A KIND OF WAR is being promoted between those who think the most reprehensible country in the Mideast is Israel, for bombing the Iraqi reactor, and those who put the heaviest burden on Iraq, for building it. But it is a phony war. Though both sides in this contest, hoping for advantage, might like it, there is good reason not to force a choice. It has the effect of giving a free ride to preemption or proliferation, as the case may be. The real need is to address the perils in both policies.
For its attack Israel is being severely and, in our view, properly called to account, mainly by the United States, the only country with the political and moral standing in Israel to have its rebuke taken seriously. Tough words -- mixed with some exculpatory ones -- have come from the White House. The normal flow of arms has been interrupted, and the terms of the future flow put under review. The question of what controls should be put on Israel's own nuclear plant is finally out in the open. At the United Nations, Israel has seen the United States make common cause with Iraq in condemning the raid.
The administration has not broken its basic tie to Isreal. But it is insisting on conducting an American policy, not an Israeli policy, in a region where its interests are varied and complex. President Reagan, moreover, has begun calling for a "real and stable" peace, which, if it means anything, signifies an intent not previously visible to take up the Palestinian problem as well as the machinations of Soviet power.
Would that the administration had been nearly so resolute in facing the proliferation problem. Here it shows some of the same flaws affecting the policies of countries using the episode simply to firm up their relations in the Arab world.
Personally Mr. Reagan grants that the Israelis had "reason for concern" about the Iraqi nuclear program, arguing that they should have come to him so he could lean on France. But the bureaucracy dances away from the question of what Iraq was up to, suggesting there was really nothing to worry about. This is disingenuous. There is jplenty of room to argue over the imminence of the threat and the nature of the Israeli response. But there can be no serious doubt that Iraq was after a bomb. The evidence for this does not rest on the easily unmasked misstatements of Israeli propaganda after the raid. It rests somewhat on intelligence assessments of Iraq's intent. It rests even more on massive and uncontroverted facts: Iraq was stockpiling uranium ore but had no commercial nuclear power program. Iraq was acquiring training, technology and equipment in a pattern explicable only if it were making a bomb. All this American officials ignore.
Part of the blindness may spring from political considerations -- an understandable desire to recoup the Arab-world losses that Israel inflicted on Washington by its attack. A larger part arises from obtuseness about proliferation. Typically, Mr. Reagan on Tuesday spoke out against proliferation but said he didn't think that should "carry over into the development of nuclear power for peaceful purposes." Comforting as it is, the idea that there is a clear separation between the materials, facilities and know-how necessary to make bombs and those needed to make electricity is a fairy tale. There is virtually no separtion. It comes down to intent.
Don't worry, respond the national providers and international overseers of "peaceful" nuclear wherewithal, you can trust the international safeguards system. Here is another fairy tale. That system entails a pledge of abstinence and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is shot full of holes. Not only can a country back out of the nonproliferation treaty, as Iraq backed out of its border treaty with Iran when it invaded last year. But IAEA inspections are carried out only a few times a year, are pre-announced, do not apply to all military-relevant facilities and may be cancelled without warning, as Iraq cancelled them for a spell in 1980.
True, in some circumstances the safeguards are part of the solution. But in Iraq-type circumstances, the safeguards are part of the problem: they provide a cover for bomb work and nurse the illusion that all is well. It is being said that the Israeli raid "threatens the international nuclear safeguards system." This is like saying nuclear war threatens detente. The raid did not threaten the system. It exposed its weaknesses. Many things must be done by many parties to halt the further spread of nuclear weapons. One is to improve the safeguards system.