News & Politics

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.

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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.

On the other hand, if the threat of Israeli nuclear attack could somehow be erased, Iran would no longer have any rationale for pursuing nuclear weapons capability. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has declared: "We too demand that the Middle East be free of nuclear weapons; not only the Middle East, but the whole world should be free of nuclear weapons." Maybe he’s bluffing. But if there were no Israeli nuclear threat, and convincing evidence of an Iranian weapons program turned up, it would be far easier for the U.S. to gain world support for a powerful response.

How could a rational person, in the Pentagon or anywhere else, think that a nuclear arms race in the Middle East could promote U.S. security more than a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East? It would seem that the military lobby should outweigh the Israel lobby and lead the administration to call on Israel to admit its nuclear capability, join the NPT, and forswear use of the weapons forever.

But the administration is taking the opposite tack, which still leaves the question: Why would President Obama, despite all his fine talk about reducing the nuclear threat, continue a policy that seems to run against U.S. security interests? If top U.S. military leaders will publicly push the president, and the president will in turn push the Israelis, on the Palestinian issue, why not on Israel’s nukes? That puzzle has a lot of complicated pieces, no doubt.

But Ellen Tauscher’s words exhibit one crucial piece that is often overlooked in any discussion of U.S. nuclear policies. Those policies are all based on a premise that is so simple, and so widely taken for granted, that no one even bothers to say it: There are good nukes and bad nukes.

Good nukes are those possessed by “good" countries: the U.S., its allies, and “countries which do not pose a threat to the U.S." Bad nukes are those possessed by “bad" countries -- “countries that fail to meet their commitments to the international community” -- or no country at all (“non-state actors," aka terrorists).

This distinction becomes absurd when subjected to any logical scrutiny, but it’s essential to understanding U.S. nuclear policy, which has little if anything to do with rationality. The immense power of nuclear weapons triggers immense emotional response, which quickly takes the mind beyond the realm of reason. Indeed, as historian H. Bruce Franklin has documented, nukes burst into human imagination long before July 1945, when the first literal one exploded.

Ever since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the stories have been written by policymakers and journalists, not novelists. So they’ve been presented as if they were fact, not fiction. But the staggering literal facts about the bomb have always been eclipsed by the even more staggering power of the bomb as a symbol of life or death, good or evil. With the stories still stirred by imagination, they’ve all been poured into the same simplistic plot line: life against death, good against evil.

That mythic plot structures top secret documents at the highest levels of government as much as it structures the most lurid tabloid articles (as I discovered after several years poring through documents of the Eisenhower administration).

In the realm of moral drama, there can be no ambiguity, no shades of gray. You are either for us, the forces of good and life, or you’re against us, because you are failing to meet your “commitments to the international community” (which we "good" countries get to define, of course).

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. 

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on his blog: