Arsenal or United?

So here's something good that came out of Joe Biden's visit to Israel. Inspired by the U.S. vice president's expression of official positions without actually influencing them, some observers suggested that we change the State President Law to allow Benjamin Netanyahu to be elected Shimon Peres' VP. This would allow Netanyahu to wander around Israel and the rest of the world as a spokesman, and never be tested for leadership and management skills.

But as long as Netanyahu is sinking under the pressure of decision-making, he needs to engage with a complex reality - and construction beyond the Green Line is just one of its many angles. Last week former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, made a visit to Israel. The linkage between disarmament and non-proliferation in the commission's name is inevitable: Without the willingness of major powers to gradually shed their nuclear weapons, smaller powers will not stop trying to obtain them.

This is complicated all the more by changing political trends. During the Cold War, the Americans strove to amass incredible quantities of nuclear weaponry to compensate for Soviet supremacy in armor and air power. Today the Russians fear that if they get rid of their nuclear arms too quickly, the Americans will retain a serious advantage in conventional forces.

Israeli politicians, whether because they were busy fussing around Biden or feared radiation, found no time for Evans. He met with senior officials including Shaul Horev, the director general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, and Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad of the Defense Ministry. Evans isn't hostile to Israel and doesn't see it as a serious obstacle to a new, nuclear-free world order because he focuses on relations between superpowers, U.S. President Barack Obama's political strength, and the ambitions of Iran and North Korea.

All he asked of Israel was for it to contribute its own cautious part to the general progress toward the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Israel has much to benefit from this because the dangers of proliferation outside its control and the refusal of Arab states to make peace as long as it has nuclear weapons (as they claim) do more to risk than enhance Israeli security.

Evans believes that Israel has "about 60, 70, or more likely, around 200" nuclear weapons, capable of producing 1.2- to 1.6-megaton explosions. In light of this, he says, Israel might as well stop producing more fissionable material; it may have even quietly halted production some time ago, but Evans believes that what's needed is a clear commitment and a start to downsizing its nuclear arsenal. A lot less than what Israel has now is more than enough, he says: "Consider the anxiety you feel about just one Iranian nuclear bomb."

He fears that without some Israeli flexibility, including signing the international treaty against nuclear testing, Arab demands for nuclear disarmament of the Middle East will be one of the toughest obstacles at the upcoming 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. These demands will be accompanied by international embitterment against the admitted nuclear powers. He says 2010 is this generation's last chance to begin the move from the current peak of nuclear proliferation.

So which of the two guarantees a safer existence, as well as more peace and prosperity - a nuclear arsenal or nations united against nuclear proliferation? This weighty dilemma deserves serious discussion by the public and institutions that couldn't find time to listen to Gareth Evans.