Text size

In September 1969 Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and U.S. President Richard Nixon reached an understanding under which the United States would stop pressuring Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

In return, Israel promised not to expose its nuclear capability by testing, and to stick to its traditional formula, "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East."

This was one of the most significant agreements with Washington on the nuclear issue, and has since granted Israel full freedom of action in developing a nuclear capability.

Now, following Libya's declaration of dismantling its weapons of mass destruction, and Iran's agreement to sign the "additional protocol" of the NPT and stop enriching uranium, it seems the time has come to initiate a new agreement with the U.S. leading to an acceptance of Israel's nuclear status.

Israel has to take advantage of the fact that the U.S. is now molding dramatic processes in this region. Gadhafi's declaration and Iran's surrender to American pressure will certainly lead to some focusing of attention on Israel's nuclear potential anyway, as already evident from statements by senior officials in countries in this region.

Israel should therefore initiate a dialogue with the U.S., making the first move to reaching a new "nuclear agreement" with the White House before international bodies make decisions on Israel's nuclear affairs. A process similar to that of Israel being brought to trial at The Hague over the separation fence is liable to unfold in the nuclear sphere.

This does not mean Israel has to announce the existence of nuclear arms in her possession. The intent is to reach an agreement with the U.S., perhaps secretly at first, which will serve as the basis for a change in Israel's status in the eyes of the international community. It will serve the U.S. as a political tool for making Israel's new status acceptable, just as the 1969 agreement served Washington in repulsing any attempt to pressure Israel into joining the NPT.

Israel must explain to the U.S. administration that accepting a nuclear Israel will actually considerably reduce the tension between Israel and her neighbors. Whereas the nuclear ambiguity serves the countries in this region in applying pressure on Israel and presenting her as an obstacle to peace arrangements, abandoning this vagueness would permit the resetting of the rules of the game.

In any case none of the leaders in the Middle East has any doubts about Israel's possession of nuclear arms. If the transition to formal recognition of this were done in the framework of comprehensive diplomatic agreements that would lead to a historic conciliation with Israel, under American sponsorship, those leaders could receive broad support for this from their citizens too, and remove the nuclear issue from their agendas.

Here, however is the thorn. American agreement to such a step may well be received, if at all, only if Israel consents to pay for it in two areas. First, it must present it as part of a whole peace process, in the framework of which it would be willing to reach an arrangement with the Palestinians and Syria.

Second, Israel would agree to join the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). This treaty, whose formulation has not yet been completed - it's actually frozen - seeks to ban the production of enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium, thus leading to a total halt in the production of nuclear weapons.

Israel objects to joining the treaty, among other reasons for fear it will require full transparency from participating countries about their nuclear programs. Such a fear would disappear, of course, if Israel's nuclear status were altered. Israel could also accept a treaty that deals only with the future production of fissile materials and does not touch the existing stocks of such materials.

This would be all the more true if it turns out that countries like Iran and Libya will actually give up their nuclear programs. In this respect, Israel may even have an incentive to sign the treaty, if the other countries in the region sign also. At least on paper they will be prevented from developing nuclear arms.

On August 11, 1998, Israel agreed not to veto the establishment of a negotiating committee on the FMCT issue, as part of the Disarmament Commission (DC), headquartered in Geneva. Prior to that time Israel was the only one of 16 member countries in the DC that had not consented to any negotiations on halting the production of fissile materials.

Although Israel had agreed to discuss the FMCT, then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu clarified that this did not reflect Israel future position on the treaty and its content.

The historical changes taking place in the Middle East create an opportunity that will not repeat itself for reexamining Israel's position on the treaty, which in any case will take a long time before its formulation is complete. Israel joining the treaty would be a fitting exchange for the U.S. administration's support in granting legitimacy to Israel's nuclear status.

Developments in our region dictate a change from old thought patterns, that we exploit the advantages of our special relationship with the U.S., and that we show courage, even in areas that until today were considered taboo.