In a rare breach of official American adherence to Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity, the U.S. military is terming Israel "a nuclear power" on a par with Russia, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea, all of which have declared their nuclear weapon status, and ahead of "nuclear threshold powers" Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and the "emerging" Iran.
The reference to Israel as a nuclear power is contained in a document published late last year by the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), the Norfolk, Virginia-based headquarters in charge of preparing American forces for their military missions worldwide, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. JFCOM's chief, U.S. Marine Corps Four-Star General James Mattis, also heads NATO's Allied Command Transformation.
Israel's nuclear program is rarely, if ever, explicitly mentioned in public, unclassified U.S. official documents. Classified assessments are usually published only years later, in response to Freedom of Information requests, in former officials' recollections or as part of historical research. It is virtually unheard of for a senior military commander, while in office, to refer to Israel's nuclear status.
In December 2006, during his confirmation hearings as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates referred to Israel as one of the powers seen by Iran as surrounding it with nuclear weapons. But once in office, Gates refused to repeat this allusion to Israel, noting that when he used it he was "a private citizen."
JFCOM's "Joint Operating Environment" (JOE) document, with a forward by Mattis and drafted by a team of officers and civilians he selected, was signed in mid-November 2008 and posted on the Pentagon's Web site. It has generated protests by the governments of Mexico - whose potential collapse is depicted as a grave threat to U.S. national security - and South Korea, which resented the reference to North Korea as a nuclear power. Following the Korean controversy, JFCOM issued a clarification, noting that this reference does not reflect U.S. government policy, which has vowed never to accept North Korea as a nuclear power.
Regarding Israel, the JOE document warns of the danger of nuclear exchanges between countries in and around Asia. It notes that India and Pakistan have nuclear arsenals and delivery systems, that North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon and has enough fissile material to produce more nuclear weapons, and that Iran is "driving forward aggressively" toward its nuclear goals, unchecked by the international community's "confused reaction." This could serve as a proliferation incentive for other countries, the document warns.
"In effect," the document continues, "there is a growing arc of nuclear powers running from Israel in the west through an emerging Iran to Pakistan, India and on to China, North Korea and Russia in the east. Unfortunately, that nuclear arc coincides with areas of considerable instability [which] are of enormous interest to the United States."
General Mattis, a tough, thinking marine with several friends in the Israel Defense Forces, including a former military college classmate (retired Major-General Shai Avital, a former commanding officer of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit), conferred with Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi in NATO's Brussels headquarters last November, within days of signing the JOE document.
Mattis condemned the U.S. Air Force's "Effects Based Operations" approach to warfare, as employed by the IDF in the Second Lebanon War of 2006, citing lessons learned reported by IDF officers "in a very blunt way," as he recalled in a Washington speech last month. He praised the courage shown by Israeli soldiers, but noted that being brave is not enough to stop a rocket-propelled grenade.
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