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Should Israel give up its nukes?

December 09, 2005|George Bisharat

IN A SUDDEN ATTACK of common sense, a Pentagon-commissioned study released in mid-November suggests an approach to nuclear nonproliferation in the Middle East that might actually be accepted by the people of the region. What is this breakthrough idea? That U.S. policies begin not with a country that currently lacks nuclear weapons -- Iran -- but rather with the one that by virtually all accounts already has them -- Israel.

To avert Iran's apparent drive for nuclear weapons, concludes Henry Sokolski, a co-editor of "Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran," Israel should freeze and begin to dismantle its nuclear capability.

This and other recommendations emerged from two years of deliberations by experts on the Middle East and nuclear nonproliferation.

Limiting the spread of nuclear weapons is a pivotal U.S. foreign policy objective. As the sole nation ever to have employed them, we bear a special responsibility to prevent their use in the future. With regard to the Middle East, we rightly worry not only about the potential use of the weapons themselves but about the political leverage bestowed on those who would possess them.

However, there is an Achilles heel in our nonproliferation policy: the double standard that U.S. administrations since the 1960s have applied with respect to Israel's weapons of mass destruction. Israel's suspected arsenal includes chemical, biological and about 100 to 200 nuclear warheads, and the capacity to deliver them.

Initially, the United States opposed Israel's nuclear weapons program. President Kennedy dispatched inspectors to the Dimona generating plant in Israel's south, and he cautioned Israel against developing atomic weapons. Anticipating the 1962 visit of American inspectors, Israel reportedly constructed a fake wall at Dimona to conceal its weapons production.

Since then, no U.S. administration has effectively pressured Israel to either halt its program or to submit to inspections under the International Atomic Energy Agency. Nor has Israel been required to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The apparent rationale: Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of an ally are simply not an urgent concern.

Yet this rationale neglects a fundamental law of arms proliferation. Nations seek WMD when their rivals already possess them. Israel's nuclear capability has clearly fueled WMD ambitions within the Middle East. Saddam Hussein, for example, in an April 1990 speech to his military, threatened to retaliate against any Israeli nuclear attack with chemical weapons -- the "poor man's atomic bomb."

WASHINGTON'S inconsistency on the nuclear issue in the Middle East has been terribly corrosive of American legitimacy throughout the world, and a reversal of our policy would be widely noted regionally.

Nor is our international legitimacy all that is at stake. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, a panicky Israel, facing early battlefield losses, threatened a nuclear strike. This evoked a massive arms shipment from the United States, eventually permitting Israel to turn the tide of the war -- demonstrating the kinds of pressures that nuclear powers can apply, even on allies. Although many view Israel's victory with favor, it surely enabled subsequent decades of Israeli intransigence over the fate of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and has contributed to the impasse afflicting the region.

The study's authors include retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom and Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near East Policy -- in short, no enemies of Israel. Their suggestion is comparatively mild: Israel should take small, reversible steps toward nuclear disarmament to encourage Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Nonetheless, Israeli leaders reportedly have already demurred.

One can anticipate the bipartisan stampede of U.S. lawmakers to denounce the recommendation should it win official U.S. backing. That would be a shame. Sooner or later, common sense must prevail in our Middle East policy. Otherwise, we will continue to run our global stature into the ground.

GEORGE BISHARAT is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.

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