Foes of nuclear proliferation got two disturbing bits of news last month.
One was the May 26 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which said Iran has not been candid about its uranium enrichment program and that it has serious concerns about alleged research into nuclear weapons.
The other news was less official but perhaps more sobering: Former President Jimmy Carter said Israel has at least 150 atomic weapons in its arsenal.
Carter responded to a question about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran during a news conference at a May 25 literary festival in Wales, U.K.
“The U.S. has more than 12,000 nuclear weapons; the Soviet Union (sic) has about the same; Great Britain and France have several hundred, and Israel has 150 or more,” Carter said, according to the BBC.
This off-handed reference to Israel’s nuclear capabilities was unusual for U.S. officials, who are usually mute on the issue. According to a May 26 story from BBC News, however, “most experts estimate that Israel has between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads, largely based on information leaked to the Sunday Times newspaper in the 1980s by Mordechai Vanunu, a former worker at the country’s Dimona nuclear reactor.”
U.S. officials usually follow Israel’s policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” which neither confirms nor denies Israel’s nuclear capacity. This is official deception and it has allowed Israel to ignore the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, as well as conventions on biological and chemical weapons.
So, while IAEA inspectors poke around incessantly in Iran, they are not even authorized to inspect Israel’s arsenal.
By adopting the Israeli policy of nuclear ambiguity, the United States can violate its own restrictions on aiding a nation with unauthorized weapons of mass destruction and continue to lavish billions in aid and military assistance to its Middle East ally. But how does this nuclear duplicity affect the prospects of peace in the Middle East?
Carter’s casual mention of Israel’s nukes seems to be just another of his attempts to bring more sanity to Middle East negotiations. In the current dustup over the IAEA Iran report, for example, wouldn’t it be reasonable to argue that Iran may seek nukes because one of its major adversaries is bristling with nuclear weapons and, as a recent Israeli bombing raid into Syria revealed, is increasingly trigger-happy?
This is a reasonable argument, but our relationship with Israel mutes it. We can’t publicly admit Israel possesses nukes, lest we be accused of hostility toward the Jewish state, which increasingly is equated to anti-Semitism. Thus, we have this astonishing spectacle of a former president (who in 1978 helped forge peace between Israel and Egypt) being charged as an anti-Semite – and a traitor, to boot.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, another figure who played a part in the historic 1978 Camp David agreement as Carter’s National Security Adviser, has also been attacked for his negative statements about some Israeli policies. Brzezinski is a foreign policy realist who also has expressed his strong support for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Some supporters of Israel have condemned Brzezinski for his criticism of the government’s unwillingness to compromise and its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Because of these positions, he said he has been vilified by some Jewish supporters of Israel who display a “McCarthyite tendency.”
On May 27, the London Telegraph quoted Brzezinski saying, “They operate not by arguing, but by slandering, vilifying, demonizing. They very promptly wheel out anti-Semitism. There is an element of paranoia in this inclination to view any serious attempt at a compromised peace as somehow directed against Israel.”
Brzezinski also has expressed support for professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, whose 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, decried the influence of Israeli lobbyist groups and angered many American Jews. For their critical analysis of how the lobby has warped U.S. foreign policy, Mearsheimer and Walt, both respected academics (at the University of Chicago and Harvard, respectively) have also been branded as anti-Semites.
The inability to discuss candidly the pros and cons of our nation’s Middle East policy – including the reality of Israel’s nuclear weapons – has limited our diplomatic options by tying us to an obscurantist strategy.
Averting our gaze from Israel’s nuclear cache may yield some short-range benefits, but ignoring reality is seldom a good policy.