One top agenda item on the Israeli prime minister's now-canceled visit to Washington on Tuesday was a proposed U.N. conference the Jewish state fears is a ploy to pressure it to relinquish its nuclear arsenal.
On Friday, a U.S. delegation in New York voted to endorse a consensus document ending the 2010 review conference for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that calls for a conference in 2012 to discuss a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East.
The final document of the monthlong review conference calls on Israel to join the treaty, a move that would require Israel to disclose and then give up its undeclared nuclear arsenal. The document does not, however, make mention of Iran's failure to comply with the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop the enrichment of uranium.
Because these diplomatic documents require a consensus of all nations at the conference, the United States, like any other NPT signatory, had an effective veto over the measure.
A statement issued late Friday evening from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem said the resolution calling for a 2012 conference was "deeply flawed and hypocritical."
"It singles out Israel, the Middle East's only true democracy and the only country threatened with annihilation," the statement goes on to say. "Yet the terrorist regime in Iran, which is racing to develop nuclear weapons and which openly threatens to wipe Israel off the map, is not even mentioned in the resolution."
The statement also announces that Israel will not participate in the conference. Israeli papers on Sunday reported that President Obama offered Israel new strategic assurances regarding its strategic and deterrent capabilities, a code word in Israeli newspapers for its undeclared nuclear arsenal.
The nuclear issue also comes up while Israel and the U.S. are publicly disagreeing over an Obama administration demand for Israel to freeze housing construction in East Jerusalem.
Israel and the U.S. have since 1969 had a secret understanding on the Jewish state's nuclear arsenal. Avner Cohen, a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the author of the definitive account of Israel's nuclear history, "Israel and the Bomb," has called the understanding "don't ask, don't tell." In exchange for Israel not publicly disclosing its nuclear weapons, the United States does not pressure Israel to join the NPT and shields Israel from pressure to join the treaty.
In May 2009, Mr. Netanyahu received assurances from Mr. Obama that this secret understanding was still in effect.
The language singling out Israel and calling for a 2012 conference on a WMD-free Middle East is similar to a demand first broached in the 1995 and in the 2000 NPT review conferences. The author of the idea for a regional conference is Egypt, the first Arab neighbor to make an official peace with Israel and an NPT signatory.
One of the reasons why the United States did not sign off on a consensus document ending the 2005 conference is because the Bush administration opposed pressure on Israel to join the NPT.
The U.S. delegation, led by Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher, initially opposed singling out Israel.
A senior State Department official told The Times, "We did fight hard to get that language out of the final document."
An Arab diplomat who worked on the language on the 2012 conference told The Times that the U.S. delegation sought to tie the conference to a concession from the conference to Iran.
"They did fight hard," this diplomat said. "They were trying to have a balance between the language on Israel and the language on Iran. They were initially trying to link the two. The problem is that their case was weak. The language they were opposing for Israel was in the 2000 review conference."
Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said, "The United States made it clear from the get-go that it would be unhelpful to call upon Israel specifically to join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state because that could suggest that the purpose of the WMD conference would be to put Israel and Israel alone on the spot."
Initially, the State Department fact sheet touted the success of the document, noting that the document had new language on the repercussions for states such as North Korea that take advantage of international nuclear energy assistance up to the point when it can create a nuclear bomb.
But later Friday, the White House issued separate statements from President Obama and National Security Adviser James L. Jones deploring the section of the agreement it said "singled out Israel."
"The United States will not permit a conference or actions that could jeopardize Israel's national security. We will not accept any approach that singles out Israel or sets unrealistic expectations. The United States' long-standing position on Middle East peace and security remains unchanged, including its unshakeable commitment to Israel's security," Mr. Jones said.
"In this respect, the United States deplores the decision to single out Israel in the Middle East section of the NPT document," he added.
Initial reaction from Washington has been mixed. In a telephone interview Sunday, Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, said the final document from the conference was "obscene."
"Why would we single out Israel for condemnation and leave Iran out?" asked Mr. Bond, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "That is totally obscene, when the biggest threat to the region and the world is Iran and its ambition to achieve a nuclear weapon and delivery system."
Mr. Cohen, who is himself Israeli, compared Israel's reaction to a "spoiled child."
"The time has come for Israel to stop being a spoiled child," he said. "Israel keeps saying they are being abandoned. Nothing shows that this administration on the nuclear issue in the near term will abandon Israel."
A senior Republican staffer who works on nonproliferation issues agreed that there is little chance that Mr. Obama will reverse long-standing policy on Israel's nuclear arsenal.
"The U.S. will not likely act any different than they always have regarding Israel's nuclear ambiguity," he said.
"But," the staffer noted, "this is the first time a U.S. administration has placed a greater priority on getting a consensus NPT review conference document than on America's traditional role as protecting Israel's nuclear ambiguity."
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