No subject is as sensitive in U.S.-Israeli relations as Israel's nuclear weapons. That has been the case since the 1960s, the era when the Israeli media referred to the Dimona project as "the sensitive issue." In recent days, with the Obama-Netanyahu meeting looming, media reports from both Washington and Tel Aviv have retouched the nuclear nerve with innuendo that the Obama administration will break a long-standing nuclear accord with Israel.
The "rules" by which the U.S. and Israel manage the sensitive issue of Israel's nuclear weapons were born four decades ago, in September 1969, as a set of unwritten understandings between President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Golda Meir. These understandings were made in total secrecy and they are only vaguely acknowledged. It is generally believed that Meir informed Nixon that Israel had already acquired the bomb and pledged to keep it invisible—that is, untested, undeclared, and in low political salience. Nixon agreed to end American annual visits to the nuclear reactor at Dimona and no longer press Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The declaratory formula "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East" was well-established and convenient to both the United States and Israel. Yet "introduction" now meant "prohibition" on any public or visible act. Israel's long-term policy of nuclear opacity was a consequence of the Nixon-Meir accord and the U.S. has remained its witting partner.
A few months later, in February 1970, Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin informed National Security Advisor Henry R. Kissinger that the Israeli government decided not to join the NPT. Kissinger said he would pass the message to President Nixon. Since then, the NPT has not been an active item on the U.S.-Israeli bilateral agenda. The U.S. has not dropped the issue of NPT universality as an objective, but rather, for all practical purposes, Israel has been treated as an exemption. Various diplomatic conventions have been devised to minimize the inevitable tension between the exceptionality of the Israeli case and American support of universality.
In Israel, the Nixon-Meir accord has been recognized as Meir's greatest strategic achievement. Israelis understood the accord as an American pledge to shield the Israeli nuclear program internationally at moments of need.
In the United States, however, the legacy of the secret accord is less clear-cut. When Jimmy Carter assumed the U.S. presidency in 1977, Israel was so concerned that the accord may not reach the new president that it asked Kissinger to personally brief President Carter. Over the decades, both Democratic and Republican administrations have come to grips with the notion that Israel is, and should be, a special case for the United States in the nuclear field and that Israeli nuclear opacity is also an American interest.
At the same time, however, successive U.S. administrations have struggled to balance the incongruity between the United States' commitment to achieving universality of the NPT and upholding Israel's nuclear deterrent. While Republicans have generally cared more about Israel's deterrent, Democrats have been more willing to endorse the universality of the NPT.
The U.S. and Israel recognized that the Israeli nuclear issue is an existential matter that should ideally be set apart from all other bilateral political issues, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, it was also recognized that treating Israel as an exceptional nuclear case is part of the "special relationship" between the U.S. and Israel.
While it is generally an Israeli interest to prevent all other bilateral issues from affecting the nuclear question, it is ironic that Prime Minister Netanyahu drew a direct linkage during his first term. According to Israeli journalist Aluf Benn, in the context of the Wye River negotiations in October 1998, Netanyahu asked for and received an appendix in the form of a signed secret letter from President Clinton in which the United States committed to be sympathetic to Israel's preservation of its "strategic deterrence capabilities" and ensure that the U.S. would consult Israel in advance of arms control initiatives. Israel was concerned that the Clinton administration's push to negotiate a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty would ultimately create major pressure on Israel to put a cap on its nuclear weapon program, or at least expose it more publicly. Clinton's letter was seen as a reassurance of the validity of the Nixon-Meir accord.
This background is critical to understand the hype that surfaced last week over the future of U.S.-Israeli nuclear relations on the eve of the first meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Two concrete yet unrelated events emerged simultaneously and were turned into a controversy.
The first is the opening statement by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Goettemoeller at the NPT PrepCom meeting on May 5 in New York. One sentence in that statement named Israel along with three other states that keep the NPT from being universal. "Universal adherence to the NPT itself—including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea—also remains a fundamental objective of the United States," Gottemoeller said. This should have been unremarkable. The U.S. has sought universal adherence from the beginning of the Treaty's entry into force in 1970. Bush administration Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf also mentioned Israel by name in his speech at the NPT conference in 2004. Thus, Goettemoeller's speech reflects a bipartisan and long-standing U.S. position on the NPT, even if that position has not been articulated as frequently and loudly as others.
In Israel, however, within hours Goettemoeller's statement made headlines in the media. Reporting soon turned into commentary, which then stirred a week-long national discussion about whether the nuance in her statement represented a new U.S. policy towards Israel's nuclear program. Such a shift could conceivably culminate in a U.S. presidential effort to force Israel to shut down Dimona, it was argued. Even Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in a television interview a few days later, appeared to give credence to the view that the speech may be a sign of a new U.S. policy. In the words of one leading Israeli commentator, Amir Oren, the controversy was "a tsunami in a test tube."
However, the Israeli media was not alone in producing such pandemonium. On May 6, just hours after Goettemoeller's speech at the UN, the Washington Times published a news story under the sensationalist headline, "Secret U.S.-Israeli Accord is in Jeopardy.” (In fact, an earlier headline posted on the newspaper's website, but removed within an hour, was even more stunning: "U.S. Weighs Forcing Israel to Disclose Nukes.") Its lead paragraph alarmingly claimed that President Obama's nonproliferation efforts "threaten to expose and derail a 40-year-old secret U.S. agreement to shield Israel's nuclear weapons from international scrutiny." The story added that the nuclear issue will "come to a head when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Mr. Obama on May 18," and that Netanyahu would seek assurances to uphold the Nixon-Meir accord.
The news story was accompanied by an editorial that used the reporting as a platform to stage a political critique of the Obama administration for abandoning support of Israel's ultimate insurance policy. Under the headline "Breaking Faith with Israel: Not a Time to Change a Policy that Produced Four Decades of Stability," the Times issued a statement supporting Israel’s policy of nuclear opacity along with criticism of the administration for its willingness to consider abandoning the Nixon-Meir accord.
There is no factual basis to make these claims. The only piece of tangible evidence that reporter Eli Lake introduced is that single sentence in Goettemoeller's speech at the UN (and her subsequent decline to answer whether the U.S. would pressure Israel to sign the NPT), implying somehow that it could signal a radical departure from the Nixon-Meir understandings. Yet because Gottemoeller's statement has much precedent and reflects a formal U.S. policy of long-standing, it provides no evidence of the policy shift the Times story purported.
There is little logical reason that the Obama administration would change its policy towards Israel's nuclear weapons. After all, the Obama administration—and the world—would gain no benefit from simply forcing Israel to come clean and end its nuclear opacity. Like all previous administrations, the Obama administration has no incentive to reopen the Nixon-Meir accord. As long as Israel faces neighbors that do not recognize its existence, terrorist organizations dedicated to its destruction, and a hostile Iran that violates UN Security Council resolutions while continuing to enrich uranium, the U.S. will not change its tacit support for Israel's strategic deterrent.
The Obama administration also understands that forcing Israel to end its nuclear opacity by itself (that is, absent a comprehensive, durable regional peace, and arms control framework) would only put unwanted pressure on Egypt and other neighboring governments to seek countervailing nuclear status. None of this means that Israel could not afford to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or even, under some circumstances, put a moratorium on production of fissile materials. Such measures could help strengthen international support for the NPT and could perhaps enhance a deal with Iran, but they would not undermine Israel’s strategic deterrent.
Notwithstanding its deep evidentiary and logical flaws regarding long-held U.S. policy towards nuclear Israel, the Washington Times story is still interesting, and freshly revealing, in what it says about current Israeli concerns over the future of the Nixon-Meir accord. The story accurately traces a great deal of anxiety on the Israeli side. The question is: what is the source of such angst?
First, Netanyahu has just taken office, the two governments have not conducted mutual briefings on nuclear matters, and the prime minister has not yet met with the president. Netanyahu could be worried that the "special relationship" between the two countries (which is viewed in Israel as a strategic asset) could be jeopardized by differences over the "two-state" solution and related Israeli non-action on the Palestinian issue. Israeli leaders could fear that Israel’s nuclear exceptionality could be compromised if the overall U.S.-Israeli bilateral relationship suffers a breakdown or major damage. By raising questions in the U.S. media and Jewish community over the Obama administration's attitude toward Israel’s nuclear deterrent, Israeli sources could be seeking to mobilize counter pressure on the U.S. more broadly.
Second, and most important, the Israeli government is highly anxious over impending U.S. negotiations with Iran. Publicly, Israel now says that it favors a time-limited tough dialogue with Iran. Yet, privately, Israelis doubt that dialogue can stop Iran or significantly limit its enrichment program. Iran would therefore remain, even under an improved safeguards system, a threshold nuclear-weapon state.
On the other hand—and this may be Netanyahu’s ultimate nightmare—if Iran is willing to negotiate seriously, it might agree to substantial concessions only on a regional basis, as a step towards the establishment of a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free-zone. In such a case, Israel could be pressed to make its own nuclear concessions, possibly even to shut down the Dimona reactor as part of the price for effectively halting Iran’s enrichment activities at Natanz. This last point may have far-reaching ramifications on Israel’s entire bargain with the bomb.
At the present time, Israel is not willing to tolerate a deal with Iran that would be linked to Israel's own nuclear deterrent. Indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu hopes to persuade President Obama that such a link is not only unacceptable but also incompatible with the spirit of the old Nixon-Meir accord and its subsequent reassurances (especially as amended in the Wye accord of 1998). Therefore, he may argue, Obama should agree a priori to protect Israel from pressure to put any constraints on its strategic deterrent program.
The subject of Israel's nuclear weapons poses a more nuanced policy dilemma than the Washington Times story suggests and it is one that some Israelis and Americans might prefer to avoid by hinting that Israel's deterrent itself is in jeopardy.
Avner Cohen is the author of Israel and the Bomb (Columbia University Press, 1998) and this summer a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Scholar. George Perkovich is director of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and co-editor of Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate.