Monday, November 23, 2009

Going Nuclear: Conclusion

Despite all that we know, what is surprising is the Washington Times sudden revelation of facts which were publicized years ago. The Nixon document was declassified in 1997. And ten years ago, Avner Cohen, in his book Israel and the Bomb wrote:
"A new set of American-Israeli understandings on the nuclear issue came into being in 1970 through meetings between President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Golda Meir. The United States no longer pressed Israel to sign the NPT; it also ended the visits at Dimona. In return, Israel is committed to maintaining a low profile nuclear posture: no testing, no declaration, no acknowledgment. With these "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" understandings nuclear opacity was born. Those understandings persist today."
But Cohen was incorrect. Recently unclassified documents confirm an agreement regarding Dimona visits (but not other sites) but within months of Nixon's downfall, American inquiries resumed.

In January 1975,  US senator Charles Mathias raised the issue with foreign minister Yigal Allon:
“Allon replied that Israel had the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. However, he said that [the government of Israel] did not currently possess nuclear weapons, nor did it intend to manufacture them.”
In May 1975, Senator Howard Baker asked Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and defense minister (now President) Shimon Peres about nuclear weapons. Israel again denied having nuclear weapons.
“Rabin told Senator Baker that GOI [the government of Israel] had made a commitment not to be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the area. Israel had kept its word [not wanting] the Soviet Union to give similar devices to the Arab nations in the region.” 
Dimona inspections were also back on the table. In November 1976 a group of visiting American Senators requested a visit to the Dimona reactor. The request was turned down, and the US chose not to press the issue. It would be reasonable to assume, then, that this was the real understanding: the US would continue to ask, Israel would continue to deny; and nuclear ambiguity would be maintained.

If the US is now willing to force Israel's hand, one must wonder why. Assuming Israel does possess assembled nuclear devices, there's really next to no possibility that she would voluntarily destroy her best deterrent against Arab weapons of mass destruction. Only a complete US arms embargo might compel a policy change, but this is unlikely. Denied American weapons, Israel would quickly turn to others for military hardware. Germany is already selling Israel Dolphin class submarines and would be eager to add fighter jets to the account. In fact, Israel had been developing a new model of the Swedish-made Gripen fighter jet, in conjunction with Saab, for India until forced out of the competition by the US. In 2008, Israel was compelled not to submit a bid in a 500 million dollar deal to develop a new tank for Turkey, ostensibly by the Americans. An end to decades of cooperation between the US and Israel would open the door to direct competition, a scenario the US defense industry would surely not welcome in the middle of an economic downturn.

Perhaps this US administration simply believes the relationship has outlived its usefulness, Israel no longer providing a front-line defense against Soviet expansionism. Or more likely, we can add this story to a long list of would-be scandals involving Israel, precipitated by the State Department, in defiance of the White House and the American people who have been resolute in their support of the Jewish state. The State Department - and its friends in the CIA and Justice Department - has always argued against overt support for Israel, which it has felt threatens America's relationship with Arab oil providers. Some of the battles between various State Department heads and Presidents are legendary. President Truman, for example, once complained that, "those State Department fellows were always trying to put it over on me about Palestine, telling me that I really didn't understand what was going on there, that I ought to leave it to experts."

For years, various State Department officials and sympathizers have maintained a war of words against the Jewish State. ‘Realists’ Mersheimer and Walt’s Lobby screed was just one round in this old conflict. In 2005, the Justice Department indicted two staff members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on trumped up allegations (based on a rarely used 1917 Espionage law) that they had passed along a confidential memo to an Israeli Embassy official. This year it was announced that the charges against the two AIPAC members would be dropped. Last year, the best the State Department could come up with was a 23-year old allegation against an 84 year-old veteran who, out of some misplaced sense of loyalty to Israel, passed on useless information (apparently details about F-15's, which Israel was already flying) to some low-level consulate staff member.

Cue Rose Gottemoeller, the latest conveyer of news meant to discomfit friends of Israel and malign the Jewish state.

So, is any of this really evidence of a secret accord, and more importantly, a change in the US-Israel relationship? As for the accord, the evidence suggests no official policy as such, but rather an understanding not to press the issue. There's a difference. And State Department threats may yet turn out to be paper tigers. Earlier this month, The Washington Times reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been assured by the US President that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” understanding will be maintained.

And that understanding, which says so much about this unique bilateral relationship, reveals important distinctions between the functions and behaviour of the State Department and Congress. Un-elected officials of the State Department serve the nation; elected members of Congress and the President serve the nation’s constituents. Both roles are crucial. But, it’s a dangerous thing when anyone believes the state must prevail at all costs; there are times when the nation’s citizens may choose a course of action that is not prudent, but is in keeping with the values of the state. American support for Israel is a case-in-point, as was made abundantly clear when it was revealed that the President was sent a letter signed by 76 (of 100) Senators reminding Obama to "take into account the risks [Israel] will face in any peace agreement," and “to insist on the absolute Palestinian commitment to ending terrorist violence and to building the institutions necessary for a viable Palestinian state living side-by-side, in peace with the Jewish state of Israel."

After his first year in office, many are asking if Barak Obama truly understands the complex nature of Middle East politics. Early statements and demands of Israel have suggested naivety more than belligerency. And, despite some setbacks, last week’s appointment of Tamara Cofman Wittes as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs is a definite step in the right direction. Dr. Wittes is Director of the Middle East Democracy and Development (MEDD) Project at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, a regional policy center at The Brookings Institution. She has also taught at Georgetown University and is a recipient of the Rabin-Peres Peace Award, established by President Bill Clinton.

There’s no question that public support for Israel is solid. A recent poll conducted by Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies and Stan Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQRR) suggests that, despite the Gaza war, support for Israel is actually rising, with 63 percent of respondents, up from 49 percent just a few months ago, declaring themselves Israel supporters. With that in mind, the President now has the awesome responsibility to balance that support with the nation’s other needs. This has always been the challenge. But, the great Presidents have been the ones who could meet the practical needs while preserving America’s ethical core.

In all honesty, we can ask, has this enviable support for Israel always been pragmatic? Probably not. Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin put the question to Lyndon Johnson when he met the President in 1967. "I don't understand you Americans backing Israel," said Kosygin. "There are 80 million Arabs and only 3 million Israelis. It does not make sense. Why do it?"

Replied Johnson: "Because it is right."

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UPDATE: The Jerusalem Report's Leslie Susser has a terrific piece in the May 26, 2010 issue, called Israel's policy of nuclear 'ambiguity' comes under fire. Read it here.

REVISED: Several previously unclassified documents were made public by Anonymous in April 2013. Appropriate quotes from several cables were added to this post on April 11, 2013.

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