Israel comes out of ambiguity, the
Arab states would leave the NPT. That sounds very much like saying 'it
would be better if Israel remains ambiguous,'" she declares. Opacity,
she insists, also means that the periodic wars Israel fights are waged
without the nuclear issue coming into the equation. "Would it be better
if things were out in the open, part of Israel's security doctrine and
part of the equation every time there is a war in the Middle East?" she
For the Arab countries, declared or not, Israel's nuclear posture
constitutes a major strategic challenge. Ever since they made peace
with Israel in the late 1970s, the Egyptians have been bent on
nullifying Israel's presumed nuclear option, leading the way in every
possible international forum, especially in the IAEA and the NPT Review
"In the peace negotiations with Israel, the one issue on which the
Egyptians failed to elicit American support was the nuclear, which
Israel said was taboo. This left them with an abiding sense of
strategic disadvantage, irreconcilable with their dominant regional
power self-image. Therefore they pressed wherever they could for Israel
to sign the NPT or for the establishment of a nuclear-free Middle East,
code in both cases for the dismantlement of Israel's nuclear arsenal,"
says Egypt expert Yoram Meital, Head of the Chaim Herzog Center for
Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba.
Since then a new concern has come to the fore which worries the
Egyptians just as much, if not more: the prospect of their regional
Shiite foe, Iran, going nuclear. According to Meital, in calling for a
nuclear-free Middle East, the Egyptians saw a chance of killing two
birds with one stone: ratcheting up pressure on Israel to dismantle and
on Iran to drop its nuclear weapons plans, thereby preempting a wider
Middle East nuclear arms race.
In Meital's view, their success in this is a function of increasingly
close ties with the Obama administration. The Egyptians, he says, were
delighted at the American role in securing the statement by the five
permanent members of the UN Security Council in favor of a WMD-free
Middle East, which they took as a sign of comprehensive international
backing for a key element of Egyptian foreign policy.
And although they don't expect the Americans to lean heavily on Israel
for now, they see the new nuclear rhetoric as an important indicator of
the way American Middle East policy could go in the future: "It's
similar to the Obama administration signaling that it is considering
coming out with peace parameters on the Palestinian track in September.
The public rhetoric in both cases, the impending peace plan and the
Middle East nuclear-free zone, has weight. It's all part of the Obama
administration's moving closer to the moderate Arab states amid
widening disagreements with the Netanyahu government," Meital asserts.
At the height of the consternation in Jerusalem over America's public
backing of the nuclear-free Middle East idea, soothing messages arrived
from Washington to the effect that the US would never do anything to
harm Israel's security.
Over the coming months, in the heady mix of potentially acrimonious
talks with the Palestinians and the Arab linkage of denuclearization of
Iran with nuclear disarmament of Israel, that fundamental commitment
will be tested.
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