Israel, the bomb, and openness

It’s time for Israel to come out of the closet. After five decades of maintaining a nuclear weapons program without acknowledging its existence, Israel should proactively announce and provide information about its nuclear weapons status. Though Israel’s bombs have long been an open secret, unprecedented international scrutiny in coming years will make this “nuclear opacity” increasingly untenable.

By maintaining the fiction that it is not a nuclear power, Israel has pigeonholed itself as an international pariah, similar to its adversaries Iran and Syria. This allows its adversaries and the nonaligned movement to successfully use Israel’s bombs to slow progress on nuclear nonproliferation objectives, including preventing a nuclear Iran. Israel gains nothing by sacrificing its moral and political authority to maintain a farce that no one believes.

This situation will reach a breaking point in the coming year because of enhanced scrutiny of Israel’s nuclear program from several sources.

In May, all of the members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty reaffirmed by consensus the 1995 resolution calling for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and endorsed “Israel’s accession to the treaty and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.” To work toward this goal, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will soon appoint a facilitator to coordinate progress on implementing this 1995 resolution.

In mid-September, at the request of a slim majority of its members, International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Yukiya Amano will issue an unprecedented report on achieving progress toward Israel’s accession to the nonproliferation treaty and placing its nuclear capabilities under IAEA safeguards.

In October, historian Avner Cohen will release “The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb,” the follow-up to his groundbreaking “Israel and the Bomb,” which showed in exhaustive detail the steps taken by successive governments to develop a nuclear weapon by 1967. Cohen’s forthcoming book will assuredly provide additional revelations that both embarrass Tel Aviv and further clarify Israel’s nuclear capabilities.

In light of this forthcoming scrutiny, there are three near-term steps that Israel should undertake.

First, Israel should provide transparency about the size, command and control, nuclear security features and nonproliferation objectives of its nuclear arsenal. As was the case of other non-NPT nuclear powers — India and Pakistan — doing so would allow Israel to reassure the international community about its program. For example, in 2000, Pakistan created its National Command Authority, which assures civilian oversight of the bomb. In addition, Pakistan allows its chief nuclear military official, Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, to brief international audiences about the safety and security features of his country’s nuclear arsenal.

Second, in light of its recently announced intention to pursue civilian nuclear energy, Israel should sign a safeguards agreement with the IAEA covering all existing or future civilian nuclear facilities. In 2008, India signed a similar accord with the agency, which allowed it to receive international support for its peaceful civilian nuclear reactors. Here, the United States stands ready to help. At their July meeting, President Obama reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States would consider providing civilian nuclear technologies to Israel. Given that Israel has an estimated 115 to 190 warheads, according to the NRDC Nuclear Notebook, it no longer needs to produce fissile material for military purposes.

Third, Israel should reverse its existing policy and participate in legitimate international forums where the issue of a nuclear-weapon- and WMD-free Middle East are debated. One-sided pressure against Israel’s policies is the unfortunate norm of many international organizations. However, Israeli diplomats should openly discuss their country’s nuclear intentions and objectives, and either oppose or defend the 1995 resolution.

Israel cannot have a voice in the debate on nuclear nonproliferation — a debate that has vital ramifications for the Middle East — unless it becomes a good-faith participant in multilateral efforts to control and safeguard weapons of mass destruction. If such an announcement were to cause diplomatic isolation or a cascade of proliferation in the region, these events would have already happened. Instead, Israel only stands to gain by confirming a fact taken for granted by its friends and adversaries alike.

Micah Zenko is a fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of the forthcoming “Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World.”