Obama Promises PM Nuke Treaty Won't Hurt Israel

U.S. President Barack Obama has given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unequivocal guarantees on maintaining and bolstering Israel's strategic capabilities, government sources said yesterday.

"These guarantees comprise a significant step up in the historical relationship between the United States and Israel in the field of strategic understandings," said one of the sources.

The sources said that two weeks ago, Obama sent Netanyahu a message in which he promised that no decision made at the five-year review conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which ended over the weekend, would be allowed to "harm Israel's vital interests."

A deal would likely clear the way for a broader consensus agreement Friday on doing more to check the spread of nuclear arms worldwide, successfully ending a monthlong, 189-nation conference to review and strengthen the 40-year-old treaty.

The conference participants ended up making several decisions that Israel opposed. They demanded that Israel sign the NPT as a non-nuclear state, though complying with this demand would force Israel to end its policy of nuclear ambiguity and give up the nuclear capability that, according to foreign reports, it has had for decades. It also called for making the Middle East a nuclear-weapons-free zone and decided to convene an international conference on the issue in 2012.

The United States voted in favor of both these resolutions. Afterward, however, Obama and other senior administration officials voiced public reservations about the way Israel had been singled out and insisted that the administration was committed to bolstering Israel's security. Netanyahu will discuss this issue at his White House meeting with Obama tomorrow night, and the president is expected to reiterate his commitment. Over the last two months, Israel has held numerous discussions with Washington over how to reduce the expected harm to Israel from the NPT review conference. According to the Israeli government sources, these discussions were behind Netanyahu's decision not to attend a conference on nuclear disarmament that Obama convened in Washington in April.

After the conference, Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with Obama in Washington to discuss the issue. Since then, National Security Advisor Uzi Arad has been in regular contact with senior officials of the U.S. National Security Council in an effort to solidify the understandings.

The public reservations that Obama and other administration officials voiced after the NPT conference were coordinated with Israel.

Obama had promised Netanyahu as far back as last year that Washington's arms control initiatives would not do anything to impair Israel's security, its ability to defend itself or its deterrent capabilities. That promise was contained in a letter that Obama gave Netanyahu at their White House meeting in May 2009.

At that meeting, Netanyahu asked Obama to reiterate the promise he received from then-president Bill Clinton in 1998, during Netanyahu's first term as premier. At Clinton's urging, Netanyahu had just signed the Wye River Accord, in which he promised to transfer additional areas of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. In exchange, Netanyahu received Clinton's promise to maintain Israel's defensive and deterrent capabilities.

At that time, Netanyahu feared pressure on Israel to join a proposed new treaty that would ban the production of fissile material, which is used to make nuclear weapons. He told Clinton that Israel would not agree to sign such a treaty, and sought a pledge from Clinton that he would not press Israel to do so. Netanyahu viewed the pledge he ultimately secured from Clinton as one of his most important achievements as prime minister.

Barak, who replaced Netanyahu as premier in 1999, received an identical pledge from Clinton in July of that year.

Arad, who urged Netanyahu to obtain Clinton's 1998 promise and played a key role in the negotiations over it, was also in charge of negotiations over the pledge that Netanyahu got from Obama last year.