Since the early 1990s, Israel has been asking incoming American presidents, including President Donald Trump, to sign off on letters continuing their predecessors’ policy regarding Israel's nuclear status, as the New Yorker recently revealed. the U.S. The secret letters state that the U.S. will not press Israel to give up its nuclear weapons so long as it faces existential threats in the Middle East
These secret understandings were a major enabling factor behind Israel’s unique nuclear strategy. Behind the thin veneer of nuclear ambiguity, Israel, with American support, became, according to foreign sources, regional nuclear power.
Israel’s practice of seeking presidential letters on its nuclear capacities is anachronistic and ludicrous, as Avner Cohen has argued ("Time for Israel to Drop Nuclear Ambiguity"): "...Almost 50 years after the original understandings, Israel’s nuclear capability – declared or not – is a solid fact recognized by all...[Israel no longer needs] a presidential piece of paper to confirm this...The time has come for post-ambiguity."
I agree with Cohen's conclusion, but for entirely different reasons. For many years now ambiguity has not been the most important issue in Israel-U.S. nuclear relations. Israel’s nuclear ambiguity was originally a compromise offered to then-U.S. President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, in order to end clashes with Washington over Israel’s nuclear program.
Paradoxically, however, ambiguity evolved into a diplomatic fiction that also proved to be a top Israeli strategic asset. Israel became a nuclear state, but without having to pay the heavy political price.
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It's worth reviewing the milestones over the past half-century that attest to America's full commitment to Israel on the nuclear issue and how Israel's nuclear status has bolstered its relationship with America – a commitment that obviates the need for these official letters of confirmation.
In the late 1960's, Israel’s nuclear status allowed it to abandon its pursuit of an official alliance with the U.S.: Israel’s leadership felt that the country had been left to its fate during the 1967 crisis. The Johnson administration did not meet the 1957 commitment by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to ensure that the Straits of Tiran would remain open for shipping, which was a causus belli for Israel. Against this background, Israeli decision-makers set their sights on strategic depth and nuclear capability; official American security guarantees were perceived as a poor substitute.
The consent Israel received from the Nixon administration in 1969 for its status as an alleged undeclared nuclear state effectively obviated the need for official American guarantees for Israel’s survival.
In the early 1970's, Israel's nuclear status triggered the U.S. to supply it advanced conventional weapons: Israel’s alleged nuclear capabilities became, paradoxically, a kind of "incentive" for the U.S. government to supply Israel with state-of-the-art conventional arms, in order to prevent a weakened Israel from being forced to communicate nuclear threats or abandon its ambiguity.
The connection between the American conventional weapons supply and Israel’s alleged nuclear capability came to the fore during and after the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
In the 1990-91 Iraq war, Israel's nuclear status was leverage for the U.S. against Iraq: The U.S.-Iraq crisis that followed Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait had far-reaching consequences in terms of the U.S. approach to Israel’s nuclear status.
Responding to Saddam Hussein’s threat to launch chemical warheads at Israel – even though Israel was not part of the U.S.-led anti-Iraq coalition – Israel and the U.S. conveyed harsh deterrence signals to Baghdad during the 1990-1991 crisis and war. The most significant incident was a wartime CNN interview given by then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, in which Cheney warned Iraq that Israel might respond with unconventional weapons should Iraq fire chemical weapons at it.
Cheney’s statement was a quantum leap in terms of the U.S. government’s attitude toward Israel’s nuclear posture. For the first time in the history of the two nations, the U.S. transmitted an obvious deterrence signal to Iraq based on Israel’s nuclear capability.
The U.S. has backed Israel's alleged Mideast nuclear monopoly: Israel’s efforts to ensure that no Arab or Muslim country in the region obtains nuclear weapons, referred to as the Begin Doctrine, were at first supported silently by the U.S., and later largely became joint policy.
The Reagan administration, surprised by Israel’s 1981 strike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, confined itself to half-hearted protests and a minor delay in supplying arms. Following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the U.S. led an effort to divest Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, ultimately toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Another example was the discovery of a nuclear facility in eastern Syria in 2007. Israel shared this surprising and disturbing information with the American government and proposed a military strike. For domestic political reasons the White House preferred that Israel carry out the strike, and it did, as then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert revealed this year.
In the 1980s, the U.S. backed Israel against campaigns for a denuclearized Mideast: The international effort led by Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s to make the Middle East a nuclear-weapon-free zone posed a thorny dilemma for the U.S. and Israel. The campaign, which centered around the demand that Israel sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), peaked during the 1995 NPT Review Conference.
The initiative was consistent with U.S. policy favoring nuclear non-proliferation, yet it would mean dismantling Israel’s nuclear arsenal. The U.S., under Clinton, helped Israel withstand pressure to sign the NPT. Against this background Israel began to request letters of commitment from all incoming U.S. presidents to help it maintain its nuclear status.
The campaign to halt Iran’s nuclear program: A variety of efforts to halt the Iranian nuclear program have been underway for the past two decades. Intelligence, security-operational, and political coordination between Israel and the U.S. on the Iranian issue have been maintained at very high levels.
It is clearly in Israel’s interest that the U.S. lead the campaign against Tehran, but under the Obama administration there was fierce disagreement between Israeli and American leaders regarding the policy and strategy by which Iran’s nuclear program should be stopped.
The most striking reflection of the depth of American support for Israel’s nuclear capability was the fact that, even during the bitter discord over the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, neither the Obama nor any administration spokespeople resorted to mentioning longtime U.S. support for Israel’s exclusive nuclear capability. The only ones who publicly called attention to Israeli "hypocrisy" or American double standards were the Iranians.
Israeli nuclear concerns currently revolve around the latter two issues. Israel fears a nuclear Iran, the creation of a regional balance of terror vis-a-vis Tehran, and its regional political ramifications. Israel also harbors concerns about pressure to dismantle its alleged nuclear capability as part of a wider call for Mideast nuclear disarmament.
Israeli decision-makers consider these two issues intertwined. So long as the danger of Iran becoming a nuclear state still exists, it is easy for Israel to reject the idea of a Mideast nuclear weapon-free zone, with support from the U.S., Europe, and even from the Sunni Arab nations.
Given the close Israel-U.S. alignment on Israel’s nuclear status, Israel’s request for a secret letter of commitment from President Trump indeed seems anachronistic and redundant.
Today’s Israel is a responsible Western nation like France and the U.K., who have an independent nuclear deterrence to safeguard their existence.
So long as no change occurs in the nuclear world order that would cause first-generation and second-generation nuclear states – the latter of which according to foreign sources includes Israel - to gradually dismantle their nuclear arsenals, it is hard to imagine Israel doing so in response to international pressure. And that includes pressure from the U.S. itself.
Dan Sagir wrote his doctoral dissertation, "Israel’s Nuclear Deterrence Posture and its Effects on the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967" at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.