Fineprint: A new approach for Israel?

October 2, 2013

It’s time for Israel to stop making military threats and to propose an imaginative diplomatic move — risky as it may seem — to help ease nuclear tensions in the Middle East.

It can start by acknowledging its own nuclear weapons program.

It has accused Iran of seeking the capability to produce nuclear weapons, when for years Israel has been believed to possess hundreds of nuclear bombs and missiles, along with multiple delivery systems. It continues to insist it doesn’t have them.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders continue to accuse Tehran of deceit in describing its nuclear program as peaceful.

Perhaps Netanyahu sees Iran following the path Israel took 50 years ago when it’s known that his country joined the relatively small nuclear weapons club.

Back in the 1960s, Israel apparently hid the nuclear weapons program being carried on at its Negev Nuclear Research Center (NNRC) at Dimona. It deceived not only the international community but also its close U.S. ally. It repeatedly pledged “it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the area.”

In early 1966, at the time of a U.S. sale of F-4 fighter-bombers to Israel, the Johnson administration insisted that Israel reaffirm that pledge. “Foreign Minister Abba Eban told Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that Israel did not intend to build nuclear weapons, ‘so we will not use your aircraft to carry weapons we haven’t got and hope we will never have,’” according to the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XVIII.

Sound familiar? Maybe that’s why Netanyahu was so tough Tuesday during his U.N. General Assembly speech when attacking Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s statements that Tehran’s nuclear program is peaceful. When the Israeli prime minister asked, “Why would a country that claims to only want peaceful nuclear energy, why would such a country build hidden underground enrichment facilities?” I thought Dimona.

According to the bipartisan, Washington-based, Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Machon 2 facility at Dimona “is reportedly the most sensitive building in the NNRC, with six floors underground dedicated to activities identified as plutonium extraction, production of tritium and lithium-6,” for use in nuclear weapons.

So, along with easing up on the threats, what else could Israel be doing, perhaps with U.S. support? After all, since the 1960s, Washington has gone along with this idea of never openly acknowledging Israel’s nuclear weapons.

What about following the recent example of Russia and Syria? After Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad both refused to acknowledge Syria having chemical weapons, they did what Americans would call “a flip-flop.” They admitted that such weapons existed and that Damascus would join the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroy the whole program.

Inspection teams from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are on the ground in Syria. Let’s see how it goes.

It is generally believed that Assad’s father began building Syria’s chemical weapons capability as a less-expensive response to Israel’s nuclear program. He had early help from the then-Soviet Union, but in succeeding years developed a domestic capability, aided from clandestine purchases of chemicals from firms in Germany and other European countries.

Seeing what Assad was doing, Israel expanded development of its own chemical weapons program in the 1970s. Israel was one of the first countries to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, but it remains one of only six countries that has not ratified it.

On Sept. 19, Putin told an audience in Valdai, Russia: “Syria came into possession of chemical weapons as an alternative to Israel’s nuclear weapons.”

He then linked what Syria was agreeing to do with something Israel might consider.

“The technological superiority of Israel in the region is so obvious that it doesn’t require nuclear weapons, which makes [Israel] a target and creates a special problem for it,” Putin said.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has been central in negotiating the Syrian agreement, picked up on Putin’s idea with the Russian daily Kommersant.

“In the current situation, it is particularly important to make the . . . non-possession of weapons of mass destruction universal in this explosive region,” he said of the Middle East.

That same day, Israeli President Shimon Peres was asked at a news conference in the Hague whether Israel would follow Syria and give up its chemical weapons. “I am sure our government will consider it seriously,” Peres responded.

Will Israel take that first diplomatic step? So far, no response from any other Israeli official.

Meanwhile, how about U.S. and Israeli officials seriously discussing other new approaches to Iran.

The so-called P5+1 [the United State, United Kingdom, Russia, China, France and Germany] are set to sit down in Geneva on Oct. 15 and 16 to hear new, concrete proposals from Iran designed to assure the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. In return, Iran would get some relief from economic sanctions.

Behind closed doors, do the P5+1 acknowledge Israel has nuclear weapons? The Iranians and other Arab countries do — in public. Just last Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called Israel’s nuclear weapons “the source of insecurity in our region” during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Perhaps it’s time to drop the facade hiding Israel’s nuclear weapons program from the public, since Washington and the Israeli government say more transparency is one of the goals sought when dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. It then might be easier to revive a once-planned conference on a Middle East nuclear free zone, linking it to progress made guaranteeing that Tehran’s program remains peaceful.

No doubt, there would be risk. Israel must ask itself if it is a chance worth taking.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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