TEL AVIV - President Barack Obama's vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and the recent agreement he signed with Russia aimed at cutting back the nuclear stockpiles of both countries, enhances his moral and political leadership. But how will his campaign against nuclear proliferation affect Israel, widely seen as the world's sixth nuclear weapon state, and so far the only one in the Middle East?
US Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller's recent call for Israel to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which would require it to declare and relinquish its nuclear arsenal, has incited fears that America's diplomatic umbrella for Israel's nuclear status is ending. From now on, it appeared to Israelis, the US will treat all states the same when it comes to nuclear weapons. Israel is especially concerned that Obama might be willing to address Iran's nuclear ambition by equating it with Israel's nuclear status.
The intellectual foundations of the new American attitude were laid down in a famous article by Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, George Schultz, and William Perry entitled "Toward a Nuclear-Free World." In calling upon the world's nuclear powers to preach by example and dramatically reduce their nuclear arsenals, the article was also a call for equality among nations in the nuclear domain.
Bruce Riedel, who until recently headed the Obama administration's strategy review for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and who is by no means hostile to America's unique relations with Israel, has been explicit about this. "If you are really serious about a deal with Iran, Israel has to come out of the closet. A policy based on fiction and double standards is bound to fail sooner or later. What is remarkable is that it has lasted so long."
But it was a recent statement to Congress by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that was especially shocking to Israelis. He expressed understanding for Iran's desire to acquire nuclear weapons because, as he said, the Iranians are surrounded by nuclear powers such as Pakistan, India, Russia, and Israel.
Israelis bound to fight against this emerging new American doctrine that equates it with Iran, or even with India and Pakistan for that matter. Political contexts matter, the Israelis will argue. Not only has Iran developed its nuclear capabilities while a party to the NPT, the Israelis will say, but it also has put Israel's destruction high on its agenda. Israel's nuclear deterrence is its ultimate defense against an existential threat. Across-the-board nuclear equality can, in the end, only boost to Iran's nuclear claims.
India and Pakistan, unlike Israel, which has been committed to a strategy of nuclear opacity, both see themselves as nuclear states and want the world to accept that status. Moreover, Israel never tested a nuclear weapon, and has unequivocally accepted the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines, which seek to stem proliferation through the control of nuclear exports.
Israelexpects the Obama administration not only to appreciate the unique context of its ambiguous nuclear status, but also to recognize that it cannot be forthcoming in assuring its neighbors or the rest of the world regarding its nuclear program unless the Middle East political environment changes in a radically positive way. Here, a change in Iran's pattern of behavior toward Israel is an absolute prerequisite.
The potential for export of nuclear material and know-how by countries such as Pakistan - and perhaps one day Iran - is also a matter of concern for Israel. Indeed, Israel insists that it is, after all, Iran, not Israel's supposed nuclear capabilities, that triggered the current Middle East nuclear arms race.
But, as with the issue of the West Bank settlements, the Obama administration seems to be moving definitively away from an automatic endorsement of Israel's understandings with previous US administrations. A revision of US policy towards Israel's nuclear status can by no means be ruled out. Gottemoeller's declaration, as well as Gates' explicit recognition of Israel's nuclear status should be interpreted within the context of the Obama administration's broader disarmament agenda.
Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity has remained practically unchallenged for almost 50 years, not least within Israel itself, where the issue has been a sacred taboo. But the changing international environment, the threat of uncontrolled nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, and the new policies being worked out in the US might all be good reasons for Israel to consider revising its nuclear doctrine. After all, the current strategy has not really worked either as a deterrent against conventional attacks (which persisted throughout the years that Israel supposedly developed its nuclear arsenal) or as a warning to rivals (such as Iran) against developing a nuclear weapon.
Israel's official policy is that of a Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction. By abandoning ambiguity and taking its own bomb out of the "basement," Israel might be able to affirm its capacity for nuclear deterrence more convincingly, and, more importantly, enhance a serious debate about the urgency of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.