Tsunami in a Test Tube

The importance that Obama places in moving toward that difficult goal of a nuclear weapons-free world provides Israel with a rare opportunity for launching a unilateral, nonbinding initiative.

In the State of Israel, the more senior the position a person holds, the less knowledge he or she possesses. The prime minister, who also serves as senior minister for economic strategy, does not read the fine print of the budget drawn up by the Finance Ministry before it is made public, while the defense minister says "amen" while observing the misguided panic spawned by the media's ignorance, superficiality and negligence.

In a television interview over the weekend, Ehud Barak seemed to give credence to the misleading impression that a statement by a mid-level U.S. official, regarding Israel's position vis-a-vis the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, was some sort of new development - and thus of political importance. Supposedly, the statement was a demand that Israel divest itself of what it possesses.

In Israel's collective imagination, shared jointly by the press and the government, the official suddenly became a senior member of the administration, whose statements reflect President Barack Obama's policy of pressuring Israel into closing the Dimona reactor.

In reality, Rose Gottemoeller, who after her speech was promoted to the position of under secretary of state is just one of 48 assistants to the secretary of state. In other words, she is a fourth-tier diplomat, responsible for one branch. The quotes attributed to her one month after taking office were the exact ones uttered by her predecessors, in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Indeed, in 2005, just before the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference on the global state of nuclearization, an event held once every five years, the same text was uttered by two officials: Jackie Wolcott Sanders and Mark Fitzpatrick.

They expressed hope that sometime in the future - in this case, the distant future - when wolf and sheep cohabitate, Israel, India and Pakistan would join the NPT. This was and remains a vision for the distant future, not an actual process with a timetable and threats of punishment in the event of noncompliance.

Barak, who said Gottemoeller had for the first time specified which countries ought to sign onto the NPT and that Israel was among them, did not do his homework as he should have.

The statements by Sanders and Fitzpatrick were reported in Israel in a context that was fitting and proportional, with no reverberations. They too recycled what had been said by Bill Clinton's under secretary of defense for policy, Frank Wisner. In an interview during a visit to Jerusalem in 1995, Wisner emphasized that the expectation was for Israel to join the NPT as a nonnuclear weapon state (NNWS).

This distinction is essential: The NPT divides countries into two categories - nuclear weapon states (NWS) and all others. Upon the NPT's inception four decades ago, the former included the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain. Years later China and France joined the club and were given identical status. It is what separates NWS and NNWS, the little prefix "non," that extinguishes any chance of bringing in the three lone countries that remain on the outside (including North Korea, which already has one foot inside).

The excitement that gripped the Israeli establishment was a tsunami in a test tube, a tempest in a heavy-water teapot. Gottemoeller added her own formula to the vision laid out by Obama in Prague a month ago, when he called for global nuclear disarmament. Though this would not likely happen in his lifetime, Obama acknowledged, it is important to strive for it.

William Perry, who was Clinton's defense secretary and recently organized two research groups to study the future of America's nuclear policy, used as a metaphor the climbing of Mount Everest. Although there is no chance of reaching the summit, it would still behoove us to build encampments at bases lower down, which could be used to service the climbers who need to overcome the final, steepest stretch of all.

The importance that Obama places in moving toward that difficult goal of a nuclear weapons-free world provides Israel with a rare opportunity for launching a unilateral, nonbinding initiative: an independent decision, borne of sovereign calculations, whereby Israel slashes a considerable portion, say one-tenth, of the budget allotted to its nuclear research center at Dimona and the other bodies under the purview of the Atomic Energy Commission. This would be a gift, from Netanyahu. Then the New York Times would have an exclusive headline.

The sanctified policy of ambiguity would not be harmed, and Israel would continue to champion a Middle East free of nuclear weapons "two years after a comprehensive peace is reached."

The actual data and their intended use will remain confidential, yet because all the other areas of the state budget, including defense, are subject to serious cuts due to the financial situation, the nuclear clause is not entitled to immunity.

After more than 50 years of investments in what is seen as Israel's insurance policy, it is possible to pay a little less in the coming era while reaping political dividends in the process.