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– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
News Analysis: Israeli Officials See Few Prospects for Arms Control
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Miles A. Pomper

Muslim governments often point to the willingness of the United States to tolerate Israel’s nuclear weapons program as evidence of a double standard. Most prominently, Iran has said that efforts to prevent it from building the capacity to enrich uranium are unfair in light of Israel’s assumed capabilities.

Similarly, part of Egypt’s motive in holding up the deliberations of a May international conference to review the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was an attempt to focus attention on Israel’s program (See ACT, July/August 2005).

But in a series of recent interviews in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israeli officials told Arms Control Today that their counterparts in Egypt and Iran often seem more intent on scoring diplomatic points than making concrete progress on arms control measures. They blame a lack of reciprocity from other states and a lack of interest from the United States for their failure to move forward on other arms control efforts, such as ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) or signing the Biological Weapons Convention.

As a result, there is little support in Israeli political circles for altering the policy of maintaining a substantial but secretive nuclear program. Nor is there a willingness to make concessions, such as permitting international inspections of Israel’s controversial Dimona reactor, even if they might aid a solution to the crisis over Iran’s program.

Israeli officials say that their current policy has served them well for almost four decades. They argue that, until there is a comprehensive Middle East peace, they need to maintain a nuclear hedge to protect them against such threats as existing Syrian chemical weapons, possible Iranian nuclear arms, and potential nuclear weapons programs in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

“Once it will be clear that Israel and the six million Jews in Israel are secured, like people in Holland feel secure today, then Israel will be ready to discuss an arms control regime or arrangement in the Middle East,” said Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset (Parliament) Foreign and Defense Committee. “Unfortunately, I don’t see this forthcoming in the near future.”

Instead, Israeli officials are sounding alarm bells about the potential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Although they vary in their assessments of Iranian capabilities and intentions, they agree that Israel cannot tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. They contend that Tehran, equipped with such weapons, would step up its support for anti-Israel terrorism, encourage other regional states to develop a similar capacity, and shatter the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

To forestall this possibility, Israeli officials are largely supportive (if skeptical) of current talks in which the European Union is seeking to convince Iran to forswear enriching uranium. But they are also pushing U.S. policymakers to consider sanctions and ultimately the use of military force if those talks fail.

U.S. officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney have invoked the threat of an Israeli attack if Iran proceeds to develop nuclear weapons, but Israeli officials are more guarded, warning that the high diplomatic and military costs and potentially limited military benefits of such an operation mean that it should only be considered as a last resort.

Israel’s Nuclear Program

Israel’s nuclear program was developed in the 1950s and 1960s when Israeli leaders feared they would lose a conventional arms race with their Arab neighbors. Time has proved those concerns to be unfounded. Boosted by billions of dollars in U.S. aid, Israel’s forces now far outclass those of other countries in the Middle East.

Moreover, current and former Israeli officials acknowledge that Israel’s strategic environment has changed substantially in the last few years, largely for the better.

“As far as the situation on the ground, we’ve never had it so good,” said Efraim Halevy, who formerly headed Israel’s National Security Council and the Mossad, Israel’s equivalent of the CIA.

The threat from one of Israel’s long-term strategic adversaries, Iraq, has been lifted, while an emerging problem in Libya has been defused. The removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon has weakened the danger from another of Israel’s long-term enemies, while the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq has more deeply tied the interests of Israel’s closest ally to the region.

Yet, even though not fully acknowledged in public, nuclear weapons are still viewed as the ultimate security policy in a country whose very existence has long been threatened.

“We don’t build our strength against the concrete contemporary ability of the Arabs today. We should maintain the superiority in a way which will give a prompt answer if something in the region is changed,” said Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister and current chairman of the Knesset Subcommittee on Security Perception. “At the moment that we are no more the strongest power between Baku and Casablanca, we would not exist.”

Under its policy of nuclear ambiguity, Israel does not publicly acknowledge or deny the existence of its nuclear weapons program. Instead, it sticks by its long-held promise that “it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.” Most Israeli officials privately characterize that as a pledge not to publicize or test already existing nuclear weapons capacity.

Israel is one of only three countries not to have signed the NPT; the other two, India and Pakistan, have tested nuclear weapons. Israel is believed to possess between 75 and 200 nuclear weapons.

Yet, Israeli officials dispute any parallels between their program and Iran’s nuclear efforts. They say that their stockpile is purely defensive. Meanwhile, they claim that while an Iranian arsenal might serve a deterrent purpose, it would also allow Iran to threaten Israel or at least provide Tehran with a nuclear umbrella under which it could step up aid to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border and Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

And they say that Israel’s small size and population compared to Muslim countries mean that its nuclear deterrent will not be effective against such a threat.

As evidence, they point frequently to a 2001 speech by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the runner-up in Iran’s June presidential elections: “If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything,” Rafsanjani said. “However, it will only harm the Islamic world.”

And Israeli officials point out that Rafsanjani was the moderate in the race and fear that the winner, Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will take an even tougher stand toward them.

Rather than attempt any direct diplomatic means of ending the threat, however, Israeli officials have sought to use their relationship with the United States and European countries as leverage in the dispute. In particular, they have pushed Western countries to impose sanctions on Iran’s oil and gas industries either directly or through the United Nations.

In the United States, pro-Israel groups are pushing legislation in Congress that would tighten current sanctions intended to punish countries that invest in Iran and that would seek to build a democratic opposition to the clerical regime in Tehran. A majority of House members have signed on as co-sponsors of a bill introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

Most Israeli officials support the EU talks with Iran as a possible means of slowing Iran’s nuclear timetable. Most also believe, however, that such talks are unlikely to prove fruitful and will certainly only be successful if Iran is convinced that the alternative is very costly.

“If the Iranians tend to believe that the Western world is not going to allow them to become nuclear, they might give up in advance,” Steinitz said, “because why suffer isolation, sanctions, a blockade, and maybe even the threat of aerial bombardments or something like that. Why suffer through those things if you’re going to fail anyway?”

Other Regional Issues

Israel’s tensions with other countries in the region are less acute but still substantial. Israeli officials fear they could worsen if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, with Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia often cited as countries that could follow suit.

Yet, Israeli officials say that they cannot hold arms control talks with countries such as Syria that do not recognize Israel’s right to exist.

“How do you construct some kind of regional arms control mechanism with a state that says you shouldn’t exist? Who do you deal with?” asked one senior Israeli official.

Egypt and Israel, on the other hand, have had more than two decades of peace. Yet, the two still have had a great deal of difficulty making progress on arms control issues.

Egyptian officials say that arms control measures should move in tandem with the peace process rather than follow it.

In a June 16 interview with Arms Control Today, Maged Abdelaziz, the permanent representative of Egypt to the United Nations, said other countries cannot be asked to give up all of their weapons before Israel gives up its nuclear weapons. There has to be a “balanced implementation of commitments,” he said.

But Israeli officials say that their neighbors have resisted arms control discussions unless Israel first pledges to give up its nuclear weapons.

For example, they blamed Egypt for pulling out from a planned late-January forum that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei had agreed on last year. The meeting would have discussed nuclear-weapon-free zones and the possible relevance of creating such a zone in the Middle East. They noted that the Egyptian decision came as ElBaradei was chiding Egypt for failing to disclose small-scale facilities, materials, and experiments to the IAEA. (See ACT, March 2005.)

Likewise, they say that the failure of previous Israeli arms control initiatives to win reciprocal gestures from their neighbors has discouraged further moves. For example, after signing the CWC in 1993, Israeli officials have opted not to ratify it because Syria is believed to have substantial holdings of chemical weapons and has not signed the treaty.

In other areas, the Bush administration’s lack of support for some multilateral arms control treaties has apparently prompted the Israelis not to support or move forward on some agreements.

For example, Israel signed the CTBT in 1996 and had been considering ratifying the agreement if certain details about the treaty’s on-site inspection provisions could be ironed out. Particularly, Israel sought assurance that verification measures would not allow foreign inspectors access to Israeli national security facilities beyond those required to carry out their mission. Israeli officials say a norm against testing is in their national interest because it might help prevent other countries from matching Israel’s arsenal.

But Israel’s eagerness to ratify the treaty has changed since the Bush administration made clear that it would not seek Senate ratification of the CTBT. Israel’s stated policy has not changed, but senior Israeli officials and outside experts say Israel will not risk upsetting its allies in Washington by ratifying the CTBT while the current administration is in office.

Likewise, Israel in 1998 reluctantly allowed negotiations to begin on a proposed fissile material cutoff treaty that would seek to end the production of highly enriched uranium or plutonium for military purposes. Israeli officials have never been thrilled with the proposed agreement for fear it would require them to end their policy of nuclear ambiguity, particularly in regard to the Dimona reactor.

Now they claim to be concerned that it would also benefit Iran by helping to enshrine the civilian production of such materials as a legal right, a position that Iran has embraced in relation to the NPT and that U.S. and Israeli officials have rejected. The Iranian challenge has also meant that the Bush administration’s push against requiring verification provisions in the accord has not been greeted warmly in Israel.

Frustrated by regional and multilateral arms control discussions, Israeli officials say they are trying to take steps on their own to contribute to nonproliferation efforts, in particular by embracing the rules of international export control regimes as domestic law. These include the Nuclear Suppliers Group; the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR); and the Australia Group, which governs materials that could be used in the production of chemical and biological weapons.

Israel has been blocked from joining the regimes per se because most want members to have ratified related multilateral treaties. For example, MTCR members want candidates to have ratified the NPT. Israeli officials say they do not want to apply to the regimes and be rejected, for fear of generating a backlash. “We are not going to do it unless we are sure the answer will be positive,” said one Israeli official.