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Why Does the U.S. Let Israel Get Away With Having a Nuclear Arsenal?

The Obama administration says it wants to reduce nuclear weapons, yet it goes along with Israel's evasions, blocking the path to a nuclear-free Middle East.

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Nations may jump from one side of the moral fence to the other; Russia and China are obvious cases in point. (Remember when their nukes were “bad" nukes?) But no nation can get stuck in the middle, because there is no middle. No neutrals need apply. 

So when it comes to Israel, there can be moral ambiguity about its policies in the West Bank and Gaza, leaving plenty of room for American pressure, negotiation and compromise. But Israel’s weapons of mass destruction will continue to be treated as “good" nukes, because the only alternative is to lump them together with Iran’s and North Korea’s weapons as bad nukes. Then we would have to treat Israel as a "bad" country.

Even if the Israel lobby dissolved tomorrow, that would be too big a political leap for any American president to take. It would require a wholesale rewriting of the entire script of U.S. Middle East policy. (Not to mention the religious questions that might trouble a lot of American Christians more than many American Jews.)

More than that, it would open up an uncontrollable grab-bag of questions about other nations: If Israel WMD become bad nukes, why not rewrite the story about Pakistan? The Pakistani government already gives us plenty of reason to be suspicious of its motives. Yet if the current Pakistani leaders become bad guys, how can we support their fight against the Taliban? Then the whole War on Terror script has to be revised.

And what about Russia and China? With the public’s doubts about both former enemies so deeply rooted, yet so close to the surface, how tempting it would be to put them back in the bad nukes category, which would seem much more natural to many Americans.

Behind all these questions lurks the most troubling one of all: If the U.S. can move nukes and nations back and forth between the good and bad categories at will, how can we be sure our nukes will always remain good nukes? There have always been eminently sensible voices in American public life explaining why no nukes are good nukes.

To call any part of the current mythic story into question could give those voices a greater hearing. Then the public might start thinking and talking about America’s own nuclear weapons not as symbols in a moral drama but as the literal realities they are: immensely dangerous weapons that are of no practical use to anyone and therefore ought to be abolished everywhere, including right here in the USA. 

Barack Obama is hardly the first president to say that he agrees with that conclusion -- in principle. But like all his predecessors, the steps he is taking, supposedly toward nuclear abolition, reinforce the moral drama that is such a great stumbling block to nuclear abolition. He has invited 47 "good" countries to Washington to figure out how to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of “bad" countries.

Counting Israel among the good countries perpetuates the mythic approach to nuclear weaponry as much as it perpetuates the Middle East stalemate and the anti-U.S. anger it stirs up.

That’s not to say Israel should be singled out as especially culpable for its nuclear ambiguity. There’s plenty of nuclear blame to go around. The U.S., with an infinitely greater nuclear arsenal -- some of it on hair-trigger alert -- bears the greatest responsibility for perpetuating the nuclear threat.

But the spotlight on Netanyahu’s absence in Washington is a stark reminder that peace is indivisible -- that the fate of Palestine, Israel and the Middle East cannot be separated from the fate of the earth in the continuing saga of the nuclear age. 

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