Israel's Nuclear Ambiguity No Longer Serves a Purpose

Israel’s policy of neither confirming nor denying possession of nuclear weapons emerged from the fear of automatic penalties that are enshrined in U.S. legislation. With the threat of such punishments gone, so is the need for ambiguity.

Israel’s Ambassador to Japan, Nissim Ben-Shitrit, returns to Israel this week after six successful years in Tokyo. As has been his custom, earlier this month he attended the annual ceremony commemorating the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Together with U.S. Ambassador John Ross, Shitrit heard his hosts speak about that day in 1945 when the bomb fell from the blue sky. The national origin of those who dropped the bomb was not mentioned: What did the Americans have to do with the disaster?

In the past several months President Barack Obama has repeatedly provided, in Syria and in Egypt, additional examples of how diplomacy conforms to interests. In Syria he set a red line, the crossing of which was to lead to military involvement – the use of chemical weapons. When the warning failed and chemical weapons were used, the line was moved. The cost of damage to credibility was preferable to the cost of an imbroglio.

In Egypt Obama maneuvered between the U.S. legal prohibition against giving aid to a country whose duly elected head of government has been deposed by a coup and the desire to respond with restraint to President Mohammed Morsi’s ousting and the military takeover, which was viewed as the lesser evil. The solution was semantic: to deny that what happened was a coup.

Nor did the attacks by Egyptian security forces on Morsi’s supporters cross a line either. In extreme cases, nations and leaders are even willing to wage civil war. In the American Civil War the death toll exceeded 600,000 out of a population of 30 million, or around 2 percent of the population. That compares to tens of thousands of dead in Syria and hundreds in Egypt. This is not, perish the thought, to compare Egyptian military commander Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi or Syrian President Bashar Assad with Obama’s idol, Abraham Lincoln.

The American response to the escalating violence in Egypt is to do the bare minimum. Suspending the delivery of military supplies and canceling the renewal of a joint military exercise after a four-year hiatus is a slap on the wrist.

No one wants an Egyptian replay of Jimmy Carter’s brilliant move of turning his back on the Shah of Iran, who was replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Sissi has not yet been punished more harshly by the Americans than Prime Minister Menachem Begin was 30 years ago. Within the space of one year, between June 1981 and June 1982 - and despite the Reagan administration’s overall sympathy with Israel - Washington punished Israel on three separate occasions. It delayed the delivery of F-16 fighter planes, suspended the strategic cooperation accord and openly threatened levying more serious sanctions. The reasons: Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, annexation of the Golan Heights and attacks on civilian targets in the Lebanon war. With the passage of time and changes to the Israeli leadership the U.S. anger cooled and the penalties were lifted.

The willful blindness of both the White House and the U.S. Congress has eliminated the main reason for Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity, which has been attributed to the fear of automatic penalties that are enshrined in U.S. legislation. When the president and the heads of the legislative branch have the will, legal loopholes are invoked.

The Americans live with a nuclear India and Pakistan. These states have eliminated the ambiguity regarding “what,” if not the ambiguity over “how many,” “where” and “range, magnitude and precision.”

When the balance of interests supports restraint, that is the policy chosen. The partial lifting of the veil of ambiguity is not the same as disarmament; it merely stops the transparent game of hide-and-seek. The diplomatic process in the region will in any case include talks on disarmament as it concerns weapons of mass destruction. That is an ongoing Egyptian demand, joined this month, in connection with his own country’s peace initiative, by Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to the United States and national intelligence chief.

The policy of ambiguity has fulfilled its duty honorably and can now retire. Walworth Barbour, one of the most Israel-friendly U.S. ambassadors ever, served here during the time of choppy relations over the Dimona nuclear facility in the 1960s and 70s. In his memoirs Barbour wrote that he assumed Israel has nuclear weapons but it was not cause for concern because they would not be deployed in either of the two types of areas characteristic of the Middle East, desert sand and population centers.

Wise Israeli policy could deliver assets in exchange for giving up nuclear ambiguity. It’s a matter of timing. The conditions in the region now are ripe for doing just this.

Dimona nuclear reactor - AFP - January 2012
AFP