Nuclear Recalcitrance

In Jerusalem, as always, any mention of Israeli nuclear weapons produces a Pavlovian response. No, no, no - there's nothing to talk about and nobody to talk to.

In the Prime Minister's Office they talk a lot about Iranian nuclear weapons; it's the main issue preoccupying Benjamin Netanyahu. They're convinced that if we close our eyes we can keep hiding behind blessed ambiguity. That's apparently the reason the PMO declared that Israel was strongly against holding a conference in Helsinki by early 2013 to discuss a nuclear-free Middle East.

The initiative for the conference was accepted in 2010 at a meeting of signatories of the Nuclear Non-Profileration Treaty, of which Israel is not a member. The Obama administration supported the idea, while Israel panicked and the government announced that Israel couldn't take part because of the initiative's distorted logic. Later someone apparently realized the damage this recalcitrant reaction could cause and explained that the issue was still under discussion.

Earlier this month the results of the discussion were made public when the director of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, Shaul Horev, explained that Israel opposed such a conference. He said the idea of creating a nuclear-free zone was not feasible now because of the "explosive and hostile situation" in the Middle East. Netanyahu thus lost a chance to exploit the planned conference to reach understandings with the Obama administration; these would have given Israel an advantage in future steps on the Iranian issue.

Agreeing to participate in the conference in coordination with the United States, after drawing up conditions and reservations to prevent damage to Israel's security interests, would put Iran in a difficult dilemma. After all, it's clear that if Iran were forced to declare a willingness to take part in a conference after Israel had done so, it would use every ploy to buy time to finish developing nuclear weapons. The conference would reach a dead end, the finger would be pointed at Iran, and Israel would come out ahead.

The U.S. administration long ago accepted the fact that Israel is a nuclear power. The president and his senior adviser made it clear that despite the support for a conference on a nuclear-free Middle East, they are committed to preserving Israel's strategic advantage. In other words, the United States does not intend to undermine Israel's nuclear potential. Barack Obama repeated this commitment during his meeting with Netanyahu in July 2010.

In Washington they also understand that it's doubtful whether the conference will take place due to differences of opinion on its conditions, and they know that the chances of promoting anything in Helsinki to achieve a nuclear-free Middle East are nonexistent. But Obama, who declared the vision of making the entire world nuclear-free, must keep on playing the game. Almost certainly he expected Israel's prime minister to help him with that.

But in Jerusalem, as always, any mention of Israeli nuclear weapons produces a Pavlovian response. No, no, no - there's nothing to talk about and nobody to talk to. In Jerusalem they're still adhering to ambiguity, which for those who are not restricted by censorship has long been an absurd fiction.

Israel has thus lost a chance to exploit a move whose fate is a foregone conclusion. With a little bit of sophistication and out-of-the-box thinking, it would have been possible to announce that Israel would be happy to take part in the conference. This would have thawed relations with Obama somewhat and reaped benefits without risking damage to what the entire world is convinced we have.