WASHINGTON — It goes without saying that Israel should be prepared to defend herself against all external military threats. She is a country that understands the neighborhood in which she lives, has been through the challenge of fighting too many wars, and needs to ensure that she is well — prepared for any potential military conflict.
It also goes without saying that the United States should do its utmost to support Israeli security.
Yet when it comes to the issue of nuclear weapons, Israel’s policy of nuclear “strategic ambiguity,” which means that it neither confirms nor denies having a nuclear weapons capability, is undermining this goal.
This policy belongs to the past, not to the 21st century. It should be discarded.
We are living in an era of transparency, one that requires all countries to play by the same rules. And when it comes to nuclear weapons, the rules are becoming increasingly clear.
In particular, the international community, with strong support from the Obama administration, is aggressively seeking to counteract the spread of nuclear weapons through international agreements, such as the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which limits the spread of nuclear weapons. When combined with strong national actions, the NPT can be very effective at advancing both American and Israeli security concerns about nuclear weapons.
Within the NPT, there are five countries — the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain — that have declared themselves as nuclear powers and have committed to living up to international standards as signatories to the NPT.
Outside of the NPT there are three countries that have rejected the treaty — India, Pakistan and North Korea — that have nuclear weapons, with North Korea actually having renounced the NPT after having initially signed it.
Then there’s Iran, who while being a signatory of the NPT — in bad standing — is suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapon.
And lastly, there’s Israel, who occupies a strange no man’s land, where it has neither signed up to the NPT, nor declared a nuclear arsenal, yet is widely suspected of having these weapons.
This situation — that Israel is believed to possess a nuclear arsenal yet remains outside the internationally accepted norms — has led to a very complicated policy dance for the Obama administration during the past two months as it has simultaneously attempted to promote international cooperation against nuclear weapons while thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Complicating the administration’s efforts is the challenge that because Israel is avoiding answering tough questions about its nuclear program, while Iran is required to do so, the administration’s efforts are becoming tougher to sell internationally. This matters, as collective international action is the best path to pressuring Iran on its nuclear program.
So why is Israel still maintaining a policy of strategic ambiguity? It appears that Israel believes that the main benefit is that it’s keeping its adversaries guessing while avoiding international scrutiny.
But it’s doubtful that anyone in the Middle East really believes that Israel doesn’t possess nuclear weapons, and increased scrutiny would not mean that Israel would be required to disarm.
In addition, Israel’s position hampers its security because it makes it harder for the United States to enlist other countries in the effort to deny Iran a nuclear bomb. Witness this month’s U.N. conference on the renewal of the NPT in New York. One of the consistent stumbling blocks harming American efforts to rally global opinion against Iran’s nuclear program has been the failure of Israel to be transparent about its nuclear capabilities, which is often cited as an excuse to avoid pressuring Iran.
Specifically, the failure of clarity on this issue has opened up both Israel and the United States to ridicule, as well as to claims of hypocrisy, for avoiding accountability on this question while seeking to require accountability by others, such as Iran.
Let me be clear: Iran deserves to be held to the highest standard of accountability and Israel has many good reasons to possess nuclear weapons. Yet the problem here is not that Israel may have nuclear weapons. The problem is that Israel is not being transparent about its capabilities, ceding the moral high ground to its opponents for no clear security benefit.
If Israel wants the international community to strongly counteract the Iranian nuclear program — as it should —then it has to help the United States and its allies to make the case for action.
Israel should therefore take this issue off the table. It should either sign up to the NPT or invite in international inspectors and have the confidence to be transparent about its program, without fearing a requirement to disarm. Doing so would electrify the international community, would undercut the arguments of its adversaries, and would build new supporters for its arguments against Iran.
Besides, no one believes the ambiguity anymore, so why not end the charade and try the alternative?
(Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the National Security Network.)