Being Clear About Ambiguity

Would it really be better for Israel to openly declare its nuclear status? I don't think so. Not for Israel, not for the region.

We need to be very clear: When the Egyptians demand that Israel join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - whether at the recently convened NPT Review Conference or at any other international forum - this has one meaning only, that Israel must relinquish its presumed nuclear weapons. The way the NPT is currently formulated, there simply is no other way for a state to join. The choice (since the treaty went into force in 1970 ) is to join as a non-nuclear weapon state or not to join at all. So, anyone who thinks that this suggestion/demand is merely about ending Israel's policy of "ambiguity," or increasing transparency, or bringing Israel closer to the global regime, is misguided and mistaken. It's a call for total and complete disarmament.

In the current regional atmosphere - especially in light of an aggressive, nuclearizing Iran - this is not a realistic proposition. Israel's nuclear policy is all about deterring potential threats to its survival, such as the concrete nuclear one emerging in Iran. Moreover, for Tehran, the ability to threaten Israel is a side benefit of its program, not the major impetus. Therefore, any change in Israel's status would not alter Iran's drive for the bomb or reduce its regional hegemonic ambitions one bit. It would only make Israel intolerably vulnerable to the regime's sinister designs. Additional motivations to develop nuclear capabilities by other states in the region would also not be influenced by Israel's actions: They are only emerging in direct response to Iran's nuclearization.

Ambiguity is a different issue. Here there seems to be a realistic choice to be made: Israel can either continue to maintain its policy of ambiguity, or - assuming it does have an arsenal - become an openly declared nuclear state. But it is those who call for an end to ambiguity - but don't necessarily want Israel to be forced to disarm - who must show the advantage of an open nuclear policy. The burden of proof falls upon those who advocate altering the status quo.

Would it really be better for Israel to openly declare its nuclear status? I don't think so. Not for Israel, not for the region.

One commonly voiced argument for Israel to "come clean" is that its nuclear arsenal is in any case a poorly kept secret, and has become like a bad joke. But Israel's policy in this realm is not fundamentally about keeping a secret. It is much more about staying out of the spotlight, and not issuing statements or taking action (such as a nuclear test ) that could be interpreted by other states as a threat that would have to be answered in kind.

Israel's only purpose here is to establish effective deterrence against threats to its very survival, which is why it has never had a problem keeping a very low profile in the nuclear context; indeed secrecy generally serves that goal. All Israel needed was to create a degree of doubt. In fact, since nuclear deterrence depends on some information becoming available, absolute secrecy would actually have undermined the country's policy.

Others advocate that Israel should abdicate ambiguity in the name of transparency and confidence-building. But such a departure would more likely be interpreted by regional states as a hostile and threatening step on Israel's part, and would increase pressures on it to join the NPT. Transparency could be a positive step only when carried out in the context of a broad-based and ongoing confidence- and security-building process that encompasses much more than the single issue of relinquishing ambiguity.

Israel's proven record of 40 years of restraint and responsibility - the hallmark of its nuclear policy - is of much greater value for the region than transparency. The reality of so many wars being fought in the Middle East under the nuclear threshold is testimony to the fact that Israel's presumed nuclear arsenal is purely for last-resort purposes. Moreover, Israel maintains good working relations with the International Atomic Energy Agency on issues of nuclear safety, even though it is not a member of the NPT. And it made significant moves in the direction of arms control in the 1990s - signing both the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty - when it seemed that political conditions in the Middle East were improving.

Those who advocate that Israel shun ambiguity in order to demonstrate support for President Obama's new disarmament agenda are making the weakest argument of all. In the current atmosphere, ending ambiguity will not result in Israel being accepted as an openly declared nuclear state, but will, rather, only contribute to mounting pressure for it to join the NPT - namely, to accept total disarmament. For all the fanfare, Obama himself would not take any step toward nuclear disarmament in his own country if it would undermine the security of the U.S. and its allies. Israel - which, unlike the United States, has to deal with very concrete threats and challenges to its very existence - is surely entitled to a comparable measure of self-defense.

For Israel, nuclear ambiguity has served as an essential insurance policy for survival, while allowing it to maintain a low profile that enabled its neighbors to live with its presumed nuclear weapons, even though they were never happy with the situation. With Israel not coming out in the open, Arab states did not feel unbearable pressure to respond in kind. Ambiguity also enabled Israel to ward off the pressure of inspections, which would necessarily have led to concrete pressure to disarm.

If Obama's new disarmament agenda - with its insistence on across-the-board equality in the nuclear realm - increases pressure to change the policy of ambiguity and spurs louder calls for disarmament, it would be in effect helping to establish the conditions for Israel's enemies to threaten it with annihilation.

Emily B. Landau is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program, at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.