Israelis have always been ignorant about the way their country runs its nuclear affairs. Nearly every aspect of the country’s nuclear activity is defined as classified, all the more so any high-ranking diplomatic activity concerning nuclear affairs. So American journalist Adam Entous of The New Yorker magazine did the Israeli public a favor when he published an article last week about the history of Israeli-American coordination regarding Israel’s nuclear arsenal, its “worst-kept secret.”
For the first time, Entous details how four U.S. administrations, from Clinton through Trump, dealt with the Israeli nuclear issue. According to Entous, it’s become a regular ritual that after the first meeting between a new occupant of the White House and the Israeli prime minister, the latter requests a letter signed by the president renewing the Americans’ seal of approval for the nuclear understandings between the two countries. This presidential letter is never explicit about its intent, it uses hints and code phrases. Each American president is asked to affirm his commitment to the understandings that comprise Israel-U.S. nuclear relations.
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To understand the ritual of presidential letters, we must go back to the starting point. In 1991, Aluf Benn was the reporter who revealed in Haaretz the existence of these nuclear understandings going back years, between Richard Nixon and Golda Meir.
In September 1969, when Meir made her first visit to the U.S. as prime minister, she reached an array of understandings with Nixon that removed any dispute over the nuclear issue from the agenda between the two countries. The understandings concluded a decade of cat-and-mouse between them on this issue.
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Per the understandings, the United States accepts Israel’s unique nuclear status, will not press it to join the nuclear non-proliferation pact and will defend it in international forums. For its part, Israel will continue to refer to its nuclear capability as if hidden; it will continue to assert that it will not be the first in the region to introduce a nuclear weapon.
The Nixon-Meir understandings were a practical arrangement that solved concrete problems weighing on relations between the countries at the time. The U.S. already knew that Israel had crossed or was crossing the nuclear threshold, it knew that its own policy of trying to stop this had failed, and it recognized that it had to adjust its attitude given the new reality.
The U.S. needed the understandings so it could deliver Phantom jets to Israel, and the delivery began that same month, after negotiations the year before over the sale had involved a harsh confrontation over the nuclear issue. Also, it was necessary to end the yearly visits by American nuclear inspectors to Dimona; by 1969, the Americans realized they couldn’t reverse the new nuclear reality and that the only way to minimize the damage was to keep it hidden.
Today, almost 50 years after the original understandings, Israel’s nuclear capability – declared or not – is a solid fact recognized by all. Paradoxically, the leaders of this nuclear power still feel that they need a presidential piece of paper to confirm this.
Entous’ revelations illustrate yet again how outdated the nuclear ambiguity policy is, including the Israeli ploy whereby it’s permissible for anything to be written about Israel’s nuclear arsenal as long as it’s attributed to “foreign sources.” The time has come for the Israeli nuclear issue to be handled differently, both at home and abroad. The time has come for post-ambiguity.
The writer is a professor of nonproliferation and terrorism studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.