The Deproliferator: Israel — the reluctantest proliferator

deproliferatorOn page 37 of the U.S. Joint Forces Command [Operating Environment 2008] report, the Army includes Israel within “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.”

. . . writes Bryan Jordan recently at DefenseTech. He speculates that, although Israel’s nuclear weapons program has been an open secret since even before former nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu disclosed details to the British press in 1986, this may be the first time that the United States has publicly acknowledged it. Though. . .

Given the U.S.’s long history of selective blindness when it comes to Israeli nukes, it’s unlikely that the Joint report compiled by the Army amount[ed] to much more than a minor faux pas.

Why, after all this time, does Israel insist on remaining coy about its nuclear status? Partly, as Paul Kerr explains in a recent Total Wonkerr post, out of concerns “that Israeli disclosure of its nuclear weapons could destabilize the region, lead to nuclear or CBW proliferation, etc.”

Why does the United States enable this kind of disingenuousness? If it didn’t, aside from destabilization, the United States would be forced “to cease providing billions of dollars in foreign aid to Israel if it determined the country had a nuclear weapons program,” as Jordan writes.

With respect to Israel’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy about its nuclear weapons program, one of Kerr’s commenters replied: “If you think it’s hard to deal with the Iranians now, just imagine if some Israeli loose cannon were threatening to annihilate Tehran on a routine basis.” Restoring the horse to its rightful place before the cart, I would amend that to read: “If you think the Israelis are causing trouble now. . .”

Kerr then quotes a May 2007 International Herald Tribune article by Avner Cohen, perhaps the leading authority on the subject of Israel and the Bomb (which is the title of not only the article but a book he wrote). Before we explore this piece — elements of which we found troubling — some background on Israel’s bomb, courtesy of a June 2007 Arms Control Today piece by Cohen, Crossing the Threshold: The Untold Nuclear Dimension of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and Its Contemporary Lessons:

[Then Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol knew that a nuclear test would be a blatant violation of. . . the pledge that Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East. [While freezing] the program in a nondeployable mode was unthinkable. . . there are indications that [Eshkol] was cautious, hesitant, and even ambivalent about its future.

Reluctant, that is. Cohen then explains that when Egypt massed troops on the Sinai peninsula in May 1967 and conducted high-altitude reconnaissance flights over Dimona, Eshkol actually feared that the nuclear complex may have not only triggered the deployment but that Egypt was planning to attack Dimona.

In other words, by developing a weapon intended to deter an attack, Israel was provoking the very attack it hoped to deter.

Indeed, Egypt may have been very close to launching an aerial attack on Dimona. . . but it was called off by Nasser on a few hours’ notice. … Between that an an industrial accident at Dimona. . . I believe Eshkol was open to political solutions that would have allowed him not to [proceed with developing a nuclear weapon].

[But as] the likelihood of war intensified. … it was simply unthinkable for its leaders that, at such a national dire moment. . . they would sit idle and do nothing. … Israeli teams assembled virtually all the components, including the handful of nuclear cores it had, into improvised but operational explosive devices … [But in Cohen’s opinion] had the 1967 war not broken. . . Israel would have signed the NPT.

Or, as Cohen puts it in his International Herald Tribune piece:

Israel has always been a different kind of nuclear proliferator — a reluctant proliferator.

I’m sure the knowledge that the state which is about to detonate a nuclear weapon just over your head developed it with reluctance instead of bravado (like, say, Pakistan) is a tremendous source of consolation. Then Cohen writes:

Israel is now uniquely distinguished among all nuclear states in its legacy of extreme nuclear caution, keeping nuclear affairs low profile, nearly invisible and away from politics. [Emphases added.]

From this author’s perspective, the words “distinguished” and “nuclear state” should never appear in the same sentence. Also, because of the dangers inherent in a nuclear program such as the myriad documented accidents, “extreme nuclear caution” is wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, how can the world’s most destructive weapons possibly be kept “low profile” and “away from politics”? Even if “keeping the blinders on is necessary politically [for the United States] in order to avoid a policy confrontation with Israel,” as Jordan writes at Defense Tech, it’s tough to ignore an 800-megaton gorilla.

To give Cohen his due, elsewhere he said:

“Not only is Israel’s nuclear posture of taboo and total secrecy totally anachronistic, it is inconsistent with, and costly to, the tenets of modern liberal democracy. Israel needs a better way to handle its nuclear affairs.”

He also attempts to use Israel’s development as a precautionary tale to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

One can reasonably make the case that Iran’s nuclear project today is at a similar juncture to Israel in 1963-1964 as it started to operate the Dimona reactor.

Needless to say, however, the only sure means to circumvent Iranian development of a nuclear bomb is for Israel (not to mention the United States) to disarm.

The Deproliferator (the column’s title, not the author’s nom de plume) covers nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, with an emphasis on treaties, negotiation, and diplomacy. The author is not employed in the arms control field.

A term coined by sociologist and professor of international relations Amitai Etzioni, “deproliferation,” he writes, “calls for removing the access to nuclear arms and the materials from which they can readily be made — first and foremost in unstable and noncompliant states, and only then in all others.”

Whatever the merits of this approach, it lends itself to reinforcing the distinction between the nuclear haves and have-nots. Fond of his phrase, though, we’re appropriating it to our own ends. For the purposes of this column, deproliferation means, simply, disarmament.

1 reply »

  1. And precisely never is it mentioned in mainstream, US news outlets that Iran might want nuclear capability because its neighbor…the one that sends the equivalent of a Christmas card containing thinly veiled threats of war…already has nuclear capability.

    We can hope that the acknowledgment in the US JFC report brings the issue into the open. But because it exposes a blatant hypocrisy within US foreign policy, we can expect it to be brushed under the nearest rug.

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Russ.