Why India and not Israel?
One may ask whether Israel is at all interested in reevaluating its nuclear standing.
After some arm-twisting and several power struggles, the Bush administration proved to the world, and to America itself, that it is still capable of imposing its will on the international community when it comes to matters it considers important. Two weeks ago, the U.S. and India forced the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, responsible for overseeing global nuclear trade, to grant India a special exemption from the body's laws.
This decision not only puts a stamp of international approval on the controversial nuclear cooperation agreement signed between the two countries, it also serves as a green light for other nations to do business with India in the field of nuclear technology.
There is a certain irony to the fact that India has become the first country to be granted an exemption from the group's regulations, since the body was founded in 1974 as a response to India's first nuclear test - what is known in contemporary India as "a nuclear explosion for peaceful purposes."
Initially, the Nuclear Suppliers Group was comprised of an informal work group of seven countries that enjoyed access to nuclear technology. The group's representatives would gather in London every so often with the aim of establishing an international supervisory body over the trade of raw materials and nuclear technology that could be used for both energy purposes and weapons construction. The pretense for the group's establishment was to give teeth to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. The organization expanded in both size and mandate following the first Gulf War, as the lessons of the Iraqi atom were still fresh in the world's mind.
Granting India an exemption breaks a taboo from the standpoint of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Not only is India not among the treaty's signatories, it also developed and tested nuclear weapons in the wake of the treaty. India refuses to sign another nuclear limitation pact banning testing, a key pillar of the non-proliferation treaty.
From India's point of view, the Nuclear Suppliers Group exemption marks the end of the 34-year nuclear boycott imposed on it. New Delhi sees it as correcting a long-standing injustice. As far as the non-proliferation treaty is concerned, the exemption constitutes a betrayal of its fundamental principles and practical aspects in the name of economic expediency and political-strategic considerations.
One way or the other, everyone agrees that this marks an historic nuclear turning point. India's exemption contradicts the assumption that the non-proliferation treaty is the sole core pillar of the nuclear world order. Now that there are exceptions, the bodies governing international relations must be brought up to speed in order to adequately deal with unusual instances.
India's exemption could become a precedent for a new approach to Israel's nuclear question. For the first time, Israel is presented with an opportunity for a new, different nuclear future on both the international and regional levels. Israel is also boycotted, if not treated as a leper, over the nuclear issue, despite the fact that it has demonstrated more caution in relation to nuclear weapons than India. In contrast to New Delhi, Israel has never denigrated the non-proliferation treaty, certainly not in public, despite its refusal to sign it. As opposed to India and the U.S., Israel is a signatory to the treaty banning nuclear testing.
The U.S. has repeatedly stated that the Indian case is unique, and it would be incorrect to draw conclusions from it when handling other instances. The exemption is furthermore depicted as a one-off matter. The argument is that after all, India is an emerging giant thirsty for energy, and without clean nuclear energy it is liable to pollute the atmosphere, and so forth.
Why, then, is India exempt while Israel is not? Neither the U.S. nor the other Nuclear Suppliers Group states have a principled, ethical answer to the question. The answer, of course, stems from political and pragmatic factors that are discomforting to utter in public: India is on its way to becoming a superpower and borders yet another emerging giant, China. India's place in the global nuclear calculus is thus deserving of an upgrade.
One may ask whether Israel is at all interested in reevaluating its nuclear standing. Does Israel want an upgrade? Is there a chance the world will be ready to grant it legitimacy as a responsible player among those nations with nuclear capabilities? Is Israel ready to once again reexamine its nuclear standing? Does it have a plan to build nuclear power stations, which would necessitate an upgrade?
Unfortunately, Israel does not know exactly what it wants when dealing with this complex issue. In addition, it lacks a national leadership that possesses a vision of what direction its nuclear policy should take. As intimated by stories in the foreign press, over the course of the last two years Israeli technical experts have discretely started inquiring into a possible reevaluation of Israel's nuclear policy, both in the United States as well as among members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The responses ran along the lines of, "Now is not the time." Lacking a leadership that is in the know and acts with a sense of urgency, the issue fizzled out.
Nuclear issues are inherently complex from both an economic and a strategic standpoint, and only national political leaderships are able to seriously resolve them. The world's energy crisis and global warming have spurred creative thought toward an overall vision. What a pity that Israel lacks both the leadership and the stable rule that would allow it to meet these challenges.
The writer is a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington and author of "Israel and the Bomb."