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It is unclear whether the U.S. assistant secretary of state's call to Israel to sign on to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty indicates a change in Washington's policy toward Israel's nuclear program, or even if the move was anticipated by the White House.

It is clear, however, that where there's smoke, there's fire. The U.S. has been protecting Israel for years, creating a diplomatic umbrella and pushing away any attempt, in any international debate, to discuss the nuclear weapons the entire world believes Israel possesses.

America's protection of Israel began as early as 1969, when then-president Richard Nixon entered the White House along with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.

Nixon halted visits by American inspectors to the Dimona nuclear reactor, a process which began as a result of John F. Kennedy's pressure on Israel and continued during Lyndon Bates Johnson's administration.

These visits were less than effective, howeverm since Israel in fact deceived the inspectors.

As former Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban, once testified, Israel erected a double array of buildings in Dimona in order to throw off inspection. But it is doubtful whether inspectors were really deceived, or if they just wanted to be deceived.

American diplomacy was aided by the indirect support it received from Israel. This help came in the form of Israel's "ambiguous" nuclear policy. This policy relied on a linguistic stroke of brilliance uttered by Shimon Peres in the early 1960s, during his tenure as deputy defense minister.

Israel has never affirmed nor denied that it possesses nuclear weapons. It has consistently asserted that it would not be "the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East."

Even though the world does not always buy Israel's word, and is rather convinced that it does indeed have nuclear weapons, it this policy of ambiguity that makes it possible to repel any attempt at portraying Israel as a nuclear-capable country.

From 1969 until now, only the Arab nations have taken to protesting or confronting Israel's supposed nuclear arsenal. These nations insist in every United Nations forum - and especially in those held by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ? on bringing the issue to the agenda.

Israel is not the only nation which has not yet signed on to the NPT - Pakistan and India are not signatories either. Israel has refused to join the treaty despite considerable pressure ? exerted by the U.S., as well - when the pact was first drafted in the 1960s and 70s.

The reason for Israle's refusal lays in its ambiguous nuclear policy. Joining the treaty would mean that Israel would have to let IAEA inspectors visit the Dimona nuclear reactor, something it is just not interested in doing.

However, the IAEA, of which Israel is a member, does monitor the small, hardly operative nuclear plant in the Soreq Nuclear Research Center.

The IAEA has access to that reactor because it was supplied by the U.S. in 1960 as part of then-president Dwight Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program. The supply agreement indicated that the reactor would be used for research alone, and would be supervised by the IAEA.

Although India and Pakistan also do not allow IAEA inspection of their nuclear faculties, they ? unlike Israel - have conducted nuclear tests and overtly affirmed their possession of nuclear weapons.

Israel is now seen by the world as the only county which has nuclear weapons but does not declare so.

However, increasing international pressure on Iran to dismantle its nuclear program has once again brought Israel to the forefront of discussion.

"Why do you ask us to relinquish nuclear arms and not ask the same of Israel?" Iran has asked the Western powers.

Iran's argument is beginning to find more receptive ears ? and not just in the third world. The question has started to infiltrate consciousness in Western countries as well. As international tensions mount and the problems of how to deal with Iran's nuclear program arise, so too criticism edges closer to Israel.

For years IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has proposed declaring the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. Israel's internal Atomic Energy Committee does not object to this proposal.

However, Israel insists that the issue be raised only after a comprehensive peace is achieved in the Middle East and after all countries - including Iran - acknowledge Israel's right to exist, and sign peace agreements and security pacts with it.

Even then, Israel says, any discussion of a nuclear-free zone would have to be intimately tied to a regional disarmament of other weapons of mass destruction, both chemical and biological, and to downsizing the number of missiles in every country's possession.

As a result of the difficulty in consolidating Israel's stance with the Arabs', every now and again new ideas rise to the surface.

One proposed program - a "freeze frame" on the current situation - was highly encouraged during Bill Clinton's administration. Clinton even initiated an international treaty to that tune, called the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).

The idea was that countries possessing fissile materials would hold on to their existing stockpile, but without producing any new material. The planned treaty, however, never came into fruition.

Maybe now the Obama administration will adopt former president Clinton's design. It has become clear to the Americans that as fears grow of worldwide nuclear proliferation, they can no longer protect Israel as though it were a precious only child.

Even if the Americans do not tie Mideast peace talks in with their ferocious approach to Iran's nuclear program, the administration is nevertheless aware that it will have to takes steps to reduce - if not eliminate - the world's nuclear arsenal.

The biggest concern now ? for Israel, as well - is that unless Iran's nuclear program is halted, other Mideast countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will sooner or later begin to develop their own nuclear cache.

The fear of breaking Israel's nuclear monopoly is a nightmare to Israel, the U.S. and other western countries. The more nuclear weapons multiply and proliferate, so grows the danger of it purposely or accidentally being used by an irresponsible regime or extremist organization.