Israel’s nuclear weapons saga preceded the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that came into force in 1970. The country started producing and stockpiling nuclear bombs from plutonium reprocessed in its Dimona nuclear facility in the Negev as far back as 1958.
Right from the outset Israel developed a policy of opacity regarding its nuclear program, presumably to drive home a two-pronged message to the Middle East. One was that if push came to shove and its very existence was at stake it had the military tools to destroy all enemies.
The second was to eliminate or at least reduce the risk of nuclear weapons proliferating in the region by "pretending" that Israel was not a nuclear power and therefore there could be no reason for the other states to acquire nuclear weapons. Israel sandwiched its ambiguity in this regard with the repeated pledge that it would not to be the first to use its arsenal of mass destruction.
But keeping the Arab world guessing isn’t working. It has for decades been an open secret that Israel is a nuclear state.
Israel’s anxiety about its very existence dates back to its fears that the Arab world would never accept its existence as an "alien" state in the region. The Israeli leaders who ushered in their country’s nuclear program had convinced themselves that the end game as far as the neighboring Arab and Muslim nations were concerned would be nothing short of the elimination of the Zionist state. In other words, the founding fathers of Israel were aware of a sense of guilt that the creation of their homeland had come about on the ashes of another people and that sooner or later this injustice would be corrected. This Israeli posture was and still predicates the need for Israel to maintain its monopoly over nuclear weapons in the region.
In fulfillment of this strategy, Israeli warplanes bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor and research facility in Osirak in 1981 and Syria’s alleged covert nuclear site in Deir Ezzor in 2007. Israel’s peace of mind will not be complete, however, until it rids Iran of nuclear facilities capable of enriching uranium for military purposes.
Israel’s contingency plan to execute a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities is therefore in the cards, at least for the time being. Unlike Iraq and Syria, however, any military strike against Iranian nuclear sites will not necessarily eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability. For one thing, Iranian nuclear facilities are farther away than the Iraqi and Syrian sites. Second, Iran’s nuclear sites are numerous, scattered all over the country and hidden in bunkers deep underneath the ground. Third, the Iranian military is superior to anything that Iraq or Syria ever produced and its retaliatory strength is such that it does indeed serve as an effective deterrent.
Against this backdrop, the NPT will not save the day. Besides its many imperfections, the 189 member states of the accord cannot even agree on its three pillars, especially with regard to nuclear disarmament. What the provisions of the NPT call for is simply to conduct "negotiations in good faith" to end the nuclear arms race with a view to achieving nuclear disarmament. There is nothing in the treaty that specifically calls for the elimination of nuclear weapons and this is where the real problem lies.
Only four countries have decided to remain outside the ambit of the NPT, namely Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. India joined the nuclear club in 1974 and is reputed to have a nuclear arsenal of no less than 150 warheads. Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons in 1998 and is believed to possess between 80 to 120 warheads. Israel has stockpiled more than 200 nuclear weapons, enough to blow the entire region to smithereens. No one knows for sure how many nuclear bombs there are in North Korea, which acceded to the NPT back in 1985 but withdrew in 2003.
That said, the nuclear genie is already out of the bottle in the Middle East. Israel’s state of mind excludes a disarming of or even reduction in its nuclear arsenal. Even if Israel acceded to the NPT at this late hour, there is really nothing specific in the NPT that would require it to relinquish its nuclear capability. The most that can be achieved by Israeli membership is to place its nuclear facility or rather facilities under the international supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The problem does not, however, end with Israel. There is no way that Iran will accept to roll back its aggressive program to acquire nuclear weapons. Tehran has already crossed the line for the manufacture of nuclear weapons with its ambitious uranium enrichment program. For all intents and purposes, the current Iranian leadership has already taken an irreversible decision to acquire nuclear weapons.
The probable scenario of Iran becoming a nuclear power is the application of mutual deterrence between it and Israel. As long as both nations risk nuclear annihilation, they would most probably avoid using nuclear weapons. That would seemingly leave Arab countries out in the cold as long as Israel is determined to go to war to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in any nearby Arab countries. This situation, however, cannot last forever. Sooner or later, some Arab countries will decide to go nuclear themselves, including Egypt and possibly Syria.
Turkey cannot be so easily contained in this regard either and could be well on its way to acquiring nuclear weapons of its own. As long as Ankara remains a key member of NATO, however, its nuclear ambitions may remain in check if for no other reason than being unnecessary for its own security. NATO’s nuclear umbrella would be sufficient for Turkeys’ security purposes as long as NATO remains intact.
Israel still holds the key to stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons and this objective can be attained only if it supports, in good faith, efforts to achieve a durable and just peace with the Palestinians and other Arab states still in a state of war with it. This would be the only effective way to reverse the tide of nuclear proliferation in the region beyond the stage it has already reached.
The absence of regional peace would no doubt lead to the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It is imperative that Israel mend its national psyche and recognize that its long-term survival is predicated not on nuclear weapons but rather on becoming a true partner in a new Middle East. The longer the international community waits to attain this objective, the harder it will become to free the region of all kinds of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear ones.
Waleed Sadi is a former Jordanian ambassador to Turkey and the UN and other international organizations in Geneva. He is currently a columnist for the Jordan Times and Al Rai newspapers. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.