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?

Preparing for Rocket War 311 (photo credit: .)
Preparing for Rocket War 311
(photo credit: .)
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 EnergyAgency, (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, had placed a discussion of"Israeli nuclear capabilities" on the provisional agenda of itsforthcoming board meeting in Vienna in early June, and that its newDirector General, Japan's Yukiya Amano, had reportedly asked foreignministers of the agency's 151 member states to propose ways of"persuading" Israel to sign the NPT, a move that could compromise itsright to nuclear weaponry.
The Egyptian working paper included paragraphs demanding that all
NPT signatories reveal what they know of Israel's reputed nucleararsenal, deny it nuclear materials and equipment and insist on thedismantling of its nuclear warheads. A letter to the IAEA from the Arabmember states made similar demands.
But more than the Arab anti-nuclear machinations, which have beenstandard for more than two decades, Israeli officials are concerned ata possible shift in American policy. In Barack Obama, the United Stateshas a president committed to a world free of nuclear weapons, andtherefore, at least theoretically, receptive to regional nucleardisarmament ideas. And the fear among some Israeli officials is thatthis could spill over into pressure on Israel's nuclear arsenal and itspolicy of nuclear "ambiguity" or "opacity," under which it refrainsfrom acknowledging its nuclear power status and, in return, the US asksno questions and heads off potentially inimical international moves.
Obama outlined his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons just overa year ago in Prague, followed it up with the April 8 new STARTagreement with Russia on nuclear warhead reduction, a US-initiatedNuclear Security Summit in Washington a few days later and a leadingAmerican role at the current five-yearly NPT Review Conference in NewYork. Still, despite Obama's activism, analysts point out that hisglobal nuclear free goals are long-term – he himself has said that theyare not expected to be reached in his life-time – and that, therefore,nuclear pressure on Israel may be less immediate than Israeli officialsfear, or their Arab counterparts hope.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave some inkling of this at theNPT Review Conference. In the hall, she confirmed the public supportfor a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. But in a follow-up mediaconference, she seemed to take on board Israel's central argument thatit needs to have peaceful relations with all its Middle Easternneighbors before it can be expected to disarm. "Now, given the lack ofa comprehensive regional peace and concerns about some countries'compliance with NPT safeguards, the conditions for such a zone do notyet exist," she declared.
Be that as it may, Obama's nuclear philosophy and his coordination withthe Egyptians on a nuclear-free Middle East raise profound questions.If and when it comes to the crunch, how much pressure is he likely toexert on Israel to help create a nuclear-free Middle East or to signthe NPT?
In early May, the US announced the precise number of nuclear warheadsit had stockpiled -- 5,113 -- raising further questions for Israel. Forexample, in this gathering new climate of transparency in nuclearaffairs, will Israel be able to maintain its policy of secrecy andopacity? And, more importantly, if forced to come clean, will it beable to keep its reputed nuclear deterrent? The American moves alsofueled renewed debate in Israel over the morality and wisdom of theopacity policy.  
Some leading Israeli nuclear strategists are concerned at the inherentambivalence in the new American approach. Emily Landau, Director of theArms Control and Regional Security Program at Tel Aviv University'sInstitute for National Security Studies (INSS), points out that Obama'snuclear vision is long-term and that in the here and now there is ahuge gap between the rhetoric and the reality of his nuclear policy.
For example, Obama's much touted new START agreement with RussianPresident Dmitry Medvedev cuts significantly less warheads than the2002 SORT treaty between George Bush and Vladimir Putin did, and stillleaves the US and Russia with over 95 percent of the world's nuclearweapons. More importantly, Obama makes it clear that the US will retainits nuclear deterrence until there is no commensurate threat to itssecurity. All of this adds up to a world with nuclear weapons for manyyears to come. Therefore, Landau argues, there is no immediate need forpressure on Israel to disarm in the interests a far distant theoreticalvision.       
On the other hand, Landau notes Obama's vulnerability to Egyptianpressure on the nuclear-free Middle East idea, partly because of hisown declared theoretical objectives and also due to the fact that hevery much wants the current NPT Review Conference he has taken underhis wing to succeed. The Egyptians have couched their proposal inalluring terms, arguing that the best way to derail Iran's nuclearambitions is through the imposition of a regional nuclear free zonethat 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 "equalitynorm," treating all states as if they face the same security problemsand have the same nuclear weapons' needs. "And that can end up leadingto pressure on Israel," she declares. "If people ignore the fact thatObama says there is a real security value to nuclear weapons and the USwill only give them up when there is no more danger, and instead latchonto the "equality norm," then they can very easily fall into the trapof saying: 'If Israel is an assumed nuclear state, then why can't Iranbe?'" she tells The Report.
Ironically, though, on the substance of the Egyptian proposal forregional security dialogue, Landau is enthusiastically in favor.  Sheargues that the "equality norm" blurs the huge differences between Iranand Israel, the fact that Iran threatens to destroy Israel and promotesregional terror, whereas Israel's existence is seriously threatened andit has never threatened to use the nuclear weapons it is presumed tohave had for over four decades. And whereas blanket internationaltreaties like the NPT fail to make these crucial distinctions, regionalarrangements, reached between states that are relevant to each otherfrom a security point of view, could do a better job, precisely becausethey would be able to focus on the detailed security concerns ofindividual states.
Therefore, Landau argues, Israel has nothing to lose from entering aregional security dialogue, as long as it insists on two conditions:That the dialogue deal with all weapons of mass destruction, includingchemical and biological weapons in the hands of countries like Syriaand Iran and that any WMD agreements that may be reached only beimplemented after Israel has peace with all the other regional players."It's really all about the way states relate to each other. There mustbe a new kind of diplomatic engagement with no questioning of any statein the region's right to exist. We can't brush all these things asidejust because we are talking about nuclear weapons or WMD. It must allbe part of the same peace and security discussion," she insists.
In Landau's view, the chances for this kind of regional securitydialogue any time soon are virtually non-existent, because, for it tohave any meaning, Iran, as the main threat in the WMD realm, would haveto take part. And, she says, there is no way delegates from PresidentMahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran would agree to sit down in the same roomwith Israelis to discuss regional disarmament issues, includingTehran's clandestine nuclear weapons program.
This blanket Iranian rejectionism was not always a given. Indeed, justa few years before Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, Israelis andIranians did sit in the same room discussing regional security in anuclear context. Over a four year period starting in the late 1990s,the IAEA sponsored a series of conferences in Vienna on progresstowards a Middle East nuclear weapons free zone. The meetings of"experts" were of a highly technical nature and dealt with issues likeverification should the parties reach disarmament agreements.
The Israeli expert, Gerald Steinberg, of Bar Ilan University, recallsthat then the Iranians were very much part of the process. "I sat nextto the Iranian delegate. There was a dialogue. It wasn't about theimmediate future, more about the conditions under which we would nolonger need these kinds of nuclear capabilities. We discussed thingslike how we might conduct regional inspections, because the currentsystem of international inspection did not meet our needs. There wassome serious discussion. But it was all theoretical, because we werenowhere 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 breakthroughthey served little purpose. There was also a significant change inIranian attitudes after Ahmadinejad came to power. "With Ahmadinejad aspresident, people who spoke to Israelis were often harassed and thenprevented from participating in IAEA meetings. And the Iranians whowere allowed to come tended to be more propagandists and less expertson arms control," Steinberg recalls.
As for American pressure on Israel following the renewed calls forregional security dialogue, Steinberg is not overly concerned. For one,he sees Obama's vision of a nuclear-free world as not very differentfrom traditional Democratic Party rhetoric. More importantly, herecalls the way a similar situation played out in the mid-1990s withthe Clinton administration.
Then, too, during the course of a critical NPT Review Conference, theEgyptians pressed for Israeli concessions on the nuclear front.American officials came to Jerusalem to urge Israel to at least set atime for when it might sign the NPT or say something about its nuclearstockpile. But, the Israelis were adamant, especially in the light ofthe then ongoing peace process with the Palestinians. "One of thethings that came out of the Clinton experience was an Americanrealization that having a peace process, where Israel is being pressedto take security risks, and at the same time putting the nuclear issueon the table, is simply too much," Steinberg asserts.
Most experts agree with Steinberg's assessment. Avner Cohen, author ofthe 1998 "Israel and the Bomb," which gives a detailed account of thedevelopment of Israel-US relations on the nuclear issue, argues thatObama may give the nuclear free zone idea more prominence than hispredecessors, but will not exert serious pressure on Israel to take iton board or to sign the NPT.
Cohen, a senior research fellow at Maryland University's Center forInternational and Security Studies, maintains that the Americans arewell 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 anoble 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 clarifythe issues and lay the groundwork for future dialogue.
Cohen observes that when Obama took office, there were concerns on theIsraeli side that the new president's efforts to cut a deal with Iranon its nuclear program might compromise Israeli nuclear interests. Theissue came up in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first meeting withObama in May 2009, and, according to Cohen, the president reaffirmedthe long-standing American position (dating back to a September 1969meeting between Richard Nixon and Golda Meir and which is the basis ofthe Israeli policy of nuclear opacity) that as long as Israel doesn'tdeclare its presumed nuclear arsenal or test a nuclear weapon, the USwill not pressure Israel to join the NPT or to take any practical stepson nuclear disclosure or disarmament.
Nevertheless, Cohen believes the time has come for Israel to drop theopacity policy and come clean on its nuclear holdings of its ownaccord. He argues that the policy served Israel well for over 40 years,but that it has become an anachronistic relic which prevents it frombeing engaged as a player in the nuclear world order and opens the wayto charges of double standards.  "If you can't acknowledge it, it lookslike something that is sinful," he tells The Report.
Israel, he says, would be better off as an acknowledged nuclear powernot signatory to the NPT, like India or Pakistan. "I think we have theright, more than any one else in the modern age, to have nuclearweapons for security purposes. Moreover, we have been very responsible.Even in our most vulnerable moment in the 1973 war, we didn’t evendemonstrate our capability. So we don’t have to be afraid of comingclean," he declares.
In "The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with Bomb," a new book dueout next September, Cohen argues further that the opacity policy leadsinevitably to an undemocratic lack of accountability to Israel'scitizens. "Israel is today the least transparent nuclear state. Itnever took moral and national responsibility for what it did. And Ithink that's wrong," he charges.
Cohen also calls for legislation on Israel's nuclear activities, whichtoday fall under "the residual power" of the government, which governsthe legality of anything not covered by any other law. "This legallimbo, one of the defining features of Israel's unique bargain with theatom, (opacity), highlights the non-democratic and non-normative natureof this bargain," he wrote in an article calling for nuclearlegislation 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 andcoordination both in Israel and with others, (especially the UnitedStates which fully shares responsibility for the opacity policy withIsrael), to do it in the least provocative way possible. "It's onething to advocate this philosophically and another to come up with ablueprint for implementing it. And I don't pretend to have a blueprintfor this in my pocket," he acknowledges. 
Cohen's is not a lone voice. Uzi Even, an ex-Meretz Knesset member andformer senior scientist at the nuclear reactor in Dimona, argues thatthe opacity policy is holding back nuclear science in Israel. He saysit prevents supply of materials and equipment necessary forstate-of-the art nuclear development and the training of nuclearscientists. Worse, he says, it is preventing the closing down of theDimona plant, which, he claims, is old and dangerous, and the buildingof a new modern nuclear facility to replace it.
Eyal Zisser, director of Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center forMiddle Eastern and African Studies, contends that if Israel declaredits nuclear power with American approval, it would remove one potentiallever of US pressure on Israel. More importantly, Zisser suggests thatif Iran succeeds in going nuclear, a not impossible scenario, adeclared and transparent Israeli nuclear capability might make for amore effective deterrent.
Most Israeli experts, however, are staunchly against any change in theopacity policy. The most common argument is that as soon as Israelcomes clean, other Middle Eastern countries will either demand similarweapons for themselves or drum up enormous international pressure onIsrael to disarm.
"I don't buy any of that. Israel won't dismantle anything it doesn’twant to dismantle. Nobody can force Israel's hand on this. It is astrong country. Just as nobody can force the United States or France todismantle," Cohen declares. 
Landau, however, insists that lifting Israel's nuclear opacity wouldhave seriously detrimental regional consequences. Co-author with ArielLevite of the 1994 "Israel's Nuclear Image: Arab perceptions ofIsrael's Nuclear Posture," she argues that it's a big mistake to thinkof opacity simply in terms of secrecy versus openness and transparency.
"Israel coming out of ambiguity is not all about how cooperative andopen Israel is being about things. It won’t work that way in theregion. On the contrary, if Israel came out of ambiguity, it would bereceived in the region as an aggressive step, not a confidence-buildingmeasure. Last year, for example, there was a statement during an ArabLeague summit to the effect that if Israel comes out of ambiguity, theArab states would leave the NPT. That sounds very much like saying 'itwould be better if Israel remains ambiguous,'" she declares. Opacity,she insists, also means that the periodic wars Israel fights are wagedwithout the nuclear issue coming into the equation. "Would it be betterif things were out in the open, part of Israel's security doctrine andpart of the equation every time there is a war in the Middle East?" shechallenges.
For the Arab countries, declared or not, Israel's nuclear postureconstitutes a major strategic challenge. Ever since they made peacewith Israel in the late 1970s, the Egyptians have been bent onnullifying Israel's presumed nuclear option, leading the way in everypossible international forum, especially in the IAEA and the NPT ReviewConferences.
"In the peace negotiations with Israel, the one issue on which theEgyptians failed to elicit American support was the nuclear, whichIsrael said was taboo. This left them with an abiding sense ofstrategic disadvantage, irreconcilable with their dominant regionalpower self-image. Therefore they pressed wherever they could for Israelto 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 forMiddle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba.
Since then a new concern has come to the fore which worries theEgyptians just as much, if not more: the prospect of their regionalShiite foe, Iran, going nuclear. According to Meital, in calling for anuclear-free Middle East, the Egyptians saw a chance of killing twobirds with one stone: ratcheting up pressure on Israel to dismantle andon Iran to drop its nuclear weapons plans, thereby preempting a widerMiddle East nuclear arms race. 
In Meital's view, their success in this is a function of increasinglyclose ties with the Obama administration. The Egyptians, he says, weredelighted at the American role in securing the statement by the fivepermanent members of the UN Security Council in favor of a WMD-freeMiddle East, which they took as a sign of comprehensive internationalbacking for a key element of Egyptian foreign policy.
And although they don't expect the Americans to lean heavily on Israelfor now, they see the new nuclear rhetoric as an important indicator ofthe way American Middle East policy could go in the future: "It'ssimilar to the Obama administration signaling that it is consideringcoming out with peace parameters on the Palestinian track in September.The public rhetoric in both cases, the impending peace plan and theMiddle East nuclear-free zone, has weight. It's all part of the Obamaadministration's moving closer to the moderate Arab states amidwidening disagreements with the Netanyahu government," Meital asserts.
At the height of the consternation in Jerusalem over America's publicbacking of the nuclear-free Middle East idea, soothing messages arrivedfrom Washington to the effect that the US would never do anything toharm Israel's security.
Over the coming months, in the heady mix of potentially acrimonioustalks with the Palestinians and the Arab linkage of denuclearization ofIran with nuclear disarmament of Israel, that fundamental commitmentwill be tested.