(IPS) – Last month in Prague, President Barack Obama vowed that he would seek a world without nuclear weapons. On Tuesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller spelled out that this policy would apply to Israel, as well.
Speaking at a conference on the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Gottemoeller said that “Universal adherence to the NPT itself, including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea … remains a fundamental objective of the United States.”
Israel is judged to have between 100 and 200 advanced nuclear weapons either ready to deploy, or only a few minutes away from being so.
Gottemoeller’s words sparked speculation that this arsenal might re-emerge as an issue in Israel’s relations with Washington. That would end a 40-year period in which Washington colluded with Israel in maintaining the fiction that Israel’s nuclear weapons capabilities were unknown, and anyway should never be openly discussed.
Throughout those years, Washington was also vigorously combating the acquisition by any other Middle Eastern state of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), including chemical or biological weapons, as well as the far more lethal nuclear weapons. Many around the world accused Washington of maintaining a damaging “double standard” on nuclear weapons and all other WMD.
Israel has always fended off calls that it join the NPT. Beyond that, most Israeli leaders have gone actively on the offensive against the NPT, arguing that it has not been effective in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons worldwide. (The NPTs many supporters strongly contest that assertion. One hundred and eighty-nine states are members of the treaty.)
When George W. Bush was U.S. president, he seemed largely persuaded by the Israelis’ view of NPT ineffectiveness. His administration downgraded the support Washington previously gave the NPT. The NPT’s approach stresses the ultimate goal of a nuclear weapons-free world, the need for negotiations among nations as a way to get there, and the universality of this effort.
In place of an active commitment to the NPT approach, Bush pursued the very different policy of “counter-proliferation.” That policy stressed U.S. domination of efforts to directly counter the nuclear programmes of countries Washington disapproved of, using a variety of means, including direct military destruction of suspected installations.
Obama’s Prague speech marked a sharp shift back to the NPT approach. And Gottemoeller’s speech then showed that the Obama administration intends to apply it in the Middle East, as well as elsewhere. This will have a strong effect on the administration’s diplomacy regarding both Iran and Israeli-Arab peacemaking.
Regarding Iran, Bruce Riedel, a senior White House official for Middle East and South Asia affairs under both Pres. Bill Clinton and (for one year) Pres. Bush, told the Washington Times this week that, “If you’re 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.”
Regarding Israeli-Arab peacemaking, the Arab states have long argued that if there is to be a durable peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbours, then Israel’s nuclear arsenal will have to be subject to negotiation along with the military capabilities of everyone else in the region.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have argued strongly, for many years now, for the establishment in the Middle East of a “Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone”, such as already exists in South America. Other states and international bodies like the International Atomic Energy Agency support the wider concept of a Middle East free of all WMD.
Serious advocates of both proposals insist, however, that Israel’s nuclear weapons have to be included in the negotiation.
Now, it looks as if Washington may be preparing to join this movement toward stressing Israeli transparency and accountability. This would take the Obama administration back to the stance adopted by Pres. John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s. Just a few years later, however, in 1969, Pres. Richard Nixon signed off on a policy that Israeli nuclear policy expert Avner Cohen has described as one of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Back in the Cold War, there were many – including key Nixon adviser Henry Kissinger – who argued that colluding with Israel’s nuclear opacity was in the U.S. interest since, if Israel came out openly as a nuclear power, that could spark Soviet arms sales to pro-Moscow allies in the region and raise tensions in the region.
After the Cold War ended, many in the U.S. strategic-affairs community favoured continuing the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” They argued that Israel acted as an extension of U.S. power in the Middle East, so its capabilities should be supported, or that the U.S. was so powerful globally that it had no need to put pressure on or embarrass its Israeli ally.
Both those arguments were based on the judgment that U.S. interests always coincide with those of Israel. Now, as Obama and his top aides have started to hint, that judgment may be starting to change.
We can expect to see the extent of the divergence between the two governments during or shortly after the visit that Israel’s newly installed premier Benjamin Netanyahu makes to Washington, May 18.
Already, serious differences have become evident between him and Obama on the crucial issues of Iran and the Palestine question.
Netanyahu and his aides have said that full U.S. cooperation with Israel on actions to prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is a prerequisite for Israel’s cooperation with Washington on Palestinian peacemaking. Obama’s people have argued, by contrast, that Israel’s cooperation with them in the peacemaking is necessary if joint action on Iran is to be possible.
Regarding Palestine, Obama has argued for the speedy conclusion of a final peace between Israel and Palestine that involves establishing a viable, fully independent Palestinian state. Netanyahu has refused to express support for that goal, arguing that the Palestinians have to meet numerous further preconditions before final peace talks can resume.
How might Gottemoeller’s statement on Israel and the NPT play into this mix? Certainly, it sends another powerful message to Netanyahu that he cannot expect his relationship with Obama to be anywhere near as close as the one his three predecessors – Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert – all enjoyed with the man in the White House.
Many advocates of a more evenhanded U.S. policy to the Middle East welcomed Gottemoeller’s statement, seeing it as chipping away the damaging double standard that Washington has long employed in Israel’s favour.
Other commentators, more focused on the need to achieve real progress in the peacemaking between Israel and its Arab neighbours, welcome the signs of a new evenhandedness toward Israel. But they warn that the focus on nuclear questions should not eclipse the need for speedy U.S. actions to curb Israeli settlement construction and get the final Israeli-Palestinians peace talks back onto a hopeful track.
One Palestinian security-affairs analyst here said, “It doesn’t have to be an ‘either-or’. Obama should continue to pursue his nonproliferation agenda. But our priority is to win a decent future for our people, in our homeland. I don’t see Israel’s nuclear weapons, however many there are, as having a direct impact on that. So let’s keep our focus on the peacemaking.”