September 16, 2014
February 13, 2015 at 5:15 pm ET
The 47-year-old nuclear elephant in the room
Mordechai Vanunu's photograph of what appears to be a mock-up of a nuclear weapon's plutonium core at the Negev Nuclear Research Center at Dimona. Screenshot/Center for Nonproliferation Studies for the Nuclear Threat Initiative Youtube
A growing number of U.S. experts say that feigning ignorance about Israel’s nuclear arsenal creates more trouble than it averts
Israel has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Former CIA director Robert Gates said so during his 2006 Senate confirmation hearings for secretary of defense, when he noted — while serving as a university president — that Iran is surrounded by “powers with nuclear weapons,” including “the Israelis to the west.” Former President Jimmy Carter said so in 2008 and again this year, in interviews and speeches in which he pegged the number of Israel’s nuclear warheads at 150 to around 300.
But due to a quirk of federal secrecy rules, such remarks generally cannot be made even now by those who work for the U.S. government and hold active security clearances. In fact, U.S. officials, even those on Capitol Hill, are routinely admonished not to mention the existence of an Israeli nuclear arsenal and occasionally punished when they do so.
The policy of never publicly confirming what a scholar once called one of the world’s “worst-kept secrets” dates from a political deal between the United States and Israel in the late 1960s. Its consequence has been to help Israel maintain a distinctive military posture in the Middle East while avoiding the scrutiny — and occasional disapprobation — directed at the world’s eight acknowledged nuclear powers.
But the U.S. policy of shielding the Israeli program has recently provoked new controversy, partly because of allegations that it played a role in the censure of a well-known national laboratory arms researcher in July, after he published an article in which he acknowledged that Israel has nuclear arms. Some scholars and experts are also complaining that the government’s lack of candor is complicating its high-profile campaign to block the development of nuclear arms in Iran, as well as U.S.-led planning for a potential treaty prohibiting nuclear arms anywhere in the region.
The U.S. silence is largely unwavering, however. “We would never say flatly that Israel has nuclear weapons,” explained a former senior State Department official who dealt with nuclear issues during the Bush administration. “We would have to couch it in other language, we would have to say ‘we assume’ or ‘we presume that Israel has nuclear weapons,’ or ‘it’s reported’ that they have them,” the former official said, requesting that his name not be used due to the political sensitivity surrounding the topic.
President Barack Obama made clear that this 4-decade-old U.S. policy would persist at his first White House press conference in 2009, when journalist Helen Thomas asked if he knew of any nations in the Middle East with nuclear arms. “With respect to nuclear weapons, you know, I don’t want to speculate,” Obama said, as though Israel’s established status as a nuclear weapons state was only a matter of rumor and conjecture.
So wary is Paul Pillar, a former U.S. national intelligence officer for the Middle East, of making any direct, public reference to Israel’s nuclear arsenal that when he wrote an article this month in The National Interest, entitled “Israel’s Widely Suspected Unmentionables,” he referred to warheads as “kumquats” throughout his manuscript.
Even Congress has been coy on the subject. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee published a 2008 report titled “Chain Reaction: Avoiding a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East,” it included chapters on Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey — but not Israel. The 61-page report relegated Israel’s nuclear arms to a footnote that suggested that Israel’s arsenal was a “perception.”
“This report does not take a position on the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons,” the report said. “Although Israel has not officially acknowledged it possesses nuclear weapons, a widespread consensus exists in the region and among experts in the United States that Israel possesses a number of nuclear weapons. For Israel’s neighbors, this perception is more important than reality.”