Israel?s Nukes Under Attack (Again)

Posted: Jul 14, 2004 12:00 AM

In the latest fit of diplomatic moral equivalence, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week visited Israel, attempting to persuade the Jewish state to declare formally its nuclear capability?eventually leading to a supposedly nuclear arms-free Middle East.

Under utopian scenarios, perhaps Israel?s unilateral disarmament could lead to lasting Middle East peace.  But not when the Iranian mullahs?themselves a nuclear power or soon-to-be one?pledge ?Death to Israel? and when even one of the two Arab governments officially to recognize Israel, Egypt, openly foments rabid anti-Semitism.

Of course from Israel?s vantage point?knowing that almost the entire Arab world prefer its annihilation, and the rest probably wouldn?t mind it?the only answer would seem to be maintaining the status quo.  Being the dominant nuclear power in the region is a powerful deterrent, not to mention a display of strength that engenders respect, though not affection, from neighboring states.

But what does Israel do as its enemies go nuclear?  After all, the nature of nukes is such that a country doesn?t need to catch up to Israel in order to be a threat.

One fairly novel proposal comes from arms control expert Henry Sokolski.  The eccentric and undeniably bright former Bush administration official believes that Israel could take a leadership role toward ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction through its own actions.  (This and similar proposals will soon be on the website of his group, the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, at

Sokolski is not silly enough to suggest unilateral disarmament, nor is he na? enough to believe that Israel?s nukes are behind the motivations of Iran?s and Arab states? nuclear pursuits.  But he does think Israel possesses incredible leverage as a result of its nuclear arsenal and could use that influence to force the hand of its Muslim neighbors.

The first step would be for Israel to mothball Dimona, its main nuclear facility.  Sokolski?s reasoning is that since a facility as old as Dimona either has to be shuttered or rebuilt?at an overwhelming cost?Israel would benefit more by allowing the IAEA to monitor the mothballing and consequently altering the political dynamic.

?Israel could then announce how much fissionable material it has produced and put it under escrow (in Israel) with a country it trusts, such as the U.S.,? Sokolski says.  The idea would be that by taking the moral lead, the Jewish state would force countries such as Algeria, Egypt, and Iran into the diplomatic hotseat?all without Israel having to engage in formal talks or negotiations with Iran or Arab nations.

He argues that with US and EU coordination, even Russia can be cajoled into pressuring Iran to start behaving better.  More than anything, though, Israel taking the lead toward reduction would set the political trajectory for Iran and the Arab world in the right direction. 

?There are no guarantees of results, but boy, the heat sure would be intense, much more than it is right now,? Sokolski notes.

What about stateless terrorists?  Sokolski argues that the only way terrorists could get nukes is from a state, and Israel?s nuclear arms wouldn?t be much of a deterrent for terrorists anyway.

Sokolski maintains that all this could be done while preserving the longstanding policy of nuclear ambiguity.  Though the rest of the world knows Israel has nukes?in large part because of top-secret material leaked in 1986 by Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu?making such an announcement would send unnecessary shockwaves.

Though it may not force the hands of Iran and Arab states, as even Sokolski admits, the proposal nonetheless merits serious consideration, particularly since Israel would still maintain its arsenal.  But even if every bad actor is pressured into playing nice, inspections are inherently imperfect.  Iran has already duped the IAEA, for example, and it continues to openly flout the watchdog agency.

The problem is simple: tyrannies can?t be trusted.  Since even the best of inspections are imperfect, trust has to be at the core of any such agreement. 

Arab tyrants have a lethal history of using chemical weapons?Iraq against Iran and Egypt against the North Yemenis?and Israel?s nukes may have been the primary deterrent that kept Saddam from launching chemical-laced Scuds at Tel Aviv during the Gulf War. 

But history also tells us that free societies?of which Israel stands as the Middle East?s sole representative?don?t develop WMDs for offensive purposes.  South Africa, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina all shuttered their WMD and/or nuclear programs upon becoming democracies in the 1980?s.

The only true solution, then, is something over which Israel ultimately has little control: the spread of freedom in the Middle East.