What About Israel’s Nuclear Bomb?
After Bibi Netanyahu’s provocative speech to Congress, The New York Times provided helpful clarifications in an article headlined “What Iran Won’t Say About the Bomb.” Written by two superbly expert reporters, William Broad and David Sanger, the piece walked through the technical complexities for non-experts (myself included) and explained key questions Iranians have failed to answer.
But this leads me to ask a different question: What about Israel’s bomb? Why isn’t that also part of the discussion?
In the flood of news stories about Iran’s nuclear intentions, I have yet to see mention of Israel’s nuclear arsenal (if I missed some mentions, they must have been rare).
Yet Israel’s bomb is obviously relevant to the controversy. The facts are deliberately murky, but Israel has had nuclear weapons for at least forty years, though it has never officially acknowledged their existence. The Israeli diplomatic approach has been called “nuclear ambiguity.”
I asked a friend who’s a national-security correspondent in Washington why news stories don’t mention Israel’s bomb. He shrugged off my question. “Because everybody knows that,” he said. Probably that’s true among policy elites and politicians, though I am not so sure this is widely known among average Americans.
In any case, if everyone knows Israel has the bomb, why not acknowledge this in the public debate?
I asked another friend (a well-informed journalist sympathetic to the Palestinian cause) why reporters don’t talk about the Israeli bomb. “Groupthink,” he said. “It’s almost as though Israel gets a bye from the media.”
The Iranians, he added, have raised the issue of the Israeli bomb many times in the past, but their complaints were generally ignored in the Western press. Iranian diplomats pointed out that Iran has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and submits to international inspections as the treaty requires (though Iran still hides stuff, as The New York Times account described). Israel has never signed the NPT and therefore does not submit to inspections.
My point is, the existence of Israel’s nuclear superiority is clearly a pivotal fact of life in the chaotic conflicts and occasional wars of the Middle East. It should not be left out.
Israel’s bomb might be an important factor in motivating Iran to seek a nuclear bomb of its own (though Iran denies that intention). It might also be the subtext for Netanyahu’s bellicose warnings and his occasional calls for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Bibi’s country would lose valuable leverage if it no longer had a nuclear monopoly in the region. Yet it might be considered a provocative act if Israel bluntly acknowledged its nuclear arsenal.
According to Wikipedia’s account, largely based on scholarly sources, Israel has seventy-five to 400 bombs (others say it is more like 100 to 200). It has never threatened to use them anywhere, though during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 Israeli leaders put eight of its nuclear-armed F-4’s on alert. Its adversaries no doubt got the word.
Other nations with nukes are Pakistan, India and North Korea as well as the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France. The United States is the only nation that has ever used atomic bombs on people in another nation—Japan at the close of World War II.
The Center for Public Integrity in Washington published an article in September 2014 by Douglas Birch and Jeffrey Smith that described the tangled history of Israel’s poorly kept secret. Some scholars, they wrote, complained that the lack of candor complicates efforts to confront Iran, since the US government cooperates in the pretense of not knowing.
Back in 2009, President Obama was asked about whether Israel possessed nuclear bombs. “With respect to nuclear weapons, you know, I don’t want to speculate,” the president said. In US terms, it is an official secret. The government can even prosecute people with security clearance if they tell the truth to the American public.
In a sense, Israel’s nukes have been like an “invisible hand” that warns hostile neighbors and keeps them from going too far. At the same time, however, Israel adopted an “option of pre-emption”—attacking neighbors like Iraq and Syria with non-nuclear bombs if they seemed to be developing nuclear arms.
Israel’s essential rationale was described by various sources cited by Wikipedia: “It cannot afford to lose a single war and thus must prevent them by maintaining deterrence including the option of preemption.”
That brings the story back around to Bibi. For roughly twenty years, Netanyahu has now and then called for bombing Iran to crumple its nuclear intentions. The Obama administration is attempting to accomplish the same result peacefully, through negotiations.
As Juan Cole has written in The Nation, that may be a false choice, because Israeli intelligence and a former defense minister have admitted that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. Cole explained: “Nuclear weapons are in any case defensive, not offensive, and Iran could not deploy a bomb (if it had one, which it doesn’t) against Israel because the Israelis would retaliate by wiping Iran off the map,”
In other words, even if Tehran were to acquire nukes, it could not use them against Israel. Both nations would become prisoners of the stalemate that ruled the United States and Soviet Union for forty years during the Cold War. The doctrine was known as Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD for short.
That’s an unsatisfying result for the hawks in Israel but also the hawks in the United States. Remember Senator John McCain singing his light-hearted little ditty? “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran.”
Isn’t talk-talk preferable to risking massive human slaughter and the destruction of nations? The war party in Washington evidently doesn’t think so. Inspired by Bibi, wannabe warriors are brutally trashing their American president. Their logic assumes the mullahs in Tehran are crazy fanatics and that crazy people are not deterred by the prospect of self-destruction.
If Obama’s negotiations fail or Republican meddling derails them, then Americans would face the ultimate question. Do we really want to go to war—again—in the Middle East? Israel might face a different question. Do Israeli citizens really want to bomb Iran if their American friends say, No, thanks—this time you’re on your own?
Maybe the Times reporters, Broad and Sanger, could do another article about the Israeli bomb that has been absent from the debate.
William Greider is national affairs correspondent for The Nation, and has been a political journalist for more than thirty-five years. A former Rolling Stone and Washington Post editor, he is the author of The Soul of Capitalism (Simon & Schuster).
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