Israel's policy of nuclear 'ambiguity' comes under fire

In the gathering new climate of transparency in nuclear affairs will Israel be able to maintain its policy of secrecy and opacity?

May 26, 2010 18:10
Rocket lifts off

Preparing for Rocket War 311. (photo credit: .)


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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 the NPT?

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 opacity policy.  

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 vision.       

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 individual states.

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 "Strategic Assessment."  

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 challenges.

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 Conferences.

"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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