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Israel Thanks Obama for Keeping Its Nuclear 'Secret'

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Despite last-minute jitters  from Israel, the Obama administration will continue to play along by shielding the Jewish state from a conference that could force it to disclose its nuclear weapons.

Last Friday, Rose Gottemoeller, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, delivered the news at the end of a one-month conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. She said: "The language related to the convening of a regional conference to discuss issues relevant to the establishment of a Middle East zone free of all weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems is incompatible with our long-standing policies." The U.S. vote against the final draft meant that the 2015 conference would not reach a consensus on a final document. Had such a consensus been reached, Egypt and other Arab states might have achieved their long-standing goal to compel the United Nations Secretary General to convene a conference to discuss disarming Israel. 

On its surface, one might think Israel would support a conference to keep WMDs out of the Mideast. The top priority for Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But in this case, the U.N. conference would be more of a threat to Israel than to its neighbors; they have less to lose.

Israel is the only country in the region that possesses nuclear weapons. Not surprisingly, it's also the only country in the region that hasn't signed the nonproliferation treaty. Pakistan, India and South Sudan have also not signed the treaty.

Because Israel does not acknowledge its arsenal, it's difficult to parse exactly what its policy might be for getting rid of it one day. But over the weekend in a statement sent to the press by a senior Israeli government official, there was a hint of the conditions Israel would want before it acknowledged and discussed giving up its weapons.

The statement said: "Israel believes that a gradual approach to arms control and regional security can be achieved through confidence building measures and a direct dialogue with states in the Middle East. Israel also believes that peace, mutual recognition and reconciliation are essential precursors to serious progress on arms control. All Israelis hope for a day when the region will enjoy peace and no one will be threatened by weapons of mass destruction or other dangerous weapons."

In other words, when the rest of the Middle East acknowledges Israel's right to exist, disarms and ends war against it, Israel would be inclined to maybe acknowledge its nuclear weapons and disarm.

Israel is believed to have possessed a nuclear weapon since the late 1960s. Declassified documents show that U.S. presidents have known about Israel's nuclear program since at least President John F. Kennedy. The Nixon administration in particular worked on keeping Israel from acknowledging publicly that it possessed a nuclear weapon. Historian Avner Cohen has written that President Richard M. Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir worked out a secret deal: Israel would keep its weapons secret and the U.S. would protect Israel from international efforts to force it to disarm.

But that secret has gotten out nonetheless. An Israeli nuclear technician, Mordechai Vanunu, gave an interview about Israel's nuclear weapons to the Sunday Times on London in 1986. That same year, the Mossad lured him to Italy and took him back to Israel, where he was sent to jail. He was released from prison in 2004, but has been spent stints in prison since for violating the terms of his parole by meeting with foreigners.

More recently, the Israeli policy of never discussing its nuclear arsenal has loosened. The Israeli journalist Ari Shavit in 2013 was allowed by the state's military censors to write a chapter on the Israeli program for his book, "My Promised Land." Since 2010, Israel has even quietly participated in efforts by the United Nations to help plan an eventual conference to discuss weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

It's unclear what part of the final language in this year's nonproliferation  document was unacceptable to the United States. Victor Gilinsky, a former commissioner for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and an adviser to the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told me it would have given the U.N. power over the timing of the conference, to be convened by March 2016. "I think the provision would have given Israel a veto over the workings of the conference, but not over convening the conference," he said. "That was the thing they objected to."

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, agreed. He told me: "I think the Israeli interest could have been protected in this formula. The difference is that it would have been the secretary general's responsibility to convene the conference."

Either way, the Israelis are appreciative. On Friday, Netanyahu spoke with Secretary of State John Kerry "to convey his appreciation to President Obama and to the Secretary for the position taken by the United States and for the efforts of the American team at the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in New York," according to the Israeli statement.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net