- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009

EXCLUSIVE:

President Obama’s efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons threaten to expose and derail a 40-year-old secret U.S. agreement to shield Israel’s nuclear weapons from international scrutiny, former and current U.S. and Israeli officials and nuclear specialists say.

The issue will likely come to a head when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Mr. Obama on May 18 in Washington. Mr. Netanyahu is expected to seek assurances from Mr. Obama that he will uphold the U.S. commitment and will not trade Israeli nuclear concessions for Iranian ones.

Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, speaking Tuesday at a U.N. meeting on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), said Israel should join the treaty, which would require Israel to declare and relinquish its nuclear arsenal.

“Universal adherence to the NPT itself, including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea, … remains a fundamental objective of the United States,” Ms. Gottemoeller told the meeting, according to Reuters.

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She declined to say, however, whether the Obama administration would press Israel to join the treaty.

A senior White House official said the administration considered the nuclear programs of Israel and Iran to be unrelated “apples and oranges.”

Asked by The Washington Times whether the administration would press Israel to join the NPT, the official said, “We support universal adherence to the NPT. [It] remains a long-term goal.”

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Avner Cohen, author of “Israel and the Bomb” and the leading expert outside the Israeli government on the history of Israel’s nuclear program, said Mr. Obama’s “upcoming meeting with Netanyahu, due to the impending discussions with Iran, will be a platform for Israel to ask for reassurances that old understandings on the nuclear issue are still valid.”

For the past 40 years, Israel and the U.S. have kept quiet about an Israeli nuclear arsenal that is now estimated at 80 to 200 weapons. Israel has promised not to test nuclear weapons while the U.S. has not pressed Israel to sign the nuclear NPT, which permits only five countries - the U.S., France, Britain, China and Russia - to have nuclear arms.

The U.S. also has opposed most regional calls for a “nuclear-free Middle East.” The accord was forged at a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Nixon on Sept. 25, 1969, according to recently released documents, but remains so secret that there is no explicit record of it. Mr. Cohen has referred to the deal as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” because it commits both the U.S. and Israel never to acknowledge in public Israels nuclear arsenal.

When asked what the Obama administration’s position was on the 1969 understanding, the senior White House official offered no comment.

Over the years, demands for Israel to come clean have multiplied.

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