A mid-level U.S. State Department official's call on Tuesday for Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea to adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was portrayed in Israeli media outlets as further evidence of the distance between Obama's administration in Washington and Netanyahu's government in Jerusalem. If Israel fails to heed Washington's instructions on the diplomatic front, the press said, it will be punished in the most painful way possible - by having the so-called "nuclear option" removed from its deck of cards. The fact that Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller's remarks were not coordinated with Jerusalem only deepened that concern.
Israel's Foreign Ministry rushed to issue calming statements, and justifiably so. The American declaration is nothing new; it has been heard several times before, even during the friendly years of the George W. Bush presidency.
President Barack Obama, who has committed in every possible forum to preserve Israel's security, does not intend to "close Dimona" while Iran threatens to wipe Israel from the map. There is no reason to panic, but it must be understood that, unlike his predecessor, the current president intends to strengthen nuclear monitoring around the world, and Israel will be asked to contribute to this overall effort.
The NPT divides the countries of the world into two categories: one includes the five world powers allowed to hold nuclear weapons (the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China); the other contains every other nation on earth, whose signing the treaty obligates them not to hold nuclear weapons and to open any nuclear facilities to international inspection. The treaty stipulates that states that currently owning nuclear weapons must gradually disarm.
Since its implementation in 1970, the NPT has been signed by nearly every country in the world, with three holdouts: Israel (widely regarded around the world as a nuclear power), India and Pakistan (the latter two have performed nuclear tests). North Korea signed the treaty in 1985, but withdrew in 2003 after the United States ceased oil shipments to the country amid allegations it was enriching uranium.
Other countries believed to have had nuclear weapons programs - notably Iraq and Iran - hid their programs until they were discovered. Iran insists its nuclear development is for civilian purposes only, and its facilities are open to inspection.
On Wednesday, an International Atomic Energy Agency report came to light indicating that traces of highly enriched uranium had recently been found in Egypt, which had long portrayed itself as a model of nuclear disarmament and even urged Israel to sign the NPT. The IAEA report has raised fears that discreet weapons programs are being pursued in several Middle Eastern countries under the cover of the NPT.
U.S. nuclear policy has long demonstrated a kind of split personality. Washington's public declarations urge universal compliance with the NPT. This was the spirit in which Tuesday's remarks were made (and occasional others like it in the past). But Israeli experts noticed a softer tone this time - Israel and its fellow "refuseniks" were not called on to sign the treaty and relinquish their nuclear capabilities, but simply to "adhere" to the document, a seemingly less threatening phrase.
On the practical level, Washington recognizes the unique positions that Israel, India and Pakistan are all in, all of them important American allies. U.S. politics also plays an influential role - Democratic lawmakers tend to emphasize international diplomacy and the importance of nuclear monitoring, while Republicans are broadly less likely to do so.
Israel's nuclear policy - its infamous "ambiguity" - is based on an unwritten 1969 agreement between then-prime minister Golda Meir and American president Richard Nixon, according to which, experts believe, Israel maintains nuclear ambiguity and does not conduct nuclear tests, and the U.S. refrains from pressuring it to sign the NPT.
But in 2009, the problem is more complex. As far as the Americans will progress in talks with Iran, demands will almost certainly arise for a full denuclearization of the region. In other words: "Dimona for Natanz."
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