Over the past few weeks, the omens of a brewing international onslaught on Israel’s presumed nuclear weapons’ capability have been steadily mounting. But more than the Arab anti-nuclear machinations, which have become standard for several decades, Israeli officials are perturbed over an apparent shift in Washington’s recent policy.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave some insinuation on this trend, at the NPT Review Conference, last May. In the hall, she repeated President Obama’s support for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. However in a follow-up media conference, she attempted 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. In Jerusalem, though, officials are still very much concerned and skeptical over Washington’s attitude.
Egypt went as far as to call Israel’s position on nuclear weapons a “chutzpah” (insolence – in Hebrew) at the Vienna International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) general conference on Wednesday, Sept 22. But persistent calls of Arab countries to the international community to verify the alleged Israeli nuclear potential will not force Israel to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Indeed, the group of 51 mostly Western countries, backed by Washington, still rejected the text, proposed by the Arab IAEA member states, but including UN Security Council members Russia and China.
Possible existence of Israel’s alleged 200 warheads and the lack of the IAEA’s control on nuclear reactor in the Israeli town of Dimona are the main concern of Arab countries. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak indicated last April that the international community should not expect his nation to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty anytime soon. “Israel has never threatened to destroy other countries or nations, whereas Iran today, and in the past also Syria, Libya and Iraq that have signed the treaty, have broken it systematically with explicit threats on Israel’s existence,” he added.
But on the other hand, U.S. President Barack Obama recently called for universal membership in the treaty, which currently acknowledges only five nuclear powers — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States- while India and Pakistan have developed nuclear weapons outside the treaty and so has North Korea. “As far as Israel goes, I’m not going to comment on their program,” Obama said. “What I’m going to point to is the fact that consistently we have urged all countries to become members of the NPT”.
Based on Obama’s new Middle East strategy, his stance should not be surprising, but the fact is, that U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and all his successors have “silently” supported Israeli’s possession of nuclear weapons and its unflinching position outside the nuclear treaty. However, be that as it may, Obama’s nuclear philosophy and his coordination with the Egyptians on a nuclear-free Middle East do certainly raise profound questions. If and when it comes to a distinctive crisis situation, how much pressure is he likely to exert on Israel to help create a nuclear-free Middle East or even to sign the NPT?
Israeli Former Deputy National Security Advisor Charles Freilich believes that the position of Egypt is aimed to remove its concern in relation to alleged Israeli nuclear potential. “I think that Israel’s position is reasonable. Israel also endeavors to turn the Middle East into a nuclear-free zone, once there is reasonable peace with all its neighbors, and if all countries of the region refuse all weapons of mass destruction.
From an Israeli point of view, its leaders insist on keeping their nuclear capability in complete ambiguity because they never officially admitted having such a capability. But under the shadow of so-called opacity, the Jewish State has already received the reputation in being a nuclear power- presenting a strong and viable deterrent, which has kept it safe, for decades, from overwhelming destructive power of its Arab neighbors.
When Japan’s Yukiya Amano, the new head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), visited Israel, last August, he did not leave the country wiser, since Israel, under the wing of Washington, is still allowed to maintain its so-called “nuclear ambiguity”. No wonder that the IAEA is traditionally far from pro-Israel.
But there seems to be a new wave in the public debate of Israel’s long nuclear ambiguity strategy. Although the issue is still under strict national security limitations, there have been persistent calls for a more inhibited and candid public discussion on this, for Israel, existential issue. In fact, when considering the dangers of Iranian’s nuclear weapons program, those in Israel, who widely differ on political ideology, are finding rare common ground to agree.
But there are now new/old voices emerging calling for a public debate on the sensitive issue of Israel’s nuclear ambiguity stance.
Israel should abandon its policy of “nuclear opacity,” neither conﬁrming nor denying possessing of nuclear weapons, urges Dr Avner Cohen, a leading non-proliferation expert, and Marvin Miller, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an article in the September-October issue of the prestigious Foreign Affairs. According to the team Israel’s nuclear served the Jewish nation’s strategic deterrence well in its time, but is now becoming increasingly anachronistic.
Dr Avner Cohen, author of the 1998 published controversial book “Israel and the Bomb,” has maintained a rare outspoken view on this sensitive subject, which frequently placed him into friction with the authorities. Cohen claims that the ambiguous attitude is not only anachronistic, but actually anti-democratic. In his words: “Nuclear ambiguity is a cornerstone of Israeli strategic thinking. It was born many years ago, and sealed as part of a comprehensive deal with the United States in 1969. It was appropriate at the time, but today, in my opinion, it is not just anachronistic, but foolish and anti-democratic”.
Called “The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with Bomb,” a new book, published this year, Dr 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.
Countering warnings, that by abandoning ambiguity, Israel would encourage dangerous demands calling it to disarm, while its Arab neighbors would continue to develop weapons of mass destruction under cover, Cohen dismisses this by stressing that Israel is strong enough to defend its own strategic interests and will not easily be coerced to do things which may hurt her survival.
Dr Avner fears Israel’s insistence on ambiguity will leave Israel increasingly vulnerable to the charge that it is a nuclear-armed pariah state. He believes world powers have come to see the status quo as dangerous: “Israeli deterrence can no longer be seen as a guarantee against a nuclear attack – either from a terrorist group like al-Qaida or an enemy nation, such as Iran.” He warns that Israel’s stance is also increasingly coming at odds with the new policies of President Barack Obama’s U.S. administration, which is pushing for more global transparency on atomic weapons. “While I think that America is still genuinely committed to allowing Israel to maintain its nuclear arsenal, I think the U.S. no longer sees ambiguity as something sacred.” Cohen adds.
Former MK Professor Uzi Even, a nuclear expert, has been arguing that Israel should join the NPT for years, claiming that this would have avoided the ongoing disagreement with Obama’s administration on the issue. Moreover, according to Even, the policy of ambiguity has turned the Dimona reactor into a dangerous plant, as without the constant flow of necessary materials for updating; it has long ago passed the age in which it should have been shut down.
Professor Eyal Zisser, head of the Middle East studies department at Tel Aviv University, also argues that Israel should prepare to lift the decades of ambiguity. . “The perception of ambiguity was good when no one in this region came close to nuclear capabilities. But now the situation is changing rapidly, with Iran already racing towards nuclear weapons, Israel may find itself facing a nuclear Iran within years. It must therefore consider lifting the ambiguity in the face of an Iranian threat, thus creating a clear and convincing balance of terror, Prof Zisser warns.
On the other hand, Dr. Efraim Escolai, of the Institute for National Security Studies, insists that the ambiguity is here to stay. “Calls for all countries to join the NPT are nothing new, this has been going on for decades and occasionally surfaces, but this is not what will change stability in the region and Israel’s nuclear policy.” Escolai, who has a rich history in the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, argues it would be unwise to change a policy that has served Israel well throughout the years. Professor Yair Evron, an expert on the distribution of nuclear arms, also objects to lifting Israel’s policy of ambiguity, saying that actually the desire to nullify Israel’s nuclear capabilities hides behind the international calls for Israel to join the NPT. However, Evron admits that with the changing realities, Israel should adapt a new, more open discussion on nuclear issues, encouraging public debate on the pros and cons of this vital issue of Israel’s security.
According to Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Report, at the height of the consternation in Jerusalem over America’s public backing for the nuclear-free Middle East idea, some soothing messages are still arriving from Washington reiterating staunchly that the US would never do anything to harm Israel’s security.
But over the coming months, in the heady mix of potentially acrimonious talks with the Palestinians and the Arab linkage over the call towards denuclearization of Iran, conjoining with nuclear disarmament of Israel, that fundamental commitment will be have to be thoroughly tested.