Israel's nukes missing from the table
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
With the one-day peace summit in Annapolis in the United States failing to produce any tangible results, save a general agreement to more marathon talks until the end of 2008, sure to try the patience of long-suffering Palestinians, the summit's other agenda to rally the "peacemakers" against the "troublemakers" deserves critical scrutiny. This is partly because of Israel's self-serving fallacy that Middle East nuclear proliferation can be effectively stalled in the absence of any meaningful initiative on its part.
And why not, seeing how the compliant US media's list of "most contentious Mideast issues", to borrow the title of one report on the conference, does not even mention Israel's nuclear arsenal as an item of interest.
The summit at the US Naval Academy of representatives from over 50 nations and international groups under the leadership of US President George W Bush announced the formation of a steering committee towards the establishment of a Palestinian state and biweekly meetings between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It was agreed to make "every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008".
In terms Israel's nuclear weapons, Western governments and the media may have a benign perception of them as purely defensive to secure Israel against external "existential threats". But the Muslim population of the Middle East and their rulers may be excused if they conform to a vastly different perception, that Israel's nukes are evil, constantly threatening them and even blackmailing them.
"We have to worry about Israel first," Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said at the peace conference, adding that this was a "separate priority from the question of whether Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction or interfering in Iraq". Such Arab sentiments contain at least an implicit worry about Israel's nukes that sword-like pierce through the Arabs' self-confidence, as it reminds them of their subordinate status in the regional system.
The "perception gap" over Israel's nuclear weapons has been widening as a result of Israel "coming out of closet" with its nukes, essentially since the 1991 Gulf War, when Israel threatened a nuclear attack on the Iraqis if they put chemical or biological warheads on their scud missiles fired at Israel.
More recently, the ever-present "Iran threat" has seemingly pushed Israel to compromise its self-imposed opacity - or ambiguity - in favor of occasional forays into nuclear visibility, both to deter adversaries and to continue with its traditional reliance on its nuclear power as complementary to its regional "power projection".
Not to worry, Israeli officials and their formidable media admirers in the West insist, because Israel's nukes are for the "regional good" and, somehow, serve "regional peace". The idea of Israel's weapons of mass destruction as a regional "collective good" sounds appealing, except when seen through the prism of its neighbors and "near neighbors". They, though physically apart from Israel, nonetheless harbor national-security worries caused by Israel's ever-growing reliance on its nuclear arsenal for an "out-of-area" power projection, legitimated by the convenient nomenclature of the "Greater Middle East".
As the first country to have introduced nuclear weapons in the Middle East, Israel bears the lion's share of responsibility for triggering the volatile region into the bosom of proliferation tendencies, albeit with the false, delusional notion that Israel can forever be the monopolizer of that tendency. And this by sheer force if need be, as was the case with Israel's 1981 destruction of Iraq's power plant in Ossirak and, subsequently, Israel's successful prodding of the US to invade Iraq in order to nip in the bud Iraq's suspected nuclear genie.
Following the same perverted logic, Israel is now sowing the seeds of a similar US gambit against Iran, that is, another US proxy war to guarantee Israel's nuclear monopoly.
On the surface, things look different. Israel is officially committed to a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, as soon as there is a lasting "peace" and its nuclear weapons are not "offensive" but rather purely "defensive". In reality, however, with its bunker-buster, laser-guided "smart" nukes, its long-range missiles and its nuclear-based "geostrategic depth", Israel is deeply wedded on a doctrinal level to the idea of "nuclear hegemony" as part and parcel of the ruling Zionist ideology.
Yet, that Israel operates on an ossified nuclear worldview can be seen in the fact that it still relies on the pre-independence State of Emergency regulations of 1945 to safeguard its nuclear activities, as if the world had stood still in the post World War II era. The sheer absence of the minutest nuclear transparency in Israel, breached by the "Vanunu affair"  in the mid-1980s, reflects a society stuck in the past, clinging to a pre-globalization state of mind that perpetuates a "fortress Israel", as if it is an island immune from globalization's net of interdependencies.
This is, indeed, the tragic paradox of Israel, whose nuclear program remains oceans away from the slightest notion of democratic accountability and control, and whose leaders continue to stick their heads in the sand, refusing to admit their role in triggering Middle East nuclear proliferation. They all the time believe that their nuclear buildup has brought Israel strategic security when, in fact, the exact opposite is true - it has substantially increased Israel's strategic vulnerabilities.
From Annapolis to Israel's post-opacity
"It is time to end the boycott and alienation toward the state of Israel," Olmert urged the Arab representatives at the Annapolis summit. Short on specifics and heavy in symbol-wielding, Olmert's performance reminds one of the countless cases of Israeli dissimulation, whereby clever delay tactics are used as substitutes for genuine efforts toward a just resolution of Palestinian issues.
Never mind the atrocious living conditions in Gaza due to Israel's restrictions decried by the United Nations relief agencies, or the fact that Israel's policy of illegal settlements in the West Bank has continued unabated despite the "peace talks". Israel is, after all, the peacemaker, according to a Washington Post writeup that adopts without questioning the White House's spin that today the balance of power is not in favor of ''peacemakers'' but rather the "troublemakers". These are headed by the "rogue" Iran that "exploits unresolved tensions".
Implicitly, then, instead of a viable peace solution, what Israel has offered the Arab world in Annapolis is an "umbrella" protection
against the (Shi'ite) Iranian menace. Henceforth, in light of Iran's defiance of the UN's demands to halt its controversial nuclear work, we should expect an increasingly unambiguous Israeli nuclear posture that compensates for Israel's policy shortcomings with regard to the Palestinians by the added value of anti-Iran deterrence, supposedly cherished by the conservative Arab states, especially in the Persian Gulf region.
Much of this amounts to wishful thinking, a recipe for disaster,
both for Israel and the US superpower underwriting its security for so many decades, particularly since the famed Richard Nixon-Golda Meir meeting of 1969 when Nixon reportedly conceded Israel's nuclear status as long as it remained "unadvertised".
That was then, and what Israel has increasingly learnt is the prestige-enhancing value of discretely advertising its nuclear weapons, on a par with France and Great Britain, and thus it acquires global status. This for an otherwise tiny state, lacking geographic depth and suffering from "cruelty of nature", to paraphrase David Ben Gurion, Israel's first premier.
But, what price liberating itself from the confines of nature by relying on the ultimate weapons of mass destruction? And is it not a case of self-bondage in other ways, by permanently marking Israel the target of would-be-proliferators in the region, who are unwilling to sacrifice their national-security interests imperiled by Israel's nuclear monopoly?
Unfortunately, when it comes to nuclear issues, Israel is a hermetical, closed society, except in the context of debating other countries' nuclear policies and potentials. In other words, the "nuclear insurance policy" in Israel is also an insurance policy against full-fledged democracy. It is a nuclear elitism in which only a select group of civil and military leaders enjoy the total monopoly of nuclear decision-making, outside the purview of their legislature, formal budgetary processes or public discourse. The latter is absent because of the article of faith concerning the wholly beneficial role and function of nuclear weapons, as the ultimate weapons of the nation's survival. This, again, reflecting a naive nuclearism that, ironically, self-promotes as clever strategem. That is, falsely believing that, to quote a well-known pro-Israeli US pundit, Louis Rene Beres, that with nuclear weapons, "Israel could deter unconventional attacks and most large conventional aggression."
Beres also mentions Israel's ability to launch pre-emptive strikes at its adversaries as yet another advantage, presumably since the ones attacked would hold back from retaliating due to fears of Israel's nuclear prowess, which sustains Israel's peace "rejectionism", to paraphrase US political activist and author Noam Chomsky, by giving it a false sense of invincibility.
Clearly, the need for an Israeli nuclear house-cleaning is long overdue and the avalanche of seemingly pro-Israel rationalizations such as Beres's do not help. Rather, they help only in perpetuating Israel's self-imprisonment in a pre-modern, 19th-century military calculus that informed the Zionist leaders' worldview - through an unreconstructed ethos of kdushat habitachon (the sacredness of security).
In light of the above, Israel cannot have its cake and eat it too, on the one hand giving lip service to the connectivity of genuine peace with its nuclear proliferation and, on the other, pretending to be serious about peace, as it has just done in Annapolis. And this without showing any initiative on what the rest of the Middle East considers to be a highly contentious issue, namely, its nuclear monopoly.
In fact, wily-nily the Israeli debates on Iran's nuclear proliferation have had the beginning effect of breaking an old taboo on Israel's own arsenal, and which needs to be articulated more forcefully into a national discourse. The old bombs-in-the-basement attitude has had as its complement a debased mentality that glosses over the fact that in today's Middle East, national-security issues are interlinked and the manifest or latent threats posed by Israel's nuclear proliferation have built up the momentum for wider proliferation.
What Israel lacks today is, in a word, a counter-proliferation momentum that is not solely other-focused and that does not adhere to a defunct view of things as inherently discrete and separate. They are not, and the liabilities of the homogenous nuclear thinking in Israel, in inadvertently fomenting the region's proliferation impulse, are now beginning to show themselves.
Thus the paradoxical, contradictory influence of the "Iran threat" on Israel's nuclear posture, doctrine and public embrace of that doctrine, hitherto taken for granted, in entrenching many Israelis into even more hardcore nuclearists, just as their old taboo of openly discussing their nuclear policies is breaking down.
The side-effects of the Iran nuclear crisis, in pushing the issue of Israel's arsenal more to the foreground and, as in the case of feeble attempts at the UN to link the two through emphasis on a nuclear-free zone in the region, only mean that sooner of later the Israeli public will have to reckon with the international community's demand for the end of Israeli exceptionalism and Israel's playing by the rules of the non-proliferation regime. This, in turn, points at the other side of the post-opacity coin, namely, the end of the taboo on Israel's non-disarmament.
Concerning the latter, the recent US-India nuclear deal, justified by US officials in the name of bringing India within the bounds of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has a distinct potential to extend to Israel - as with India - the prospect that aspects of its nuclear program could be subject to international monitoring.
The Atomic Energy Agency's toolboxes of inspection and verification cannot be effective in the region as long as Israel continues to evade them. thus raising the consistent complaints of double standards and hypocrisy. This particularly on the part of Western nations that demand the disarmament of Iran from even the "knowledge to produce nuclear weapons" while turning a blind eye on Israel's relentless nuclear weaponization.
Inevitably, Israel's path to durable peace must be paved with good nuclear intentions, yet this is completely missing today.
1. Mordechai Vanunu is an Israeli former nuclear technician who revealed details of Israel's nuclear weapons program to the British press in 1986. He was subsequently abducted in Rome by Israeli agents and smuggled to Israel, where he was tried and convicted of treason. He spent 18 years in prison before being released in 2004.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.
(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)