With the fall of Saddam, Libya's announcement of the intention to abandon a secret non-conventional weapons programme, and Iran's ongoing cooperation with the IAEA, pressure continues to mount on Israel to come clean about its nuclear weapons programme.

 

Israel is believed to be the sixth nation in the world and the first in the Middle East to have developed and acquired nuclear weapons. 

 

It is thought to possess about 200 nuclear warheads, and along with India and Pakistan, remains one of three countries that have refused to sign Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). North Korea joined the NPT in 1985, but in January 2003 announced its intention to withdraw.

 

The Vanunu affair

 

Israeli nuclear whistleblower
Mordechai Vanunu

Analysts say Israel initiated its nuclear programme in earnest about four decades ago. In September 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli arms technician who had worked at the secret Dimona site for eight years, blew the whistle on Israel's nuclear weapons programme.

 

Vanunu said Israel had produced up to 200 advanced fission bombs by 1986, had mastered a thermonuclear design and appeared to have a number of thermonuclear bombs ready for use.

 

He was subsequently tried for treason and sentenced to prison for 18 years, 11 of them in solitary confinement. 

 

Vanunu is due to be released this April, at which time a new debate surrounding Israel's nuclear weapons programme is likely to resurface. 

 

Nuclear opacity

 

For the past 40 years, Israel has maintained an ambiguous position regarding its weapons stockpile, neither confirming nor denying its existence.  

 

"The policy of 'nuclear opacity' is anachronistic and has outlived its usefulness.  I would like to see the nuclear issue more openly on the table ... a situation in which Israel 'comes clean' in the sense that it would acknowledge its nuclear capability"

Avner Cohen,
Senior Research Fellow,
National Security Archive,
George Washington University

Avner Cohen, who originally coined the concept of "nuclear opacity" in the late 1980s to describe the Israeli policy, believes both the United States and Israel should find a better way to address Israel's nuclear status.

 

"This policy, in particular the way it is practised in Israel itself, is at odds with the values of Israeli democracy and needs to be revised," said Cohen, who is currently a senior research fellow at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

 

Cohen, who authored the controversial book Israel and the Bomb in 1998, says he would like to see the long-held Israeli taboo on discussing the issue in public undone. 

 

"The policy of 'nuclear opacity' is anachronistic and has outlived its usefulness. I would like to see the nuclear issue more openly on the table ... a situation in which Israel 'comes clean' in the sense that it would acknowledge its nuclear capability ... along the lines of legitimacy for Israel's status as a nuclear weapon state in return for accountability both at home and externally.

 

"The Vanunu affair, in all its aspects including the issue of its release, just highlights and amplifies the depth of Israel's last taboo," he told Aljazeera.net.

 
Security imbalance

Arab officials are becoming increasingly impatient with the Israelis, however, especially in light of recent efforts by its neighbours to disarm.    

Amr Musa (L) has criticised Israel
for not being forthright

Just recently, Amr Musa, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, criticised Israel for not being forthright about its weapons programme. 

Israel, he said, was creating a "serious security imbalance" that is likely to trigger a regional arms race of sorts.

The spokesman for the 22-member Arab League, Hisham Yusuf, echoed Musa's sentiments, telling Aljazeera.net the league "fully supports a WMD-free zone in the Middle East" and "this is the position that has been adopted in different sessions of the Arab League, in various Arab foreign ministries, and in the Arab Summit".

Yusuf also re-affirmed the league's desire to see Israel abandon its nuclear armament efforts through globally established disarmament regimes.

"There is no doubt
that we would like to
see Israel taking a decision to join the
NPT and submit to the oversight of the IAEA
its nuclear activity"

Hisham Yusuf,
Arab League spokesman

"There is no doubt that we would like to see Israel taking a decision to join the NPT and submit to the oversight of the IAEA its nuclear activity."

But many Israeli analysts contend that global verification regimes such as the IAEA and the NPT are full of loopholes and therefore of little comfort to Israelis. 

 

"One has to remember that under the NPT, it is possible to develop the potential for nuclear weapons production, but avoid the production of nuclear weapons [themselves] and at some point withdraw from the treaty, like North Korea for example," said Shai Feldman, head of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies.

Israel will not sign the NPT, he adds, as long as it continues to perceive an existential threat. Feldman sees Iran as the single largest threat to Israeli security interests today, especially since the duration of the voluntary Iranian suspension is unknown.   

"There is nothing to prevent Iran from developing a fuel cycle, put it under safeguards, and simply build a potential for uranium enrichment," said Feldman.

Right direction

Egyptian political analyst Muhammad Qadri Said, on the other hand, sees recent Iranian and Libyan initiatives to disarm and verify their weapons as steps in the right direction and says it is up to Israel to make the next move. 

Syria is calling on Israel to join
a nuclear-free Middle East

"The ball is in the Israeli court now ... it's the only country left [in the Middle East] that possesses nuclear weapons although it does not admit to this officially," said Said, head of the Military Research Unit in the Cairo-based al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.  

"The Arab world must pressure Israel to comply with global resolutions and adhere to the status quo in the Middle East by submitting a list of what it possesses exactly in terms of weapons of mass destruction and making a plan to get rid of them," he said.

In the end, Said says some form of multilateral regional arms control measures must be negotiated in a setting where parties can bring forth their security concerns.

A similar approach was attempted in failed Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) talks of the early 1990s, which were halted when Israel refused to place the nuclear issue on the agenda.

"If the situation continues as is in Israel, then there is no doubt that some Middle Eastern countries will want to go in the direction of possessing weapons," said Said, alluding to Syria and Iran. 

"These countries have the technological preparedness and potential to pursue such weapons programs and can at any time decide to do so if they feel threatened enough by Israel," he added.

Bargaining chip

Said says President Bashar al-Asad may be using the WMD issue as a strategic bargaining chip for potential negotiations with Israel and that in the end the Syrian position is to be expected due to Israeli provocations.

"The Syrian position is complicated in a matter of speaking. [al-Assad] wants to link the issues of negotiations with Israel to weapons disarmament, to try and extract as much benefits as he can in negotiations," said Said. 

"Also, Israel has itself been rather aggressive lately, threatening to attack Syria so it's only natural that they should respond in this way," he continued. 

"What [President
al-Asad] in fact said was that all parties in the region would be ready to disarm if Israel is ready to make the Middle East a nuclear-free area ... which is simply pointing to the obvious fact that it's Israel that stands as a real obstacle in the way of doing this"

Buthaina Shaaban, spokeswoman, 
Syrian Foreign Ministry

Syria denies it possesses any weapons of mass destruction, and attributes the misunderstanding to media distortions of recent days. 

"What [President al-Assad] in fact said was that all parties in the region would be ready to disarm if Israel is ready to make the Middle East a nuclear-free area ... which is simply pointing to the obvious fact that it's Israel that stands as a real obstacle in the way of doing this," said Buthaina Shaaban, spokeswoman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry to Aljazeera.net. 

"Syria re-iterates its position, as stated in the Security Council in December 2003, of the necessity of making the Middle East a nuclear-weapons free zone because this is the only way to enjoy peace and security in the region."

Nuclear hypocrisy

Meanwhile, both the Americans and the British warned Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad, that Damascus had to give up its alleged weapons of mass destruction or face ostracism, even if Israel keeps its nuclear arms. 

Syria consistently denies possessing any WMD.

Critics say there is simply no room for such double standards in the international community, however, whether it is in dealing with Israel, or any other nuclear state.

"Nuclear hypocrisy is completely unacceptable. It's not a political decision, it's a question of morality in international law and real genuine human security," said Kate Hudson, chairperson of the London-based Campaign for Nuclear disarmament.

"We have a situation with Iran in which we were prepared to go to war on the suspicion that they had weapons of mass destruction. But we don't threaten to bomb ourselves [the United Kingdom] into compliance ... [or] to go to war with Israel to make it comply."

 

CND has urged Israel to comply fully with UN resolution 687, which calls for a nuclear weapons free Middle East. 

 

"And, as far as we aware, the only country that has nuclear weapons is Israel," said Hudson.

 

"They bombed Iraq's nuclear establishment
in 1982, and threatened to use nuclear weapons in the Yom Kippur war. So we don't have any confidence that they should be trusted with nuclear weapons and
we think here should
be as much pressure
on Israel as there is
on other countries"

 

Ernest Rodcker,
British coordinator,
Campaign to Free Vanunu and for a Nuclear-Free Middle East

Analysts such as Feldman and Emily Landua, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at Tel Aviv University, say that perceived threats make it difficult for Israel to disarm its nuclear weapons stockpiles, which it views as an "insurance policy". 

But others, including Ernest Rodcker, British coordinator of the Campaign to Free Vanunu and for a Nuclear-Free Middle East, say Israel has proven to be the biggest threat in the region.

 

"They bombed Iraq's nuclear establishment in 1982, and threatened to use nuclear weapons in the Yom Kippur war. So we don't have any confidence that they should be trusted with nuclear weapons and we think here should be as much pressure on Israel as there is on other countries."

 

Rodcker holds that the United States should apply the Symington Amendment to the Arms Export Control Act as equally to Israel as it has to Pakistan. 

 

The amendment punishes nations that have sold or received nuclear or enrichment material outside of the IAEA safeguards by denying them US foreign aid.

 

"We believe that so long as Israel has weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons there will be no disarmament in [the Middle East] because other countries will want to have the same weapons, as has proven to be the case."

 

"We hope the Israeli government will change its policy and that its allies around the world will put considerable pressure on it to do so," added Hudson.

 

"Only in that way will we get real peace and security in the Middle East."