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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.

Thirty-eight heads of state are gathering in Washington for Barack Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit. But Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is not among them. Israel is one of only nine nations represented by lesser government figures. The official reason, according to Israeli  press reports: Egypt, Turkey and other Middle Eastern states “intend to exploit the occasion in order to slam Israel” over its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

However, as the  perceptive observer of U.S.-Israel relations Daniel Levy points out, that’s bound to be a theme at the White House summit in any event. At every such meeting for years, the Arab states have called for a nuclear-free Middle East and complained that Israel does not merely refuse to join the NPT; it refuses to admit what the whole world knows: Israel alone, of all Middle East nations, already has a nuclear arsenal. Netanyahu’s absence calls attention to the issue even more than his presence.

But is anyone paying attention to the American role in this part of the nuclear drama? The Obama administration says it wants to make the world more secure by reducing nuclear weapons. Yet the U.S. still goes along with Israel’s evasions, blocking the path to a nuclear-free Middle East.

According to a  report from Israel’s Yediot Aharonot, Ellen Tauscher, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, told Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon that “the U.S. will strive to protect its allies and work against countries which violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) such as North Korea, or countries that fail to meet their commitments to the international community such as Iran. The under secretary of state stressed that Washington will adopt a ‘calculated ambiguity’ policy towards countries which do not pose a threat to the U.S. Despite not explicitly pointing to Israel, it appears her statements were meant to reassure the Jewish state.”

Why would the U.S. help Israel evade the NPT and nuclear disarmament? Most progressives will offer a quick simple answer: the much-dreaded “Israel lobby.” The Israel lobby in Washington is certainly a potent force. But it is  beginning to fade, becoming an ever-smaller part of the picture.

As journalist Mark Perry  recently revealed, the Israel lobby is finally meeting its match in an even stronger force, the Pentagon: “No lobby is as important, or as powerful, as the U.S. military" -- especially to a Democratic president with no military experience or credentials of his own.

From the U.S. military's viewpoint, Israel’s nukes must look like much more trouble than they are worth. General “King David” Petraeus himself  has warned that "the enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our [U.S.] interests” in the Greater Middle East. "The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel,” putting U.S. troops in danger.

What could be more obvious, and more infuriating, evidence of that favoritism than the hypocrisy of U.S. policy -- demanding painful sanctions to stop Iran’s imagined future nuclear capacity while turning a blind eye, for decades, to Israel’s all-too-real arsenal.

If Israel fired even one of its nukes in an act of war, it would set off an excruciating chain of dilemmas for U.S. policymakers that might extend for years, over thousands of miles. The prospect is almost too frightening to contemplate. But planners at the Pentagon and the National Security Council have to take it very seriously as long as Israel has those weapons of mass destruction.

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