Nuclear Exposure on the River Wye

More than all the estimates and leaks about the Israeli nuclear program, Carter's comments on Sunday give official cachet to Israel's status as a nuclear power.

Of all the places in the world, Jimmy Carter chose a book fair on the banks of the River Wye in Wales as the spot from which to put an official end to Israel's nuclear ambiguity. One cannot exaggerate the importance of the former American president's statement that Israel has 150 nuclear bombs. More than all the estimates and leaks about the Israeli nuclear program over the past five decades, Carter's comments on Sunday give official cachet to Israel's status as a nuclear power.

This time the speaker is not another scientist basing his assessments on calculations of the output from the Dimona reactor, or a news report with an unclear source. Israel's nuclear weapons arsenal is being revealed by a former American president, someone who, upon entering the White House, adopted the policy of covert American nuclear cooperation with Israel, which was formulated four decades ago.

The principles of the nuclear understandings between Israel and the United States were agreed upon in 1969, when prime minister Golda Meir met with U.S. president Richard Nixon in Washington. That was the first time the United States officially accepted Israel's status as a nuclear power, while agreeing not to publicly reveal details about its weapons. Israel committed not to carry out nuclear testing or declare that it has nuclear weapons. For their part, the Americans promised not to pressure Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Every American president since, and every senior administration official who knew the details of the Israeli nuclear program, kept silent and effectively adopted Israel's official policy: that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. Now Carter comes along and changes the rules of the game. After all, he doesn't need to rely on foreign sources or unproven conjecture. When he served as president, he knew exactly what Israel had in its storehouses. Jimmy Carter is not guessing or estimating. He knows.

In his speech at the Wales book fair, Carter did not make it clear whether he was citing the number of bombs Israel had when he left the White House in January 1981, or describing the current size of Israel's nuclear arsenal. This doesn't much affect the core of the matter - Israel's exposure as a nuclear power. When it comes to strategic considerations by Israel and its opponents, it doesn't matter whether there are 150, 200 or 300 bombs.

If Carter was referring to the size of Israel's nuclear arsenal when he left the White House, it is possible to figure out its current size from the information he provided. To do so one needs to use foreign sources, which state that Israel produces enough plutonium to build approximately five nuclear bombs per year. If that's the case, then Israel has built an estimated 150 more bombs since 1981, putting the size of Israel's nuclear arsenal at some 300 bombs. But this is merely an intellectual exercise. What is truly important is the fact that a former American president has exposed Israel as a nuclear power.

One can assume that Iran will now be able to make use of Carter's comments in order to point to the double standard of the Western world, which is prepared to accept a nuclear Israel but makes a great effort to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

However, the more important ramification of Carter's statement is the reinforcement of Israel's deterrent image. In the future, if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, this image will be of critical importance in the process of developing mutual deterrence.