Is Israel’s nuclear ambiguity something of the past?

Signing off from his expose in Haaretz this month, “Obama declassifies top-secret papers on Israel nuclear talks,” drawing upon 107 pages detailing US diplomacy in the Sixties regarding Israel’s nuclear programme, Amir Oren wrote, “the ambiguity option was born and lived in secret documents – until last week.”

Scholars of Israel’s nuclear history have given three reasons for Israel’s nuclear ambiguity posture – of neither confirming or denying whether she possesses nuclear weapons. First, confirmation of an Israeli Bomb would pressure Arab states to also obtain nuclear parity with Israel. Secondly, Israel undertook not to disclose its programme as a condition for France’s cooperation in building the nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Fifties. Thirdly, any confirmation would endanger continued US foreign aid assistance.

The first has for much time become redundant as Arab states – including Iraq, Iran and Libya – developed nuclear programmers irrespective of Israel’s stance. Iran and Iraq each developed their programmes in response to military threats from the other. The second lost its relevance following disclosures, including by French writers, about the nuclear cooperation between the two countries.

But Oren’s disclosure which detailed abortive attempts by the US to thwart Israel’s nuclear programme lieu conventional arms supplies still does not provide an answer to the cardinal question of whether Israel has crossed a nuclear threshold in practice. To this day, apart from a range of unauthorised various unauthorised disclosures, such as the Vanunu disclosure to the London Sunday Times, there remains no precise picture of the quantity and type of the country’s nuclear programme.

Oren’s disclosure concerns discussions within the USA Administration between the State Department doves and the Pentagon hawks regarding whether Israel’s nuclear programme, then in its infancy, could be blocked in return for conventional arms supplies. The State Department was hesitant to apply pressure that might damage the post 1967 Israel Labour Government policy of “territory for peace” – in which a nuclear umbrella had an important role if there would be a return to conflict after any territorial withdrawal.

As a clue to its support for Nuclear Non-Proliferation, democratic senator Stuart Symington would in 1976 pass a Congressional law conditioning US foreign aid assistance on the recipient country not running a nuclear programme, not under international supervision.

The discussions preceded the historic 1968 understanding between President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Golda Meir — that the US would not place pressure on Israel on the nuclear question if Israel did not do anything public (such as a nuclear test) which might confirm the existence of an Israeli bomb. It has been subject to reconfirmation at the beginning of every new US administration.

The decision by the US InterAgency Classification Appeals Panel, which is in charge of approving declassification, and which involves senior officials include a presidential representative, to release the documents this month offers a clue to the quandary Barak Obama has shown over the years regarding Israel’s nuclear policy. Given both the Democrats’ support for nuclear non-proliferation and the low relevance today of the “territory for peace” policy, Obama sees the so-called Nixon-Meir understanding as lacking importance. Indeed, when Obama began his first administration, there was a question-mark over whether he would continue with the so-called Nixon-Meir understandings.

Republican administrations have been less rigid. Thus, while foreign aid assistance to Pakistan was stopped after Pakistan’s nuclear bomb programme was revealed, foreign aid to India continued unabated even after India carried out a nuclear test. True, foreign aid to Taiwan was interrupted after it ordered a Canadian nuclear reactor. In the past, the US authorities had ceded to Israel’s requests that official US archive files with CIA estimates about Israel’s nuclear programme would not be available for public inspection. And, when Mordechai Vanunu was released from prison in 2004, the US reached an understanding with Israeli authorities that Vanunu — who sought to testify before a Congressional committee about his work in Dimona — would not be allowed to leave Israel.

If anything, the exposure by Amir Oren, Haaretz’s senior military commentator, shows how the Israeli authorities are finally coming to terms with the principle of freedom of information. Oren, who is a seasoned user of America’s freedom of information law, requested that these documents be released. In contrast, Avner Cohen, author of Israel & the Bomb, who was hassled in the Nineties by the Israeli authorities for doing the very same thing – using US government archival sources to research the Israeli nuclear programme.

Now, Oren has shown that in the global age access to what is available on the library shelves of official archives in Washington cannot be denied to readers and surfers in Israel.

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