Israel stands in almost complete isolation in its opposition to any international arrangement on the prevention of the nuclearization of Iran. It is at loggerheads with the rest of the world—and especially with the United States—not over this shared goal, but about how it should be achieved. While the major powers will be reconvening in Geneva in a few days to firm up a treaty that might go a long way towards this end, Prime Minister Netanyahu is bent on blocking any such agreement—insisting on tightening those very sanctions he opposed in the past while maintaining an open military option.
Israel’s contrarian stance, especially after its success in placing the threat of a nuclear Iran at the forefront of the global agenda, makes little sense. By rejecting any form of accommodation, it runs the risk of being totally marginalized on the international stage and finding itself seriously at odds with its remaining allies. It may also be sustaining an untenable status quo in the Middle East, thereby contributing directly to the perpetuation of ongoing instability in the region. And, most importantly, it will actually be doing nothing to harness the Iranian nuclear threat. Thus, this strategy, despite its populist appeal to broad segments of the Israeli population, is leading absolutely nowhere.
Israel presently has an unusual opportunity to take advantage of the current conjuncture to pursue an alternative strategy: one which will promote its objectives and provide significant possibilities for constructively changing realities in the region. It can declare that it is reconsidering its own nuclear strategy and that it is willing to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and entertain the possibility of establishing a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Such a move could be the game-changer that would blaze the way to a different regional environment and for greater security for Israel and its neighbors.
Israel’s own nuclear program has been intentionally shrouded in secrecy since its inception over fifty years ago. Its purpose is twofold: to equip Israel with the ultimate defense in case of an overwhelming effort to bring about its destruction (the doomsday scenario) and to present a powerful deterrent to any country considering such a possibility. For years, Israel has therefore consistently denied that it possesses any nuclear capacity, although the extent of its non-conventional weapons arsenal has been extensively documented.
This policy of “constructive ambiguity” has had two main outcomes. Domestically, it has precluded any debate on Israel’s nuclear program —one of the very few topics that has not been seriously aired in Israel’s extremely boisterous public domain. Attempts to publish information have been met with strict censorship (to this day almost all knowledge on the topic depends on foreign sources); efforts to nurture discussion have, with few exceptions, been stonewalled; and, to press home the point, anyone raising the issue has been viewed as the worst kind of traitor (vide Mordechai Vanunu). In this environment, it is hardly surprising that a virtual taboo exists on the topic in political discourse.
Externally, the strategy of ambiguity led Israel to shun the NPT and to refuse any suggestion that it be a party to its oversight provisions. Together with Pakistan, India, South Sudan and North Korea (who withdrew in 1993), it is one of a handful of states which have remained outside the most widely-subscribed arms control agreement in the world (190 countries today are signatory to the NPT and subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency). This policy may have served Israel well during the Cold War era. But in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has kept Israel outside the global consensus and severely limited its ability to affect international currents in this most sensitive of areas.
Israel’s obstinacy regarding the NPT, not to speak of discussions of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East (so emphatically articulated by Prime Minister Netanyahu in recent statements), stems from two main sources. First, Israel, like many other countries, jealously guards information on its military capabilities and is understandably reluctant to open its stockpiles to any external scrutiny. Second, it is justifiably suspicious of the sources of the demand that it become a party to the NPT, which have come particularly vociferously from the most virulent of its opponents (such as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani). These suspicions cannot be easily allayed. They should not, however, be transformed into what they have become today: a substitute for a policy that will advance Israel’s interests and potentially alter the contours of the Middle East.
The advantages of an Israeli initiative to join the NPT as a first step towards establishing a region devoid of weapons of mass destruction may far outweigh the natural reluctance of its present leadership. Such a move could enhance Israel’s long-term security by actually increasing its deterrent capacity. Since Israel’s strategy of constructive ambiguity no longer has any credibility, allowing international oversight would make the extent of its defensive capability palpably evident to all. It may also encourage discussions on weapons reduction which, by highlighting the dangers inherent in employing the Samson option (once seriously considered by Moshe Dayan during those fateful first days of the Yom Kippur war), could yet lead to the removal of some of the most acute strategic threats to Israel’s existence.
Thus, regionally, this kind of overture can go a long way to re-positioning Israel in its immediate geo-political setting. By pointing the way towards a different kind of interaction between the countries in the area and reviving the potential ingrained in the Arab Peace Initiative (thereby setting the foundations for a much-needed realignment), it can help assure Israel’s place as an integral part of a truly new Middle East.
Unquestionably, such a proactive step would also enhance Israel’s now seriously tarnished global image. By accentuating the frightening moral dilemmas associated with nuclear and chemical warfare and helping to forge binding international norms in this field, Israel can put itself in a position to positively influence global events. In the specific context of the Iranian nuclear program, in all probability such a move would do more to rein in the prospect of nuclearization than any further spate of protests or dire warnings. It would also change the rules of the game and open horizons for different forms of cooperation in the future.
Israel can control its own destiny. It cannot do so by barricading itself in its tiny enclosure or by detaching itself from global currents. Now is the time to display the courage needed to jettison a strategy based entirely on military obfuscation and adopt in its place one which uses transparency as a stepping stone to a safer Israel in a more secure world. Joining the NPT and opening the door for creating a region free of weapons of mass destruction may be the main avenue for surviving and achieving some sanity in the 21st century. The first step in this direction is to launch what has been consciously avoided for years: a serious public discussion on one of the most existential subjects facing the state and its citizens before it is too late.