Will Israel Join the Nuclear Club?

The precedent that the United States has set in the matter of India could well bring about a change of direction in Israel's nuclear policy.

By a large majority, last week the American Senate approved President George W. Bush's plan to recognize India's nuclear capability, without compelling it to open its nuclear installations to international inspectors. The Senate's vote reflects a sea change in America's nuclear policy. Prior to that, in June, the House of Representatives also approved the plan by a large majority. In the near future the two resolutions will be combined and the joint formulation will be brought for final approval.

The precedent that the United States has set in the matter of India could well bring about a change of direction in Israel's nuclear policy. In February, Bush visited India and signed a declaration of strategic partnership with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Under the agreement, the United States will legitimize India's atomic bomb in retrospect and in return India will submit the civilian part of its nuclear industry to international inspection and will commit itself to refraining from proliferating atomic weapons.

Practically speaking, India's nuclear industry is split in two parts: civilian and military. The civilian part, which comprises 22 of the 26 nuclear reactors in the country, will be under international inspection. The remaining 12 reactors will be defined as "military" and will remain closed to inspection. At the military reactors, India will be permitted to produce fissionable materials to its heart's content, but will commit itself to refraining from performing nuclear tests.

This strategic partnership is a far-reaching step. From the American perspective, the advantage is considerable: India will position itself with the United States vis-a-vis China and Islamic extremist elements in Pakistan, and will join a coalition that the United States is putting together against Iran's nuclear plan. India, too, will benefit greatly: It will not have to submit its nuclear military project to inspection and it will be allowed to import knowledge, materials and installations for the production of cheap electricity.

The strategic change in direction that Bush has initiated is reminiscent of the change that was brought about by president Richard Nixon's administration, at the beginning of the 1970s, in the American attitude towards the Israeli nuclear program. The two administrations that preceded it demanded of the government of Israel that it add its signature to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and reveal its nuclear plans to the world. Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, persuaded the president to change course in American policy and recognize Israel's nuclear option. If Israel's nuclear capacity is equivalent to a fait accompli, argued Kissinger, it is better that Israel maintain it in conditions that will be beneficial to the United States in the Middle East.

The strategic partnership between the United States and India has yielded a new route for progress for countries that thus far have not been accepted into the nuclear club. Countries that can be relied upon to observe the rules of the international game - i.e. refrain from proliferating nuclear weapons and not carry out tests - will be brought in. India, like Pakistan and Israel, has not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, but in the eyes of the Bush administration, its government is considered reliable.

In the eyes of the United States, Israel resembles India. Ever since it obtained nuclear capability, it has destined it for defense, presenting the world with a display of nuclear ambiguity and has always, even in times of emergency when it seemed to its leadership that the country was under an existential threat, refrained from warning its enemies that it has a nuclear option.

If the United States decides relate to Israel in a way similar to the way it has related to India's nuclear industry, it will be possible to split the industry here into two areas: The reactor in Dimona will be defined as "military" and will receive an exemption from international inspection, while the reactor in Nahal Soreq will be defined as "civilian" and will be put under inspection. As a result of this, perhaps Israel will decide to cancel the policy of nuclear ambiguity and will be allowed to import nuclear know-how and materials for civilian purposes.

After the vote in the Senate, the White House published a statement on behalf of the president in which he praised the approval of the strategic alliance with India. The agreement, noted the statement, "will bring India into the international nuclear non-proliferation mainstream and will increase the transparency of India's entire civilian nuclear program." It is possible that in the future we will be reading a similar statement on the matter of Israel's nuclear industry.

Michael Karpin is the author of the book "The Bomb in the Basement: How Israel went Nuclear and What That Means for the World," published by Simon and Schuster.