Fair Policy, Fair Discussion

July 19, 2010

The Israeli Nuclear Arsenal: Worst-Kept Secret in the Middle East

Several CNI interns and I attended an event entitled “The Israeli Nuclear Arsenal: Espionage, Opacity, and Future” held at the International Spy Museum here in Washington, D.C. The event was organized by  Institute for Research: Middle East Policy (IRmep) and brought together three distinguished panelists to discuss the worst-kept secret in international politics–the existence of an Israeli Nuclear Arsenal.

The panel discussion was frank and deeply informative, bringing together authors Grant F. Smith and Sasha Polakow-Sulansky, and recent CNI Radio: Jerusalem Calling guest John Mearsheimer. The topics discussed ranged from the interpretation of recently declassified documents on the role of American interests in building Israel’s nuclear arsenal to the relationship between apartheid South Africa and Israel.

Perhaps most striking was John Mearsheimer’s realistic analysis of the situation.  Mearsheimer posed four questions:

Why did Israel develop nuclear weapons?
Should Israel abandon its nuclear arsenal?
Is opacity in Israel’s best interest?
Is it in America’s best interest for Israel to have nuclear weapons?

Coming for a realist perspective, Mearsheimer argued that nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrence; he said that if he were a national security adviser to Israel in the 1950s, he would advocate that the state acquire nuclear weapons.

In regards to opacity, Mearsheimer argued that Israel is not fooling anyone with its “strategic ambiguity,” as virtually everyone is aware that Israel is a nuclear power.

The nuclear issue clearly shows a divide in interests between the U.S. and Israel.  “Israel is an albatross around our neck,” he said.  Initially, the U.S. was against Israeli nuclear proliferation in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  If Israel was a nuclear power, it would be difficult to secure a nuclear-free Middle East.

Mearsheimer is not optimistic about the future; he believes the situation will only get worse.  He believes the proximity talks are a charade and that Israel will eventually become an apartheid state.   He articulates his point further in his article in the American Conservative.

When asked by former CNI President Gene Bird what the U.S. can do to prevent another war in the region , Mearsheimer laid out what he believes the Obama strategy should have been: Obama should have appealed to the American Jewish community and emphasized that a two-state solution was in the best interest of Israel.  Instead, he picked a fight with the Israeli lobby, and consequently had to “run up the white flag,” during the recent White House meeting with Netanyahu.

While Mearsheimer’s realist perspective is intriguing and certainly feasible, the future of the conflict does not have to be as grim as he predicts.  Though his analysis of the Obama administration’s strategy and relationship with both the Israeli government and Israeli lobby is spot-on, there are some encouraging aspects of Obama’s policies, notably his willingness to address the Israeli-Arab conflict so soon in his term, unlike his predecessors.

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