Israel’s nuclear weapons not so secret

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On September 25th “President Barack Obama and the leaders of France and Britain accused [Iran] of clandestinely building an underground plant to make nuclear fuel that could be used to build an atomic bomb.” The President said that “Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow” and, as the media reported, he and the other leaders “demanded that Iran open all nuclear sites for inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).” This pronouncement received massive coverage, and reinforced the idea that the U.S. is concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Specifically, the idea that appears to be taken for granted here is that a country that fails to “open all nuclear sites for inspections” by the IAEA is “breaking rules” such that they must be dealt with in no uncertain terms.

Yet just one week earlier the same International Atomic Energy Agency passed a resolution calling on another country—the only country in the Middle East that actually possesses secret nuclear weapons—to “place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.” That resolution received almost no coverage in the United States.

The secret weapons belong to Israel, which responded by officially stating that “Israel will not cooperate in any matter with this resolution…” As I mentioned last week, Israel neither admits nor denies having nuclear weapons, but everyone knows they have them. Yet, amidst all the alarm about the possibility that Iran may, at some point, choose to acquire such weapons, there is no discussion of the possibility that, as Middle East scholar Juan Cole puts it, “It is Israel’s ongoing nuclear weapon production that drives the nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”

Project Daniel

There’s a 2003 document worth perusing in this regard. Prepared especially for the Israeli Prime Minister by a group of Israeli and U.S. intellectuals and bureaucrats, it’s called “Israel’s Strategic Future: Project Daniel Final Report.” In it, we read that:

“Israel must be empowered with a ‘Long Arm’ to meet its preemption objectives. This means long-range fighter aircraft with capability to penetrate deep, heavily-defended areas and to survive. It means air-refueling tankers; communications satellites; surveillance satellites; long-range UAVs [drones]. More generally, it means survivable precision weapons with high lethality; it also means substantially refined EW [electronic warfare] and stealth capabilities.”

Weapons with “high lethality” include nuclear weapons, the existence of which the document not-so-subtly affirms by asserting that Israel must “continue to maintain a credible, secure and decisive nuclear deterrent.”

I took a look at the Lexis/Nexis newspaper database for the three-week period after President Obama’s statement about Iran breaking the rules. I searched the world’s major newspapers and wire services for the phrases “Iran” and “Israel’s nuclear weapons.” There were a total of two citations in the U.S. and 22 citations worldwide. A slightly different search, for “Iran” and “Israeli nuclear weapons,” yielded five citations in the worldwide English-language media. In the U.S. media there were no references at all.

“There Are Some Countries That You Trust”

It’s not as if reporters and editors don’t know about the nuclear realities in the Middle East. On the National Public Radio talk show Talk of the Nation on October 6th, host Neal Conan said to his guest: “And then there’s also the question of Israel, which has as many as, what, 300 nuclear warheads, it’s very widely believed, and Israel’s right to have those. It’s, of course, not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT], and its facility at Dimona, which produces the material it uses to fuel those nuclear weapons, has never been inspected.”

To which his guest, Charles Duelfer, former head of the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group, replied as follows:

“That’s true, and you know, people in the region … say, “Well, look, why do you care about us when you don’t care about Israel? Isn’t that unfair?’ Well, you know, life is unfair, particularly in international relations. There are some countries that you trust with certain things and other countries that you don’t, and there are those things which you can change and those things which you cannot.”

One of the unfair things in life is that we have a host of a national talk show that refuses to explore the distinction between things we “cannot” change and those which we do not wish to change. Such as the power relations in the Middle East.

The U.S. has been helping Israel to break the nuclear rules for 40 years. On September 26, 1969 President Richard Nixon promised Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir that the U.S. would help Israel keep its nuclear weapons secret from the world. Israeli scholar Avner Cohen, author of the book “Israel and the Bomb,” co-authored an article with William Burr in the Washington Post back in 2006. In that article they tell us that it was five months later, on Feb. 23, 1970 that then-Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin “told [U.S. Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger privately that he wanted the president to know that, in light of the Meir-Nixon conversation, ‘Israel has no intention to sign the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty].'” And so it has been ever since.

Is such collusion in rule-breaking a problem of Nixon, Bush, and the other Republican hawks in the U.S. Hardly. It was just a month ago (October 2nd) that the right-wing Washington Times newspaper reported that “President Obama has reaffirmed a 4-decade-old secret understanding that has allowed Israel to keep a nuclear arsenal without opening it to international inspections…” The article, headlined “Obama Keeps Israel’s Secret, Won’t Push for Nuke Disclosure,” indicates a willingness to cooperate in another country’s breaking of “rules that all nations must follow” when the rule-breaker is a “country you trust.”

Back in May of this year “a diplomatic row” broke out, according to the London Guardian, when Rose Gottemoeller, an assistant secretary of state in the U.S., called for “universal adherence” to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The “diplomatic row” occurred because “universal” would include not only “countries you don’t trust,” such as North Korea, but also countries you do, meaning Israel.

In response to the “diplomatic row,” the Washington Times reported that “A senior White House official said the administration considered the nuclear programs of Israel and Iran to be unrelated ‘apples and oranges.”

This view is not universally shared. The Times article indicated as much when it reported that “The Iranian leaders have long complained about being subjected to a double standard that allows non-NPT members India and Pakistan, as well as Israel, to maintain and even increase their nuclear arsenals but sanctions Tehran, an NPT member, for not cooperating fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog.”

U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi also see the Iranian and Israeli nuclear programs as related, and as needing to be discussed in the context of creating a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Speaking of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, in 2003 Syria formally introduced a resolution calling for just that. The U.S. immediately rejected it, saying that it was “wrong on substance, wrong in timing,” and it was tabled following the threat of a United States veto. Israel, as always, neither admits nor denies that it even has nuclear weapons.

In the article I mentioned above-headlined “The Untold Story of Israel’s Bomb”-the authors conclude that “Israel’s nuclear posture is inconsistent with the tenets of a modern liberal democracy.” Their concluding paragraph makes the point well:

“Without open acknowledgment of Israel’s nuclear status, such ideas as a nuclear-free Middle East, or even the inclusion of Israel in an updated Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, cannot be discussed properly. It is time for a new deal to replace the Nixon-Meir understandings of 1969, with Israel telling the truth and finally normalizing its nuclear affairs.”

It’s very easy these days-almost unavoidable, really-to get the idea that the United States is concerned about nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. The thousands of news stories about the Iranian nuclear program are, after all, filled with talk of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, filled with alarmed pointing to Iran’s alleged defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), filled with calls for sanctions and pre-emptive attacks, and filled with endless references to the threats by the U.S. that “nothing is off the table” when it comes to this rogue state and its nuclear ambitions.

Yet the failure of the United States to even broach the subject of disarming the region’s only nuclear state calls into question the stated concern of the U.S. about nuclear weapons. And the media’s failure to openly discuss the “secret” Israeli nuclear arsenal makes it virtually impossible to put the hysteria about Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions in a meaningful context. Indeed, that context depends on knowing that there is such a thing as a “nuclear arms race” in the Middle East, as Juan Cole puts it.

While the secrecy surrounding Israel’s nuclear arsenal is key to understanding the tensions in one of the most volatile regions of the world, there is an even bigger secret that is key to understanding the cause-and-effect relationship between the global phenomenon of terrorism and the wars that it supposedly justifies. Like the Israeli nuclear arsenal, it’s not really secret; we just don’t talk about it. The elephant is the U.S. Empire, and next week we’ll begin to take a look at what it is and explore some ideas about what to do about it.