Magazine article Insight on the News

Israel's Nuclear Statement Resonates Sound of Silence

Magazine article Insight on the News

Israel's Nuclear Statement Resonates Sound of Silence

Article excerpt

Israel's nuclear policy, ever since U.S. monitors discovered the Dimona Reactor in the Negev in 1961, has been consistent and unchanging, an exercise in existential "bomb-in-the-basement" policy. Crudely put, this opaque nuclear attitude leaves nations guessing whether Israel has the capability to produce a nuclear bomb, and if so, whether it has in fact produced a bomb, while at the same time emphasizing that Israel would never be the first to use the bomb. Over a decade ago, a renegade Dimona technician told one newspaper that Israel possessed more than 300 bombs, a fact never verified and absolutely denied by Israel.

Israel's long-standing policy is now being challenged by Egypt, which is threatening to refuse to sign on for the renewal of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, or NPT, for another 25 years. (The NPT expires in May.) In fact, Egypt is urging Arab, Muslim and Third World "neutralist" countries to refrain from signing the treaty automatically -- or not to sign at all until Israel does. That posture has angered Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his arms negotiator, David Ivry

Egypt's reasons for this stance are several and not without merit. Beginning in 1974, and then in 1979 after the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty was signed, Israel promised, according to leading Egyptian diplomats, to declare itself to be a nuclear state or at least to join a regional nuclear-free-zone arrangement. Both of these options would have required Israel to change its bomb-in-the-basement policy. Egyptian leaders and top diplomats argue that Israel, having signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and now negotiating peace arrangements with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Syria and Lebanon, does not need to keep the Middle East nuclear structure unstable. Nations, they argue, cannot tolerate uncertainty.

The question is not that Middle East leaders -- or U.S. leaders, for that matter -- have any doubts that Israel is a nuclear power. The uncertainties surround Israel's nuclear intentions, which is precisely what makes the Israel policy a deterrent in and of itself. The Egyptians also argue that after 30 years of existence, the Dimona nuclear reactors suffer from material fatigue and must be closed, if not forever at least until new ones are built. They see this as an opportune time for Israel to declare its arsenal and intentions by signing the NPT. They also argue that their demands on Israel are not unreasonable and that they are in tune with the spirit of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and his idea of the emergence of a new Middle East, whose aspirations and hopes lie in economic arenas, not in military ones.

Israel has said it will not announce a new bomb policy, at least not until all of Israel's rivals and neighbors -- Syria, Lebanon and the PLO -- have signed treaties with Israel. Moreover, Israel also insists that its existential foes -- Iran and Iraq -- make clear the extent and intentions of their nuclear power. Everyone, of course, has known of Iraq's pre-gulf war nuclear ambitions and Israel's destruction of Iraq's Osiris nuclear reactor. Iran's ambition and efforts to become a nuclear power in less than a decade also are clear. The ayatollahs' Iran is Israel's most implacable enemy. …

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