San Francisco Chronicle, November 30, 2007
Many months ago Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, let slip a reference to Israel’s nuclear weapons. While it embarrassed him, it was no surprise to the rest of the world. It has been known for decades that Israel has nukes. Estimates are that there are probably as many as 200 in the Israeli arsenal, including thermonuclear (hydrogen) ones.
What is surprising is that there is almost never any public discussion in the United States, and certainly none in the White House or the Congress, about these weapons. Is there any understanding between Israel and the United States, its principal source of military aid, about their use? If so, does the understanding cover “no first use,” similar to the policy advocated in the United States at the height of the Cold War? What would the United States do if Israel were ever under an attack that might lead it to a nuclear response? Has the United States ever talked with Israel about its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? For Israel, are the weapons more of a danger to its security than a defense?
These have always been critical issues but are doubly important now that the United Nations, with strong U.S. support, is putting intense pressure on Iran not to develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Iran is responding that under the nonproliferation treaty, to which it is a party, it has the right to develop nuclear power, and that is all that it is doing. But, as was the case with India and Pakistan, eventually Iran will probably justify having nuclear weapons on the grounds that its sworn enemy, Israel, has them. Now an already tense situation has become worse with Israel’s unacknowledged Sept. 6 air attack on a supposed Syria nuclear installation, and the call by some hawks in this country for U.S. raids on Iranian nuclear facilities.
There is, of course, a long history of nuclear tensions in the Middle East. In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactors to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. After the Persian Gulf War, in the 1990s, U.N. inspectors spent nearly seven years in Iraq inspecting its nuclear facilities. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s decision to expel those inspectors began the series of events that led to the United States invading Iraq on the premise that it had weapons of mass destruction. Now, if Iran continues to develop its nuclear capacity, a whole new crisis would develop if Israel tried to destroy Iran’s reactors as it did the Iraqi ones and, presumably, the Syrian installation.
The unspoken basis for U.S. policy about Israel’s nukes seems to be that we don’t want our enemies to have such weapons but we don’t worry as much if our friends, like Israel, Pakistan and India, have them. As for our enemies, the negotiations in North Korea and Libya show that even a “hard line” U.S. administration is willing to offer significant financial and other benefits to persuade them to give up their nuclear ambitions. When, as in the case of Iran, such bribes are not apt to work, then we are willing, more so than our European allies, to exert pressure and even contemplate military action.
Moreover, the U.S. stance toward the nuclear ambitions of others is inconsistent with and discredited by our own refusal to live up to our obligations under the nonproliferation treaty. Under that treaty, signatory nations with nuclear weapons agreed to reduce their arsenals to a minimum, and ultimately eliminate them entirely, in exchange for other signatory nations not acquiring such weapons. Even that strangest of nations, North Korea, had enough respect for the nuclear nonproliferation treaty to announce publicly it was withdrawing from the treaty in order to develop its nuclear capacity. But the United States has never come close to getting down to the minimum level contemplated when we signed the treaty. The U.S. arsenal is estimated at some 5,700 active nuclear weapons with nearly 4,000 in “reserve.”
Clearly, the Bush administration is not going to talk publicly about our understanding, if any, with Israel about its nuclear weapons. And no member of Congress is rushing to get into a subject as politically delicate as this one. That leaves it to those of us in private life to begin the debate, for the sake of the United States and Israel.
We can start with the danger posed by nuclear weapons in an increasingly destabilized Middle East. We can acknowledge that any nuclear arsenal might be the target of terrorists. We can look back to how close we came to a catastrophic nuclear exchange at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. And we can remind ourselves that no subject is too sensitive for public debate when the risk is the horror that use of even one nuclear weapon would trigger.
Lew Butler is chairman emeritus of the Ploughshares Fund.