Let the World Worry

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

On April 2, 1963, Shimon Peres, then director general of the Defense Ministry, marched through the White House corridors. He was accompanied by Meyer Feldman, the adviser to President John F. Kennedy on Jewish affairs. Peres was in Washington for negotiations on the purchase of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, the first significant weapons deal between the two countries. Just by chance, Kennedy walked by and suggested that Feldman schedule him an appointment with Peres. Their meeting lasted 20 minutes. It was devoted almost entirely to Israel's nuclear plans. Kennedy was extremely concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world. His defense secretary, Robert McNamara, had expressed the fear that by the 1970s, sixteen countries would have nuclear weapons. Since the start of his term of office in 1961, Kennedy and his aides had been pressing Israel for details about the activities of the Dimona nuclear reactor. American aerial intelligence had photographed the building of the reactor and as a result, then prime minister David Ben-Gurion was forced to admit in December 1960 that Israel was building a reactor near Dimona and not a "textile factory" as Israeli spokesmen had earlier claimed.

When the reactor's construction became known, the U.S. made an effort to prevent Israel from developing a facility for splitting plutonium, and other facilities that could lead to the creation of a nuclear bomb. Ben-Gurion was forced to accede to visits by officials from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The first visit took place in 1961 and an additional one occurred in 1962.

According to documents in the Kennedy Library in Boston, Kennedy told Peres at the 1963 White House meeting that the U.S. was closely following the development of Israel's nuclear potential and asked what he had to say about it. The surprised Peres responded: "I can tell you clearly that we shall not be the ones to introduce nuclear weapons into the area. We will not be the first to do so." It was a momentary stroke of brilliance designed to ward off Kennedy's pressure and the deterioration of bilateral relations at a time when Israel was searching for a new ally after the special relations with France, the reactor's supplier, had ended.

Later, Ben-Gurion's successor, Levy Eshkol, would rebuke Peres for the words he had uttered. He felt he had gone too far. But in retrospect, he and all the prime ministers after him adopted the phrase and turned it into Israel's official policy.

Pricking the balloon

This now-famous policy of ambiguity is once again the eye of the storm surrounding the remarks made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday to a German TV station. Peres admitted (in a 1991 interview with Avner Cohen, author of "Israel and the Bomb") that he had conjured up the phrase at the spur of the moment. "I didn't want to lie to the president," he said, "but I also could not give him a direct answer to his question. To get out of the difficulty, I tried to tell him something and this turned into Israel's policy for [many] years." In other words, the public expression for Israel's nuclear policy, perhaps the most important layer in the country's security strategy, was also born of a kind of slip of the tongue. Now, as a result of Olmert's slip of the tongue, another pin has pricked the balloon of ambiguity. This was a week of "nuclear" slips of the tongue. It started with the U.S. secretary of defense-designate Robert Gates. Asked at the Congress hearing why Iran wanted to obtain nuclear arms, he explained that it was surrounded by countries that were already nuclearized, among them Israel. Olmert repeated the slip of the tongue. He criticized attempts to justify Iran's nuclear plans by saying that Israel already had nuclear power, mentioning Israel in one breath with France, Russia and the U.S. as countries that already have nuclear arms. The remark (his bureau hastened to announce that Olmert had not said Israel had nuclear weapons) caused a huge storm, but it seems that such a storm was not justified. True, Israel is the only country with nuclear weapons that has not confirmed it has them, or did not until this week. However, the whole world assumes it indeed has them. According to the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, the world recognizes the right of the U.S., the former Soviet Union (replaced by Russia), China, Britain and France to be nuclear powers. India and Pakistan are also nuclear powers for all intents and purposes, and while the world does not recognize their right to be, it accepts it as a fact. Recently North Korea apparently joined the club.

Over the years, Israel maintained its ambiguity, which left place for a certain lack of certainty and was designed to deter its enemies. But there have been many who proposed a different policy. One proposal was to talk about "a bomb in the basement" - that is, that Israel should state it has a nuclear option. Moshe Dayan spoke in favor of this. Others felt Israel should simply state that it had nuclear weapons.

The policy paid off

However, all of the governments, whether to the right or the left of the political spectrum, decided to abide by the policy of ambiguity. There was a two-fold advantage to this policy: It lessened U.S. pressure on Israel, and essentially led to America's implicit agreement to Israeli nuclearization. Furthermore, it acted as a deterrent to the Arab states.

The U.S. agreement was drawn up by then U.S. president Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, at a meeting with then prime minister Golda Meir in 1969. The visits by the American inspectors to the Dimona reactor were then halted. (These visits had not been very effective for two reasons: As Abba Eban admitted to this reporter at one time, Israel had built all kinds of dummy facilities at the reactor so the inspectors would miss the real thing; secondly, the inspectors were not really intent on discovering exactly what was there, because they already knew what the real purpose of the reactor was.) Thus, the Americans clarified that they would stop putting pressure on Israel, while Israel, for its part, committed to not carrying out tests, not making declarations and, in particular, not uttering threats that could suggest use of these weapons.

These principles, the by-product of the ambiguity policy, were not infringed upon even when Israeli leaders made slips of the tongue that went beyond the official line. Then president Ephraim Katzir said in December 1974 that Israel had "nuclear potential." When asked by a journalist whether his words were intended to cause fear, he replied: "Let the world worry." Katzir knew what he was talking about. As a researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science, he was connected to nuclear matters, and in 1962, he was the official Israeli escort to the nuclear inspectors on their visit to the Dimona reactor.

Some 16 years later, in 1990, shortly after becoming science minister, Prof. Yuval Ne'eman who was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission and party to the nuclear secret, also made declarations, which suggested that any attack on Israel would provoke an extremely serious response. The remarks came against the backdrop of Saddam Hussein's threats in April 1990 that Iraq could "burn half of Israel." But nine months later Hussein attacked Israel with Scud missiles, which bore conventional warheads - not the chemical warheads he had in his arsenal. Many of the analysts believe Hussein did not used chemical or biological warheads simply because he thought Israel would respond with nuclear weapons. If so, the policy of ambiguity paid off in that case.

Some analysts also believe Israel's policy was the reason then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat decided to set limited goals for the war against Israel in 1973, one of which was to jumpstart the political process. This assumption is based on a later statement by Sadat that he had concluded the Arab states could not wipe out Israel, because of its nuclear arsenal. To any discussion of the ambiguity policy must be added the so-called "Begin Doctrine." Then prime minister Menachem Begin made it clear that Israel could not allow a nuclear-armed state to exist in the region that would threaten Israel's own existence. On the basis of this, he instructed the air force to strike at the Iraqi reactor in 1981. The extent to which Israeli leaders adhere to this doctrine will be tested in the coming years, as Iran threatens to develop nuclear arms.

Because of the sensitivity of the issue of whether Israel has the ability to attack Iran, and whether it would decide to do so if the international community does not succeed in preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, the ambiguity policy has taken on greater importance. Any change will give Iran an excuse to nuclearize and will make it harder for Israel to explain its cause. Nuclear ambiguity is one of the most successful pillars of Israeli policy since the state's inception. Apparently the Olmert government does not have any intention of changing this, and rightfully so.