The Obama administration's decision to initiate a dialogue with Iran has rekindled an old Israeli anxiety. Will Washington's determination to reach a deal to prevent Iran from going nuclear lead it to demand a reciprocal gesture from Israel? In order to neutralize Natanz, would Israel be asked to contribute its part in Dimona?
According to the Washington Times (May 6), these concerns will be at the core of the meeting scheduled between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama for May 18. Netanyahu, reported the paper, intends to bank on a secret political understanding reached 40 years ago between then-prime minister Golda Meir and president Richard Nixon, and request an explicit presidential commitment to oppose any linkage between Iranian and Israeli nuclear activities. The Nixon-Meir understandings have been the cornerstone for the special relationship between the United States and Israel on the nuclear issue.
These understandings have been at the root of Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity. But what exactly was agreed on by Nixon and Meir is in itself ambiguous. Although both leaders dictated the minutes of what had been said and agreed on, each had his or her own version of what had been said. American documents recently declassified indicate that about a month after that conversation, even Henry Kissinger, at the time Nixon's national security adviser, was not fully aware of the exact details of what the two agreed on.
From my inquiries on the American side, in particular with Dr. Timothy Naftali, who directs the Nixon Presidential Library, I have learned that the original memo of conversation dictated by president Nixon is not at the library. An earlier inquiry with Israel's state archivist, Dr. Yehoshua Freundlich, also revealed that the minutes of the conversation known to be prepared by Golda Meir cannot be found in Israel's state archives. This mysterious absence from the official archives of any original documentation of the conversation indicates the issue's huge sensitivity, and suggests that our state of ambiguity and uncertainty about that conversation is likely to continue.
In Israel's political folklore, the Nixon-Meir understandings are considered an unparalleled success story. They have always been interpreted as an American commitment to shield Israel's nuclear program, while it remains committed to restraint and opacity. These understandings indeed shielded Israel but put it in the position of a "nuclear mistress," the kind you cannot be seen with in public.
Netanyahu and Uzi Arad, the head of his National Security Council, apparently believe that the Nixon-Meir understandings, together with a secret letter given by president Bill Clinton to Netanyahu at Wye River in October 1998, contain a political undertaking that prevents any future linkage between Israel's and Iran's nuclear programs. But that is an Israeli interpretation. Only a few people in the new Obama administration are even aware of those old Nixon-Meir understandings, and it is not clear to what extent they bind America politically in anything related to its negotiations with Iran.
Netanyahu may ask Obama to reaffirm the Nixon-Meir understandings, but they don't need reaffirmation. What they need is full rewriting, because they are the product of a bygone world. Back then, little Israel seemed to be defying the emerging global nuclear order and needed a shield. Today, Israel is perceived throughout the world as a mature nuclear state, yet another de-facto player in the current nuclear order Iran is defying.
The Nixon-Meir understandings are based on secrecy and ambiguity. The world today is much less tolerant of secret arrangements and conspiracies that might create a (misleading) impression that Israel's current exceptionalist nuclear status was born in sin. What had been vital then, weakens Israel's nuclear stature today.
After four decades, it is about time for Israel and the U.S. to draw up new and more open nuclear understandings. One model could be the relations between India and the United States. Such new understandings will accord more respect and legitimacy to Israel's nuclear standing. The question of how that can be done requires a great deal of thought, on both sides, but it can be done.
However, Israel must also give. Even though the Israeli instinct is to adamantly oppose any nuclear linkage between Israel and Iran, it is about time to rid ourselves of dogmas. Concurrent with the creation of new and explicit understandings, which will establish more firmly Israel's nuclear status, one must think creatively about the connection between Natanz and Dimona. Linkage does not mean eradicating or dismantling Israel's nuclear capability and standing, which after all is neither politically nor technologically comparable to Iran.
Israel prefers a silent nuclear monopoly, but its national interest clearly runs counter to a nuclearized Middle East and to an Iran that is nuclear or on the threshold. If it transpires that Israel's contribution to a deal that would prevent Iran from becoming nuclear is critical, Israel must ask itself whether it really wants to, or can, torpedo such a deal.
Recent polls indicate that the Israeli public believes that the nation's air force is the ultimate solution to the Iranian problem. However, the air force can provide only a partial and temporary solution to the Iranian problem, whereas a preemptive Israeli attack will only change and worsen things in the long run. The latter would almost certainly make Iran withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, leaving it without IAEA safeguards, and head for an open and direct nuclear path.
A credible agreement with effective supervision is an immeasurably better solution than reliance on the air force to solve the problem. It is unclear whether such a deal is feasible, but it is certainly worth trying.
Dr. Avner Cohen is the author of "Israel and the Bomb" (Columbia University Press, 1998). As of June he will be Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C.