For the first time since the Kennedy administration, a senior American official has commented explicitly and negatively about Israel’s nuclear capability.
According to GlobalSecurity.org, Israel is suspected to have between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons based on various intelligence estimates.
Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller called on Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) along with Pakistan, India and North Korea.
Ms. Gottemoeller said this on Tuesday, on the second day of a gathering of representatives of the 189 states that are signatories of the treaty.
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“Universal adherence to the NPT itself, including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea (countries that are not members of the treaty despite being considered to have nuclear capabilities) remains a fundamental objective of the United States,” Ms. Gottemoeller said.
She did not mention Iran even once in her address, thereby breaking the custom during the Bush administration, when officials used to specify and condemn Iran and North Korea in every meeting of NPT members.
Ms. Gottemoeller refused to address the question of whether Washington would initiate new measures in order to pressure Israel to join the NPT and give up the nuclear weapons that it allegedly holds, while speaking later to reporters.
She said the Obama administration encourages all countries that have not signed the treaty to join it.
A former senior Israel Foreign Ministry legal adviser Alan Baker, who is an expert on international law, said that this was a “surprising and worrying statement.”
“I don’t think the Americans have said such a thing in the past,” he said. “This sounds to me like the new administration is shooting from the hip, without having studied in depth the diplomatic situation and our positions. If they study the material properly, they will find that our approach is that we will not sign this treaty as long as we are threatened by our neighbors.
“The Americans know what our position is, and as long as we are under a threat from neighboring countries, both in the immediate circle and in the external circle, we cannot be expected to assume commitments that will place us at a disadvantage.”
The Obama administration’s newfound opposition to Israel’s formally undisclosed nuclear program reverses nearly 50 years of American silence on the subject.
President John F. Kennedy pressured then-Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion to drop Israel’s plans for nuclear weapons in a May 1963 communiqué delivered by the U.S. ambassador.
Dr. Avner Cohen details the Kennedy administration’s efforts in his seminal 1998 book, Israel And The Bomb.
He wrote that Ben Gurion defended Israel’s need for nuclear weapons in the context of the mass murder of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis and the “scenario of a united Arab military coalition launching a war to lilberate Palestine and destroy the Jewish state.”
He documents in his book how Ben Gurion tried in vain to convince President Kennedy that the surrounding Arab states posed just such an existential threat to the Jewish state, conjuring up memories of the Nazi threat from World War II.
In a letter to President Kennedy, dated May 12 1963, Ben Gurion told the president: “I know that it is difficult for civilized people to visualize such a thing – even after they have witnessed what had happened to us during the Second World War… I cannot dismiss the possibility that this may occur again… if the Arab leaders continue to insist on and pursue their policy of belligerency towards Israel”
President Kennedy refused to budge and continued to push Israel to abandon its nuclear option until his death on Nov. 22, 1963. No American president has made an issue of Israel’s nuclear capability – until now.
David Bedein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org