In the midst of the Munich Security Conference that was held four years ago, a number of Arab representatives tried to place Israel’s nuclear capabilities on the agenda. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, who was sitting in the crowd, a smile and shot them down. Everyone knows that Israel has to defend itself against existential dangers, said Rumsfeld, and ended that debate before it even began.
But the reality nowadays is completely different.
For the first time in its history, the International Atomic Energy Agency is going to discuss the atomic arsenal that is ascribed to Israel. Section eight of the agenda for the IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna on June 7 ought to be troubling to Israel for two reasons. The first is that the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and the Israeli intelligence community learned yesterday about the existence of this section from an Associated Press report, and not from their own sources. The second and more important reasons is that this constitutes the further erosion of the wall of nuclear ambiguity that Israel has maintained around the “textile factory” in Dimona.
Had the US administration acted differently, none of this would have happened. While the senior American representative at the Munich conference four years ago derailed the debate on Israel’s nuclear arsenal, American representatives at the very same conference that was held this February squirmed and provided vague answers about the need to free the Middle East of nuclear weapons, identical to the official statements that have recently been issued by the White House and the State Department on this issue.
Why are the Americans doing that? Does this not constitute the violation of the secret agreements that were reached between Golda Meir and President Nixon, that Israel would scrupulously maintain its nuclear ambiguity and the US, in exchange, would not demand that it either sign the NPT or open its nuclear installations to IAEA supervision? What truly is prompting President Obama to attack us on this front as well or, at the very least, to sit with folded arms while others do so?
One possible answer is that Obama is motivated by a liberal ideology that truly believes that the powder-keg known as the Middle East truly can be defused before peace reigns here. Another possible answer pertains to the fabric of relations between Israel and the United States. The US is furious with Israel about its behavior on the Palestinian track and that is why it has partially removed the protective vest that it has provided to Israel for so many years on the nuclear issue. There are some members of the Israeli intelligence community who believe that the Americans are so fed up with Netanyahu that they enjoy seeing us bleed.
Either way, the Arab states have correctly read the changes in Washington and are bombarding us in Vienna. On April 23 the Arab representatives sent IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano a letter in which they asked him to report to the board of governors everything the IAEA knows about Israel’s nuclear capabilities and to demand that Israel permit supervisors to enter its nuclear facilities. Amano recently sent a letter to the foreign ministers of the 151 IAEA member countries and sought their recommendations as to how to persuade Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
If Israel were a signatory of the NPT, the IAEA meeting could have led to a UN Security Council debate and a ruling that Israel was in violation of the treaty. Based on that ruling, the UN Security Council then would have the right to impose sanctions against the violating country. Since Israel never signed the NPT, that is a scenario that cannot occur. Yet the very fact that such a meeting is being held by such an important forum that oversees global nuclear proliferation, for the first time since that agency was established 52 years ago, is very problematic from Israel’s perspective.
The position that was drafted by Yehiel Horev, the former director of security in the security establishment, posits that any discussion, debate or demand to supervise the turn of events in Dimona is bad for Israel. If the ambiguity dissipates, warned Horev and his colleagues, Israel will find itself on the list of countries under international boycott, and even the United States, under any administration, would be obliged to change its policies. That would be damaging to science, the economy and Israel’s national security.
Others, such as Professor Uzi Even, one of the founders of the reactor in Dimona, believe that the time for nuclear ambiguity has passed. Israel, believes Even, needs to achieve a status similar to India’s. While it does not publicly brandish the nuclear weapons it possesses, it is a signatory of the NPT and enjoys the international consequences resulting from this.
The problem is that the upcoming IAEA meeting is liable to erode Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity, but also its ability to cope with Iran in the diplomatic arena. The very fact that someone has placed Israel, Iran and Syria on the agenda of the same meeting makes the Israeli Foreign Ministry fight against a nuclear Iran much more difficult.
Ultimately, this sort of meeting is going to damage Israel’s shaky international standing. Everyone eager to lash out at Israel, and not only in the Arab world, is going to exploit this meeting to demand that the very same steps that are being taken against Iran be taken against Israel. As is, Israel has been suffering from mounting isolation and delegitimization as the national home of the Jewish people. In that kind of reality, raising the issue of Israel’s nuclear capabilities is the last thing that we need.