Israel’s decades-long policy of deliberate ambiguity about its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme is being challenged more than ever before, by the international community and by voices within the Israeli society.
While Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu devoted most of his UN speech on Tuesday to Iran's alleged nuclear aspirations, his own country's WMD strategy might be headed for a dramatic change.
The ambiguity policy describes Israel's refusal to admit it has WMD. The country is alleged to have launched a secret nuclear programme in the 1960s, led by current Israeli president Shimon Peres who was then working as a director-general in the Ministry of Defense. The ambiguity policy was shaped under the influence of negotiations between Israeli and American leaders, serving both sides' interest of establishing Israeli military dominance while making it appear as if international norms are not compromised.
Significant information about Israel’s WMD programme was first leaked by nuclear-technician turned whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu in the 1980s. Over the years several news organisations have exposed more details about the programme, and today Israel is recognised worldwide as a nuclear state with 80 nuclear warheads per moderate estimates and up to 200 according to others. Nevertheless, Israeli officials have traditionally maintained the ambiguity policy, never confirming the existence of WMDs in their military’s arsenal. US administrations - including the current one - have responded to Israel’s nuclear ambiguity with a 'don’t ask, don’t tell' policy.
As long as Israel is following this ambiguity about possessing nuclear weapons, there would be never any chance for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.
Recent regional developments involving Syria and Iran have put a spotlight on Israel's WMD policies.
The use of chemical weapons in Syria turned attention on Israel's undeclared chemical stockpile, while Iran’s apparent willingness to have its nuclear facilities supervised by international inspectors could signal a new climate of transparency in nuclear affairs. Speaking at the United Nations last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Israel must declare it has nuclear capabilities.
Israel has been a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 1957 but it has never signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) - a landmark charter aimed at achieving nuclear disarmament.
On September 20, the latest attempt to get Israel to ratify the NPT failed when a resolution initiated by Arab countries at the IAEA’s annual meeting was rejected by a vote of 51-43. As long as it does not ratify the NPT, Israel can maintain its nuclear ambiguity.
Essential first step
Hossein Mousavian, who served on Iran's nuclear diplomacy team and is currently a visiting professor at Princeton, suggests that Israel removing its ambiguity policy is the essential first step to long term stability in the region.
"This would help for realization of the WMD-free zone in the Middle East," Mousavian said. "As long as Israel is following this ambiguity about possessing nuclear weapons, there would be never any chance for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East."
Other nuclear experts suggest the ambiguity policy is meaningless and only reflects Israel’s reluctance to comply with international law. Martin Malin, Executive Director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, believes the policy is outdated.
"I think it serves Israel’s interest less and less," said Malin. "The purpose of the policy was to create as little incentive as possible for other states to create weapons, but I think that the decisions other states make are not really influenced by the ambiguity policy."
Amongst Israeli experts, opinions are mixed. Reuven Pedatzur, a senior military affairs analyst writing for Haaretz, suggested the ambiguity policy and is a "dangerous illusion" because Israel is relying on US support and it is only a matter of time before the Obama administration insists that Israel change its policy.
On the other hand, Emily Landau, Director of the Arms Control and Regional Security programme at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank, says that the focus should be on creating a regional platform for security discussions. Her view is that Israel coming out about its WMD capabilities is counterproductive because it would lead to speculation and heighten tensions in the Middle East.
"People will ask why did Israel come out of its ambiguity? Why is Israel declaring itself as a nuclear state? Is this an aggressive step on the part of Israel? Is this a prelude to some kind of threats that Israel might pose to the region? What’s behind this?" Landau said.
No longer taboo
Within the Israeli society, the nuclear issue which was once a taboo has become a more frequent topic of discussion. While domestic media outlets still have to add the word "alleged" when referring to the nuclear stockpile, the pros and cons of Israel's WMD capabilities, from the perspective of the state's national interests, are often discussed and internal criticism of the ambiguity is not hard to find. Parliament members still cannot publicly attest to the existence of WMD, but on June 18 an unprecedented discussion on the subject of nuclear weapons and nuclear activity was held at Israel's parliament.
| Public discourse about Israel's WMD policies is on the rise [Credit: Israeli Disarmament Movement]
"The goal was to put the issue on the Knesset agenda for the first time in the Knesset’s history," explained Tamar Zandberg, a politician from the leftwing Meretz party who monitored the meeting.
"We have to first of all be aware of the dangers. We have to know the implications of what is called a low-scale nuclear war," Zandberg said, tip-toeing around any official acknowledgment of the WMD programme. "We should have responsibility for the region, for what is going on here, and at least know what is going on. That is something that has never been discussed in Israel."
Informing the Israeli public of nuclear issues and creating discourse about WMD is the main goal of the Israeli Disarmament Movement, a social justice group. Raising nuclear awareness in Israel is not easy according to the movement's founder, Sharon Dolev, because many people believe the secrecy is essential for national security.
"The people are curious but they feel they don’t have the right to talk about it," said Dolev, adding that in protests, when they hands out flyers with information about the dangers of nuclear weapons, she often receives negative responses. "Some people come and ask me not to speak. They think the fact that I speak is putting Israel in danger."
While the timing depends on the outcome of the standoff over Iran's nuclear programme, some analysts believe the US is bound to eventually apply pressure on Israel to acknowledge its WMD stockpile. Haaretz’s senior security correspondent Amir Oren recently suggested the current conditions in the region are ripe for such a move, adding that wise Israeli policy could deliver assets in exchange for giving up nuclear ambiguity.
Israeli-born Avner Cohen, Professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, has been for years advocating for an end to the ambiguity, calling it an untenable and unacceptable policy. He believes Israel is ready to make such a move but emphasises it should be done as part of a regional agreement.
"Dropping the ambiguity policy must be done in a responsible way," Cohen said. "You have to coordinate that with others, and you have to find the right political moment for it."
Between growing external and internal pressure, the right political moment for Israel to drop its ambiguity might be just around the corner. If it doesn’t take the initiative, its hand might be forced.
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