In early May, as the world held its breath in anticipation of the nuclear disarmament discussions between US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and struggled to digest Trump's decision to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, an international meeting on the subject was winding up in Geneva. Over several days, representatives of dozens of states discussed preparations for the fifth review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) scheduled to take place in 2020.
As always, the Egyptian representative attacked Israel for refusing to sign the treaty. The Iranian ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Raza Najafi, took the opportunity to take a dig at the United States for its nuclear cooperation with the “Zionist regime.” The Iranian news agency reported that Najafi stressed his country’s full commitment to the treaty.
Also as always, Israel observed the scene from the sidelines, just as it did last July when 122 states signed a treaty banning a series of nuclear weapons-related activity such as attempts to develop, test, produce, spread and stockpile such weapons. Obviously, the world’s nine nuclear states did not append their signatures to the document. Israel, which is not a member of this club, was also absent from the list of signatories. Iran signed.
For over five decades, Israel has been playing both sides. Despite numerous and persistent indications that not all of its nuclear reactors are designed for peaceful use, Israel does not admit to having a bomb. In fact, for years, it has maintained a policy of ambiguity, neither denying nor admitting possession of a nuclear bomb. Last week, The New Yorker reported that shortly after assuming office, Trump agreed to a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sign a letter promising not to press Israel to give up its nuclear weapons. According to the report, three previous residents of the White House had signed similar commitments.
The presidential commitment has a caveat. According to The New Yorker, there is an unwritten understanding on Israel maintaining its longstanding nuclear policy. In other words, Israel cannot admit to having nuclear weapons. This ambiguity enables the United States to provide Israel with a diplomatic umbrella and to repel pressure on it to join the NPT. It also requires Israel to keep IAEA inspectors away from its reactors. As a result, Israelis know nothing about the condition of the aging nuclear reactor in the southern town of Dimona and the extent of its compliance with international safety standards.
In order to maintain its policy, Israel’s military censors prohibit Israeli journalists from referring directly to Israel’s nuclear capability. They are obliged to hide behind the absurd phrasing “according to foreign sources” when referring to the matter. Over time, the policy of ambiguity has turned into a policy of deception. In 1976, former defense minister and then-Knesset member Moshe Dayan admitted in an interview with a French TV station that Israel had the capacity to manufacture a nuclear bomb. If the Arabs introduce a nuclear bomb into the Middle East at some point in the future, argued Dayan, it is incumbent on Israel to have a bomb first — but not in order to use it first, of course. In 1996, Prime Minister Shimon Peres said in an interview with the Israeli Maariv newspaper, “Give me peace and I will give up the nuclear [program].”
Talking to journalists in 1998, Peres boasted that Israel "built a nuclear option, not in order to have Hiroshima, but an Oslo,” a reference to the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement known as the Oslo Accord. In 2006, incoming US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the former CIA director under President H. W. George Bush, told a Senate confirmation hearing that Iran was “surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons — Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf.”
That is how Israel managed both to create nuclear deterrence and to prevent inspection of all its nuclear facilities.
Explaining its support for Israel’s nuclear ambiguity in position papers it presented at the recent Geneva conference, the United States said countries in the region were trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction in violation of their NPT commitments. In order to clarify that it was not pointing at Israel, the United States argued that these states refuse “to recognize and engage Israel as a sovereign state … [and] instead pursue divisive actions to isolate Israel.” More so; since a dig at Trump’s predecessor is always de rigeur, the position papers claim that international discussions on the matter between 2010 and 2015 (during the Barack Obama administration) illustrated the limitations of focusing on nuclear weapons without addressing the underlying political and security issues in the region.
Indeed, the vision of a denuclearized Middle East cannot be realized without addressing the region’s political and security issues. However, these issues cannot be addressed without dealing with the prolonged Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and breathing life into the long dormant 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which foresees Arab states normalizing ties with Israel in return for its withdrawal from the occupied territories. To avoid background noise that could disrupt the on-again, off-again Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic negotiations over the years, the American partners in what is known as the Middle East Quartet (which also includes Russia, the UN and the European Union) have been ignoring Israel’s refusal to join the NPT. The US withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran as well as the relocation of its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, its boycott of UNESCO and its recently launched trade war are all weakening the Trump administration’s leverage in the international diplomatic arena. The bear hug between Israel and Trump might prove the beginning of the end of Israel’s nuclear ambiguity policy and the opening shot of a wild nuclear weapons race in the Middle East.
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