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.
• Sidebar: America has protected Israeli nuke program for 40 years
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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.
The Iran factor
Iranian leaders have long complained about being subjected to a double standard that allows non-NPT members India and Pakistan, as well as Israel, to maintain and even increase their nuclear arsenals but sanctions Tehran, an NPT member, for not cooperating fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
On Monday, Iranian Deputy Foreign MinisterMohammad Ali Hosseini told a U.N. meeting preparing for a major review of the NPT next year that nuclear cooperation by the U.S., France and Britain with Israel is "in total disregard with the obligations under the treaty and commitments undertaken in 1995 and 2000, and a source of real concern for the international community, especially the parties to the treaty in the Middle East."
The Obama administration is seeking talks with Iran on its nuclear program and has dropped a precondition for negotiations that Iran first suspend its uranium enrichment program.
"What the Israelis sense, rightly, is that Obama wants to do something new on Iran and this may very well involve doing something new about Israel's program," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank.
Bruce Riedel, a former senior director for the Middle East and South Asia on the White House National Security Council, said, "If you're really serious about a deal with Iran, Israel has to come out of the closet. A policy based on fiction and double standards is bound to fail sooner or later. What's remarkable is that it's lasted so long." Mr. Riedel headed the Obama administration's review of strategy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan but does not hold a permanent administration position and has returned to private life as a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
The open secret
Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser for the George W. Bush administration, said that administration resisted international efforts to pressure Israel on the nuclear front.
"We did not want to accept any operational language that would put Israel at a disadvantage and raise the question of whether Israel was a nuclear power," he said. "That was not a discussion that we thought was helpful. We allowed very general statements about the goal of a nuclear-free Middle East as long that language was hortatory."
Israel began its nuclear program shortly after the state was founded in 1948 and produced its first weapons, according to Mr. Cohen's book, on the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War. Israeli defense doctrine considers the nuclear arsenal to be a strategic deterrent against extinction. But its nuclear monopoly is increasingly jeopardized by Iranian advances and the possibility that Iran's program could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region.
Israel's arsenal has also been an open secret for decades, despite the fact that Israeli law forbids Israeli journalists from referring to the state's nuclear weapons unless they quote non-Israeli sources.
In 1986, the Israeli nuclear scientist, Mordecai Vanunu disclosed in the Sunday Times of London photographs and the first insider account of Dimona, the location of Israels primary nuclear facility. Israel responded by convicting him of treason. He was released in 2004 after spending 18 years in prison but has continued to talk about the program on occasion. The government has barred Mr. Vanunu from leaving Israel.
References to a "nuclear-free Middle East," meanwhile, have cropped up increasingly in international resolutions and conferences. For example, the 1991 U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, which sanctioned Saddam Hussein's Iraq, noted "the objective of achieving balanced and comprehensive control of armaments in the region." More recently, a March 2006 IAEA resolution, in referring Iran to the Security Council, noted "that a solution to the Iranian issue would contribute to global nonproliferation efforts and to realizing the objective of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction."
U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia also have pressed the U.S. to link Israel's weapons to Iran's as part of a plan to implement a nuclear-free Middle East.
A proposal to introduce a Security Council resolution declaring the Middle East a nuclear-free zone and calling for sanctions against those countries that did not comply was broached in a 2006 strategic dialogue between Saudi Arabia and the United States, said Turki al-Faisal, who was Saudi ambassador to the U.S.
"When I talked to American officials about that when I was ambassador here, and before that to British officials in the U.K., the immediate response was, 'Israel is not going to accept,' " Prince Turki told editors and reporters of The Washington Times last month. "And my immediate response was, 'So what?' If Israel doesnt accept, it doesnt mean its a bad idea."
A balancing act
Mr. Netanyahu, whose meeting with Mr. Obama on May 18 will be the first since both took office, raised the issue of the nuclear understanding during a previous tenure as prime minister.
Israeli journalists and officials said Mr. Netanyahu asked for a reaffirmation and clarification of the Nixon-Meir understanding in 1998 at Wye River, where the U.S. mediated an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu wanted a personal commitment from President Clinton because of concerns about a treaty that Mr. Clinton supported to bar production of fissile materials that can be used to make weapons. Israel was worried that the treaty would apply to de facto nuclear states, including Israel, and might oblige it to allow inspections of Dimona.
In 2000, Israeli journalist Aluf Benn disclosed that Mr. Clinton at Wye River promised Mr. Netanyahu that "Israels nuclear capability will be preserved." Mr. Benn described as testy an exchange of letters between the two leaders over the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty. He said Mr. Netanyahu wrote Mr. Clinton: "We will never sign the treaty, and do not delude yourselves - no pressure will help. We will not sign the treaty because we will not commit suicide."
The Bush administration largely dropped the treaty in its first term and reopened negotiations in its second term with a proposal that did not include verification.
The Obama agenda
Mr. Obama has made nuclear disarmament a bigger priority in part to undercut Iran's and North Korea's rationale for proliferation. His administration has begun negotiations with Russia on a new treaty to reduce U.S. and Russian arsenals. He also has expressed support for the fissile material treaty.
"To cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons," he said last month in Prague. "If we are serious about stopping the spread of these weapons, then we should put an end to the dedicated production of weapons-grade materials that create them."
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank, said such a treaty would be the first step toward limiting the Israeli nuclear program.
"The question is how much of a priority is this for the Obama administration?" he said.
John R. Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador and undersecretary of state, said Israel was right to be concerned.
"If I were the Israeli government, I would be very worried about the Obama administration's attitude on their nuclear deterrent," he said. "You can barely raise the subject of nuclear weapons in the Middle East without someone saying: 'What about Israel?' If Israel's opponents put it on the table, it is entirely possible Obama will pick it up."
Asked about the issue, Jonathan Peled, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said, "We don't discuss the strategic relationship between the United States and Israel." The White House had no immediate comment.
However, Ms. Gottemoeller endorsed the concept of a nuclear-free Middle East in a 2005 paper that she co-authored, "Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security."
"Instead of defensively trying to ignore Israels nuclear status, the United States and Israel should proactively call for regional dialogue to specify the conditions necessary to achieve a zone free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons," she wrote.
The paper recommends that Israel take steps to disarm in exchange for its neighbors getting rid of chemical and biological weapons programs as well as Iran forgoing uranium enrichment.
• Barbara Slavin and Erin Spiegel contributed to this report from Washington.