30 Years After Whistleblower Vanunu, Israel’s Nuclear Profile Has Become a Virtual Non-issue

In contrast to its behavior in other international forums, Israel trusts to quiet diplomacy at the IAEA – and it has worked brilliantly.

A partial view of Israel's Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Negev desert.
AFP

A number of officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency gathered last Tuesday at the Israeli pavilion that had just opened at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna. This was the first time in the 60 years since the agency’s founding that Israel has had a pavilion at the organization’s annual conference, held each September.

The main event at the annual meeting is the General Conference, three long days in which each country shares is nuclear vision. In a wood-paneled hall recalling an elementary school gymnasium representatives of the countries meet for a marathon that even veteran diplomats have trouble making it through. Israel, by the way sits at the same table with Iran and Iraq. Most of the seats are empty all the time, except for the American bench, where during every speech there is a junior diplomat to summarize the main points. Besides the General Conference there is also a closed session about decisions the meeting makes. 

The Israeli exhibition was quite modest compared to those of other countries. The Russians installed an impressive model of the new reactor they are marketing, and the Americans were happy to offer meetings with companies selling nuclear technologies. Israel also has what to offer, although in the commercial realm it operates through a subsidiary of the Negev Nuclear Research Center.

The pavilion in Vienna showcased Israeli technology like radiation therapy for cancer tailored specifically to each patient and use of radiation to eliminate agricultural pests.

Zeev Snir, chairman of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission and Merav Zafary-Odiz, Israel’s ambassador to the IAEA, offered visitors a collection of materials accompanied by brief explanations on an iPad.

But it wasn’t the specifics that mattered so much; it was more that the exhibition was being held at all. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano did not attend the opening due to scheduling constraints, but he did visit the pavilion shortly before the event. The organization was represented by two vice-presidents, along with ambassadors from countries friendly to Israel.

In addition to the pavilion opening, it was a good week for Israel at the IAEA annual convention. Paradoxically, although Israel allegedly maintains nuclear potential, in seeming contradiction of the organization’s whole rationale, this is an international organization in which Israel enjoys wide support. Unlike the UN’s Human Rights Council and General Assembly, here at IAEA Israel has majority support and its position is accepted.

Thirty years after Britain’s Sunday Times revealed Israel’s nuclear secrets (on October 5, 1986) with the help of Mordechai Vanunu, the reactor in Dimona is as good as forgotten. The West has come to terms with Israel’s nuclear potential. In his first two years in office, U.S. President Barack Obama tried to press Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Pact, but the Americans have since dropped the subject.

Due to the opposition of the Arab states, Israel is not a member of any of the IAEA’s regional groups and therefore cannot be represented on the Board of Governors that runs the organization.

But behind the scenes, this is of no real importance. Israel is a part of all the scientific research groups in Vienna, and a representative from the Soreq Nuclear Research Center was a member of the small team that investigated the Fukushima disaster. Israel is also making significant scientific contributions at IAEA laboratories outside Vienna, where nuclear analyses are done, including analyses to determine just what Iran is doing with its nuclear project.

Warm relationship

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization operates under the aegis of the IAEA. There are three nuclear-test monitoring stations in Israel – in Eilat, Soreq and Mount Meron. Relations with the organization are excellent and the conference marking its 20th anniversary was held in Israel this past June. During his visit, Treaty Organization Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel also has a warm relationship with IAEA chief Amano. At first, he was met with skepticism, and during his sole visit to Israel in 2010 Netanyahu chose to stay on vacation rather than meet with him. Last week, Amano announced his candidacy for a third term as director in next year’s election. Israel does not have the right to vote, but along with the United States, it supports his reelection.

Amano consistently opposes attempts by Arab states to drag the IAEA into addressing the Israeli nuclear issue. He does so because he studiously tries to avoid stepping on political landmines, and is trying to shape the organization in his image – dry, professional and careful to stay out of the headlines. In a speech last week, Amano pointed out that it was the IAEA’s professionalism that enabled it to be accepted by Iran as well as the world powers on the nuclear issue.

Vanunu’s revelations gave the Arab states ammunition in their fight against Israel. Since 1986, nearly every year one of the agency’s Arab member states has proposed a resolution calling on the IAEA to inspect the Israeli nuclear facilities for manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was the first to exploit this angle.

And Egypt has since taken up the cause. Every year, Israel is victorious when the proposal comes to a vote, but mustering the effort to do so eats up precious diplomatic time and capital on something that is largely symbolic. Israel is not a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Pact and thus the IAEA has no authority over the nuclear plant in Dimona.

The main event at the annual meeting is the General Conference, three long days in which each country shares is nuclear vision. In a wood-paneled hall recalling an elementary school gymnasium representatives of the countries meet for a marathon that even veteran diplomats have trouble making it through. Israel, by the way sits at the same table with Iran and Iraq. Most of the seats are empty all the time, except for the American bench, where during every speech there is a junior diplomat to summarize the main points. Besides the General Conference there is also a closed session about decisions the meeting makes. 

This year the Arab states shifted policy. Morocco, taking up the task this time, submitted a request for a discussion of Israel’s nuclear capabilities, not a vote on it. But this request, too, was given short shrift. Egypt, whose relations with Israel are warming up, did not mention Israel at all.

The Egyptian speaker spoke merely of the need for demilitarization of the Middle East. In his speech, Iran’s top nuclear official Ali Akbar Salehi focused on the sanctions against his country, only making pro forma mention of Israel near the end of his remarks.

The protection of Israel’s nuclear facilities goes to show how a wise policy backed by effective public diplomacy can achieve results for Israel. Israel’s approach at the IAEA is the opposite of its tactics in other international forums. There are no histrionics. The objective is not to come up with gimmicks to be lapped up by the media or to boost one’s election campaign for the Knesset.

Clever tactics

The victim role is left to Iran, whose representatives continually grumble about the strict inspection regime to which their country is subjected. The speech that Snir delivered at the conference was wholly intended to be dull. There were none of the usual Israeli tropes. The real work is done in behind-the-scenes meetings and by weaving personal ties within the organization.

While most ambassadors to the IAEA are foreign ministry personnel who move from one country to another, Israel sends to the organization some who come from its Atomic Energy Commission. This gives Israel a built-in advantage in terms of understanding of the material. The chain of command is short. Ambassador Zafary-Odiz reports to the head of the commission, who works directly with the prime minister.

Israel is thus able to give quick answers, which everyone knows come straight from the prime minister and represent Israeli policy. There is no Foreign Ministry bureaucracy with regional directors or department heads to deal with, or any other ministry exerting its authority and muddying the process. This is also an area that Israeli politicians stay out of, one they do not go around making statements about or trying to politicize.

One Western diplomat who wished to remain nameless said, “Israel handles the nuclear issue very smartly. Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity is a brilliant stroke. It is a deterrent to enemy states, and at the same time, Israel has constrained itself from threatening any other state. Our concern is that weapons of mass destruction will undermine the stability of certain regions. Israel has never threatened to use a nuclear weapon, or even hinted at it, not even during any of the past wars. There is no real reason to bring up the Israeli nuclear issue.”

Israel still has two major challenges at the IAEA. One is the trio of Austria, Sweden and Ireland. These three states are spearheading a confrontational policy towards Israel and feel it is incumbent on it to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Pact. They have not sought to bring this discussion up within the IAEA, but they advocate doing so at the United Nations’ NPT Review Conference, held every five years.

An Israeli official told Haaretz, “Even a country like Sweden, whose present government is hostile to Israel, understands the importance of the matter. I don’t believe they will publicly bring up the issue of Israel’s nuclear weapons.”

The second challenge is Egypt. Due to the improvement this year in its relations with Israel, Egypt set aside the issue of Israeli nukes, but there’s no knowing what the future holds. In the past, the Egyptians opted to pursue votes they were destined to lose just to gain some political capital at home.

In 2010, as part of a compromise that was reached, Finland took on the task of overseeing regional contacts on the subject of “demilitarizing the Middle East of nuclear weapons.” Israel’s official position is that it desires demilitarization but will not be the first to demilitarize.

Egypt had previously pushed hard in the contacts on this matter, but these did not yield any agreement. However, Israel is worried that the Egyptians will seek to resume this path, and consent to all of Israel’s conditions just to push it into a corner and make a diplomatic gain. Israel is wary of this poker game, but as one Israeli bureaucrat put it, “Like they used to say – lucky for us, we’re dealing with the Arabs.”