“I think this U.S. policy of protecting Israel on the nuclear issue is not guaranteed, and it’s not necessarily permanent under any circumstances,” Cohen, an expert on Israel’s nuclear program, tells MintPress.
President Obama listens as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during their meeting in the Oval Office, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.
WASHINGTON — Since 1969, Israel has enjoyed a unique and unprecedented position with the United States, especially with regards to the former’s nuclear weapons cache.
Indeed, while other countries like India, Pakistan and most notably Iran have faced intense scrutiny over their nuclear programs, Israel has had information on its own nuclear capabilities, including a weapons program, hidden from the public eye and U.N. nuclear agency inspections.
But this special arrangement may be coming to an end, Avner Cohen, author of “The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb,” tells MintPress News.
“This is only speculation. I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow. But I think for the long run it may happen,” Cohen said.
Israel’s nuclear weapons program was recently brought back into the news spotlight upon the publication of a 386-page report from 1987 that purportedly revealed new information about the country’s capabilities.
Much ado about nothing
Grant Smith, founder of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy Inc., wrote on his website late last year about a September lawsuit in which he was the plaintiff. The suit states that he was requesting that the Department of Defense (DOD) release an unclassified 1987 document containing information about Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program.
Smith’s website describes the document as a “DoD report on American affiliates of Israeli entities engaged in clandestine nuclear weapons research and development.”
Several news organizations have jumped on this narrative. The National included an opinion piece that stated, “A quiet shift occurred recently when the US defence department released a previously classified 1987 report on Israel’s nuclear research.” Likewise, William Greider blogged at The Nation, “After five decades of pretending otherwise, the Pentagon has reluctantly confirmed that Israel does indeed possess nuclear bombs.”
However, this narrative is misleading. Cohen says he’s had the report for some 20 years.
Cohen is the author of two books about Israel’s nuclear weapons history, and he teaches a course at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey entitled “Israel and the Bomb.” Indeed, he is one of the foremost scholars on the issue.
“I think the people who publically distributed this originally unclassified document made a big fuss about something which is almost nothing,” Cohen said. The report even states that it’s unclassified in bold-faced print on its cover.
He also says that it is not based on any U.S. government intelligence sources, nor does it propose that it is.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, agrees with Cohen’s assessment. Lewis recently posted a rundown of a history of the report in Arms Control Wonk, in which the publisher of the report, the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a federally-funded nonprofit corporation that conducts research and prepares reports about U.S. national security issues, announced its publication in 1988 and how to order it. Lewis also references the instances since 1988 in which the report has been mentioned in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, and a couple of books.
If it’s not a top-secret report, then what is is?
In March 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan announced a new defense program, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Also known as the “Star Wars” program, the aim of the SDI was to protect the U.S. from nuclear weapons deployed by the Soviet Union.
It would achieve this by investing in research and development of on-the-ground weapons systems and space-based weapons that avert intercontinental ballistic missiles. Reagan said, “I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles.”
The U.S. recruited partners in order to implement the program. The IDA report was produced for the DOD to assess the capabilities of companies in Israel and other NATO countries — specifically, Italy, France, then-West Germany and the United Kingdom — to participate in the SDI program and other NATO initiatives.
“At the time the U.S. was looking [for partners] that could help among NATO states and allies, such as Israel, in terms of work for this very large program, ‘Star Wars,’ and the Israelis were boosting their capabilities to do things, especially in the areas of laser,” Cohen told MintPress.
The U.S. hired IDA and sent a team to conduct an assessment in Israel because the two countries had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 1986 on Israel’s participation in the SDI.
The report is not focused on “American affiliates of Israeli entities engaged in clandestine nuclear weapons research and development,” as Grant Smith suggests.
US knowledge of the bomb
Israel’s Sorek nuclear reactor center near the central Israeli town of Yavne.
Unlike Iran, and even India and Pakistan, where the U.S. has put out every possible piece of information regarding those countries’ nuclear capabilities, the U.S. has maintained unprecedented secrecy when it comes to Israel’s nuclear capabilities.
“The United States does not only not share it [information about Israel’s nuclear program] with the public, but it doesn’t share it with many of its own people,” Cohen said. It is a highly hush hush issue even within the U.S. government, he explained.
It has not always been this way, though. Washington has been aware of Israel’s nuclear weapons program since the late 1950s, during the end of the Eisenhower administration, according to Cohen.
“The United States discovered in 1960 that Israel has this secret nuclear complex under construction at Dimona,” said Cohen. (Details about this complex were revealed decades later by a former Israeli nuclear technician and whistleblower, Mordechai Vanunu. He shared pictures and explanations of plutonium production with the British press in 1986, citing his opposition to weapons of mass destruction.)
The Kennedy administration was perplexed by Israel’s nuclear developments, and pressured Tel Aviv to open Dimona to inspections. President John F. Kennedy even threatened total isolation of Israel if it did not open up the facility. Israel capitulated, and the U.S. started visiting the site but was unable to inspect the weapons facilities.
After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to fight over Israel’s nuclear weapons program. By the time he left office in January 1969, “Israel … already had the bomb,” said Cohen.
This is when the most seminal moment in U.S.-Israeli nuclear relations occurred. On Sept. 26, 1969, there was a one-on-one meeting between then-President Richard Nixon and then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, in which a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was initiated. That policy has been upheld by every U.S. administration since.
In a 2014 report, Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists, and Robert S. Norris, a senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists, estimated that Israel has up to 80 nuclear warheads.
Hypocrisy of the West
Despite the misconceptions surrounding it, the IDA document is important because it has ignited discussion about Israel’s very real and unsafeguarded nuclear weapons program at a time when Iran has agreed to “the most robust and intrusive” inspections regime ever negotiated in history. This is a program that by all accounts and measures has not even been weaponized.
Press coverage of the report reflects the hypocrisy of the international community, namely Western countries, in providing a balanced narrative of nuclear non-proliferation. On that topic, Cohen told MintPress, “It means that you have problems with Israel.”
“Israel is not covered by any agreement. Israel has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has said nothing about its program,” he explained.
Israel’s nuclear weapons policy
The Israeli government has an official policy of ambiguity with regards to its nuclear weapons program, and the U.S. is complicit in maintaining this position. In 1963, then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said at a meeting in the White House, “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.” To this day, that is the extent to which Israel has referred to its nuclear weapons program.
In a report compiled in October 2012 by the Arab Institute of Security Studies, Marc Finaud, a former French diplomat, offered his interpretation of this policy. He suggested that it meant Israel would only reveal existence of its nuclear weapons “as a response and in case another state of the region became a nuclear-weapon state.” Finaud is currently a senior program advisor in the Emerging Security Challenges Program at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a foundation dedicated to promoting peace.
The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a loose conglomeration of states including Iran and 16 other nations that are not officially aligned with a major power or part of a multilateral military alliance, have long condemned Israel’s nuclear weapons program. NAM has also demanded that Israel accede to the NPT, and meet requirements established by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani commented on Israel’s program at the United Nations in September 2013:
“The Movement calls upon all Nuclear-Weapons states to ratify related protocols to all treaties establishing such [nuclear weapons-free] zones… Israel, the only non-party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in this region, should join there too without any further delay. Accordingly, all nuclear activities in the region should be subject to the IAEA comprehensive safeguards.”
Rouhani is the current secretary general of NAM.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 487, passed in 1981, calls on Israel to place its nuclear facilities under the IAEA safeguards.
In September 2014, 18 Arab states submitted a resolution to the IAEA at its annual meeting condemning Israel’s nuclear arsenal and calling for Israel to join the global anti-nuclear weapons treaty. The text stated “concern about the Israeli nuclear capabilities,” calling on Israel “to accede to the NPT and place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.” The resolution was rejected in a 58-45 vote.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. Netanyahu said the world must unite to `stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror’. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah listen.
Cohen says it’s “appropriate” to ask whether U.S. support for Israel, “including on the nuclear issue,” will continue indefinitely.
“In my opinion, not necessarily,” he said.
He argues that American efforts to create a nuclear accord with Iran have pushed Israel to extremes in terms of its special relationship with the U.S.
This was made clear in recent months, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unprecedented speech to the U.S. Congress in March in which he blatantly attempted to convince lawmakers of the Obama administration’s wrong-headed policies with regards to Iran.
Netanyahu is also believed to have had a role in orchestrating the letter written by Sen. Tom Cotton and signed by 47 other Republican senators, warning the Iranian leadership not to trust a deal with the current U.S. administration.
“I can see a situation in which patience with Israel under Netanyahu will go so short and so thin that the United States would be willing to reconsider even that old deal with the Israelis on the nuclear issue,” Cohen said.
“I think this policy of protecting Israel on this issue is not guaranteed,” he concluded, “and it’s not permanent under any circumstances.”