An End to Nuclear Ambiguity

Israel could secure America's consent to abandoning its ambiguity in advance, and in this way avoid the sanctions stage.

For the first time since 1969, Israel appears likely to face American pressure over its policy of nuclear ambiguity. Back then, four decades ago, prime minister Golda Meir and U.S. president Richard Nixon reportedly agreed that the American government would not pressure Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In return, Israel agreed that it would not declare itself a nuclear state and would not carry out nuclear tests.

It seems that President Barack Obama has decided to deviate from the rules of the game that his predecessors accepted and, as part of his vision for a nuclear-free world, take action in the Middle East as well - a region where conventional wisdom holds that only one country, Israel, holds nuclear weapons.

The possibility that Obama plans to abandon the 1969 agreement between Israel and the United States emerges from his reaction to the working paper Egypt submitted to the NPT review conference that is currently taking place at United Nations headquarters in New York. Paragraph 31 of the Egyptian working paper states that the 189 members who have signed the treaty must pledge not to transfer nuclear equipment, information, material or professional know-how to Israel as long as Israel is not prepared to join the treaty and permit supervision of its nuclear facilities.

The text also calls on signatories to the treaty to reveal any information they have about the nature and extent of Israel's nuclear capability, including any nuclear assistance given to Israel in the past. That provision is aimed mainly at the United States and France, which are thought to have been the main suppliers of Israel's nuclear program. Finally, the Egyptians called for establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

Egypt made a similar attempt in 1995. But back then, President Bill Clinton summoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Washington and demanded that he immediately relinquish the attempt to pressure Israel into joining the NPT.

Unlike Clinton, Obama has chosen to hold a dialogue with the Egyptians. Indeed, the American administration has gone even further: It has given its approval to the appointment of a special emissary who will coordinate preparations for an international conference that will discuss ways of furthering the idea of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

The most serious development on this front is the possibility that the administration might link its readiness to work to prevent Iran from equipping itself with nuclear weapons to steps that it wants Israel to take in the nuclear field. Granted, at the moment, this is an Egyptian initiative, but it is not impossible that Washington will support it. At this stage, however, the Americans are making do with linking their willingness to act against Iran with Israel's willingness to work toward an agreement with the Palestinians.

In addressing what is happening on this front, decision-makers in Jerusalem must not continue hiding their heads in the sand and hoping that Israel will be able to stick to its policy of nuclear ambiguity. It appears that sooner or later, they will be forced to recognize that the era of ambiguity has come to a close. Therefore, Israel must exploit what is now occuring in New York to initiate a dialogue with the Obama administration, in which the two states should reach an agreement on abandoning Israel's ambiguity policy.

Clearly, Israel would be forced to pay a price for America's agreement to such a step - a willingness to reach an agreement with the Palestinians based on the principle of two states for two peoples. But since it is almost certain that the administration will press for implementation of this principle anyway, it would be worthwhile for Israel to link this with American demands of Israel on the nuclear front.

The prime minister and his advisers must abandon the conceptual stagnation that has characterized Israel's nuclear policy and initiate a change. In talks with the administration, Israel could presumably make use of the approach taken by India. In May 1998, India abandoned its policy of nuclear ambiguity, carried out a series of nuclear tests and thus, in a unilateral move, joined the nuclear club.

In the beginning, the U.S. did impose some very moderate sanctions on India. But after a short while, at the Americans' initiative, the two countries signed an agreement for nuclear cooperation. In this way, America came to terms with a nuclear India even though that country never joined the nonproliferation treaty. Israel could secure America's consent to abandoning its ambiguity in advance, and in this way avoid the sanctions stage.

Israel's ambiguity is in any case seen by the entire world as a ridiculous fiction. Israel now has the opportunity to put an end to the fiction. It should not waste it.