Last Updated: Sun Oct 17, 2010 00:23 am (KSA) 21:23 pm (GMT)

Israel can't conceal nukes now

Linda Heard

There is a subtle shift in U.S. policy that indicates Israel can no longer conceal its nuclear weapons under its so-called policy of “nuclear ambiguity.”

For decades, American leaderships have emulated the three wise monkeys whenever anyone has challenged them on the topic. When it comes to their Middle East ally Israel, they’ve chosen to see no evil, hear no evil and say no evil, even when such a stance has made them vulnerable to accusations of bias and cut the ground from under their WMD disarmament arguments vis-à-vis the rest of the planet.

American officials regularly shy away from the subject seen as an absolute taboo in Washington akin to Holocaust denial, but behind closed doors many would say that there is no moral equivalence between a responsible democracy such as Israel being armed with nuclear weapons and Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions. Translated, this means that Israel is “our friend” whereas Iran isn’t.

However, given that Israel has twice been on the point of unleashing its nukes, such arguments fail to stand up to scrutiny. Ernst David Bergmann, the man who from 1954 to 1966 was the chairman of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, said it all: “There is no distinction between nuclear energy for peaceful purposes or warlike ones…We shall never again be led as lambs to the slaughter.”

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan together with many of the region’s leaders has frequently condemned “the West’s silence” on the topic.

When Middle East leaders have called for a nuclear-free Middle East, until recently, Washington has shown little enthusiasm because the only country in the region that actually possesses nuclear bombs — as far as is known with any certainty — is Israel. Indeed, in 2006, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted as much during an interview when he said Iran aspires “to have a nuclear weapon as America, France, Israel and Russia.” Olmert subsequently attempted to eat his words by saying the quote was taken out of context.

Worse, Israel has been handed carte blanche to accuse other nations of covertly developing nukes and attack them. The irony is that Israel has had an undeclared nuclear weapons program since the 1960s and is estimated to possess more than 400 thermonuclear weapons and warheads as well as nuclear submarines. Israel is also alleged to have undeclared capabilities for biological and chemical warfare.

In June, 1981, Israel bombed Iraq’s French-built Osirak reactor at Tuwaitha, which resulted in Saddam Hussein ordering his nuclear scientists to build a bomb. Then in September, 2007, Israel attacked an unused military site in Syria’s eastern desert, while accusing Damascus of colluding with North Korea to construct a nuclear facility. In both instances, Israel got away scot-free with its unprovoked military aggression.

But signs are that Israel may not be able to wrap an invisible cloak around its nuclear weapons for very much longer. In the first place, Iran has agreed in principle to a uranium exchange scheme proposed by its allies Brazil and Turkey. This would involve Tehran swapping its low-level enriched uranium with nuclear rods enriched abroad to a level of 20 percent, required for medical purposes. If Iran were to accept the plan — monitored by the nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – it would go a long way to dousing the international heat on that country leaving Israel trapped in the headlights.

Secondly, and more importantly, U.S. President Barack Obama says he is committed to turning the Middle East into a nuclear-free zone and is believed to be working closely with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak to arrange a conference on ways to tackle this.

Egypt has long attempted to create a level playing field with calls to bring Israel’s nukes out of the shadows. “If major countries wish to address Iran’s nuclear dossier, they can do that by bringing Israel and Iran to the negotiating table,” said Egypt’s Ambassador to the U.N. Maged Abdelaziz during a recent newspaper interview.

Thirdly, following an NPT Review Conference held last week in New York, the United Nations Security Council issued a statement urging all states to join the NPT and confirming its members’ commitment to a nuclear-free Middle East. The five permanent UNSC members are also open to studying proposals “aimed at taking concrete steps in this direction.” The statement is clearly targeted at Israel since Iran is already a signatory to the NPT, under the terms of which Tehran has been obliged to open its doors to IAEA inspection and monitoring.

And last but not least, for the first time ever, an IAEA board meeting scheduled for June 7 is set to focus on “Israel’s nuclear capabilities”, according to a leaked provisional agenda. However, there are no guarantees, as objections from the usual pro-Israel suspects the US, Britain and France could quash the discussion. If those countries decide not to interfere, this would go a long way in assuring the rest of the world that, at last, the international community is serious about its non-nuclear weapons objectives.

But let’s not get too excited. Until now, Washington’s references to Israeli nukes have been couched or implicit. Unless President Obama takes Israel publicly to task on the issue and spells his demands out clearly, Israel will remain off the hook. Naming and shaming Israel is important else Obama’s motives may come into question. Does he seriously want Israel to abandon its policy of nuclear ambiguity and join the NPT? Or is this a ploy designed to persuade Arab nations to put pressure on Iran and/or to “encourage” Israel to quit settlement expansion and pursue peace.

Whatever President Obama’s true intentions, Israelis are getting nervous. “Jerusalem is increasingly jittery that cracks are appearing in the nearly half-century-old U.S. policy of upholding Israel’s right to maintain its nuclear ambiguity,” writes the Jerusalem Post. I, for one, can’t wait to see whether those “cracks” will be wide enough to shatter Israel’s nuclear fortress ending its status of exceptionality once and for all.

*Published in Saudi's ARAB NEWS on May 10, 2010.

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