Friday, September 24, 2010

Israeli Nukes

Speaking before throngs of supporters in a Prague square on April 5, 2009, President Barack Obama declared America's commitment to a world without nuclear weapons, while acknowledging that the goal might not be reached in his lifetime. With this as an apparent impetus, the Arab world has pressed for greater international attention on Israel's nuclear activities. It did so at a Washington conference devoted to keeping nuclear materials out of terrorist hands, and at a review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at UN headquarters in New York. Under Arab prodding, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the US, issued a statement -- in effect aimed at Israel – calling for a nuclear-free Middle East. In this way, irresolute international efforts to block Iran from building nuclear weapons have been further sidetracked to make Israel the issue. The Arabs are also lobbying to put Israel on the agenda when the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meets next month in Vienna. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano has reportedly invited the world's foreign ministers to offer suggestions on how to bring Israel into the NPT regime. The agency could also decide to appoint a rapporteur whose mission would be to keep Israel's nuclear program in the international spotlight.

What is Israel's nuclear posture? The Jewish state insists it will not be the first to "introduce" nuclear weapons into the region. Its leaders have signaled, however, that the country has a "bomb in the basement" to be used in the last resort should the Third Commonwealth be about to fall. This policy of nuclear ambiguity is now being frontally challenged.

Israeli doves historically argued that Israel's presumed nuclear capacity had already forced the Arabs to come to terms with the permanence of the Jewish state; it also obviated the need for strategic territorial depth, making a withdrawal to roughly the 1967 boundaries a viable option. Today, paradoxically, Israel is being pressed to go ahead with the withdrawal, abjure nuclear deterrence, and reconcile to the fact that even its most moderate Arab interlocutors do not accept the legitimacy a Jewish state.

Is it, nevertheless, time to jettison nuclear ambiguity? Some strategists including former Knesset member Uzi Even believe ambiguity has runs its course and that IAEA inspections of the Dimona reactor would -- at this point -- do no harm to Israeli security. The more prevalent view is that with Iran on the cusp of a bomb, an abrupt, forced, abandonment of nuclear ambiguity could make deterrence less credible and the region less stable. Emily Landau, for instance, argues that abandoning ambiguity in the present environment would intensify pressure to disarm entirely.

Yet why not discard the nuclear option altogether? Because Israel continues to face existential threats. Israeli policymakers would doubtlessly welcome seeing the region transformed into a zone free of all WMDs – including chemical and biological arms – and also seeing conventional forces considerably reduced. This goal, however, would need to be achieved in the context of a freely arrived at and comprehensive peace settlement. The first imperative toward creating an environment conducive to a peaceful tolerant Middle East is removing the risk that the dark, bellicose and fanatical leaders of Iran will wield atomic weapons.

The immediate question is: How vigorously are civilized countries prepared to defend the arms-reduction and non-proliferation agenda from those who would cynically manipulate the cause of disarmament in pursuit of their myopic vendetta against Israel?

--May 2010

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