Israel's Rearguard Battle for Nuclear Ambiguity

It’s not possible to adhere to the nuclear ambiguity policy forever. It’s probably only a matter of time before the U.S. will also insist that Israel changes its policy.

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Israel scored another victory this weekend in the rearguard action it is fighting to maintain nuclear ambiguity, when a resolution initiated by the Arab countries at the annual meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency was rejected by a vote of 51-43. The proposal called for Israel to place its nuclear facilities under UN supervision and to ratify the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Ostensibly, the vote is proof positive of the wisdom inherent in Israeli policy. Look, we continue to maintain this ambiguity and refuse to join the NPT (only four other countries have not signed) and the world is silent and accepting. But Jerusalem must understand that this is a dangerous illusion. The victory in the Vienna vote was achieved by the massive pressure brought to bear on many countries by the United States. With all due respect to the urgent phone calls Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made to numerous world leaders, what tipped the scales were the conversations held by U.S. government representatives in Washington.

Two arguments formed the basis of the Obama administration’s position: That a vote against Israel in the IAEA meeting would damage the prospects of promoting the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, and might also undermine the talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Now the Netanyahu government must worry that the administration might change its position on the nuclear issue if Israel does not meet its expectations in both realms.

Three years ago the U.S. supported the initiative to hold a conference to discuss disarming the Middle East of nuclear weapons. The conference at which this was to be announced was set for the end of last year in Helsinki. Israel, however, announced it would not participate. Now the Americans are trying to revive the issue. A contrary Israeli position could lead the administration to reconsider its support of Israel's nuclear policy. Any failure of the talks with the Palestinians, if attributed to Israel, may also influence Obama’s position on the nuclear issue. Negotiations between the U.S. and Iran could also lead to pressure on Israel. It is even possible that the administration might link Iranian concessions to changes in Israel’s ambiguity policy.

But the U.S. is not the only player on the nuclear playing field. In addition to the consistent pressures from the Arab states, led by Egypt, in the United Nations and IAEA frameworks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has now joined the game.

“Israel's technological superiority means that it doesn't have to have nuclear weapons,” Putin told the Valdai Forum last week, as it discussed the situation in Syria, among other issues. “Israel’s nuclear weapons only turn it into a target," he added. “Syria’s chemical weapons were developed in response to Israel’s nuclear weapons.”

Putin said that in the end, Israel will have to agree to divest itself of its nuclear weapons, just as Syria is giving up its chemical weapons.

Netanyahu and his advisers on nuclear matters must therefore understand that Israel is playing on borrowed time. It’s not possible to adhere to the nuclear ambiguity policy forever. It's probably only a matter of time before the U.S. will also insist that Israel changes its policy. Therefore it would behoove the government to initiate a new policy, and not just make do with blocking actions.

Israel, in conjunction with the U.S. administration, must coordinate its abandonment of ambiguity and move toward the status of declared nuclear state. After all, it’s clear to everyone that Israel will not be prepared to give up the nuclear assets that foreign sources say it possesses. It is therefore necessary to be proactive before we get steamrollered, as expected. From conversations with sources close to the administration and from what’s been published, it seems that Washington is willing to discuss with Israel doing away with the fiction of ambiguity.

Israel is playing on borrowed time. It’s not possible to adhere to the nuclear ambiguity policy forever. It’s probably only a matter of time before the U.S. will also insist that Israel changes its policy.

An aerial view of Israel's nuclear reactor in Dimona. Credit: (Archive)