- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

JERUSALEM — Washington struck one more name from the list of aspiring members of the doomsday weapons club when Libya’s self-described “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution,” Moammar Gadhafi, emerged from his burrow of international isolation last month.

But Col. Gadhafi’s announcement that Libya was ready to dismantle its weapons programs caused few ripples in Israel, possessor of one of the most secretive programs of weapons of mass destruction.

Washington was silent, too, despite an increasingly compelling reason for raising the issue with its closest Middle East friend — namely, that Syria and Iran, with Egypt’s backing, say they will not disarm unless Israel does.

For the Bush administration to pressure Israel to declare the existence of its weapons of mass destruction and outline the contingencies for their use would, at the very least, remove a glaring double standard in the White House’s high-minded proclamations on the subject. It certainly would reassure moderate Arab states, where Israel usually is viewed as Goliath, not David.

Just as important, it would rob “rogues” — whether states, groups or individuals — of a major rallying cry for recruiting followers to sow bloodshed and calamity against the West, namely that Washington conveniently ignores Israel’s defiance of international disarmament efforts.

But pressure to disarm, whether from Washington or inside Israel, is unlikely anytime soon.

Since the inception of its nuclear-weapons program in the mid-1950s, Israel has hewed to a policy of neither confirming nor denying its existence. Few doubt, however, that it possesses such an arsenal. According to the Federation of American Scientists and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel has at least 200 nuclear warheads. If the assertions are true, that would make Israel the world’s fifth-largest nuclear power, surpassing Britain.

Its arms stockpile also features other advanced weaponry, official U.S. sources suggest.

A 1993 report by the Office of Technology Assessment for the U.S. Congress states that Israel has “undeclared offensive chemical warfare capabilities” and is “generally reported as having an undeclared offensive biological warfare program.”

Israel is not a signatory to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and therefore is not subject to inspections and the threat of sanctions by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. The state’s efforts to disguise its activities have gone beyond an unwillingness to enter the international antiproliferation regime.

In the early 1960s, Israel deceived U.S. scientists inspecting its Dimona nuclear facility by constructing a fake control room to an underground uranium processing facility, said “The Samson Option,” an account of Israel’s nuclear-weapons program by Seymour M. Hersh.

On the issue of programs of weapons of mass destruction, international criticism never has troubled Israel.

Israelis say the weapons are safe in their hands because they are not bent on destroying their neighbors, even though Syria and Iran have sought mass-destruction weapons partly to counter Israel’s and have put the region’s security on a more wobbly foundation.

Israel’s policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of its nuclear, biological and chemical arsenal has served it well. As former Prime Minister Shimon Peres has put it, “The suspicion and fog surrounding this issue are constructive.”

On the one hand, the perception that it is a member of the nuclear club has provided Israel with a high level of deterrence in the Arab world. On the other hand, Israel’s official opaqueness has enabled it to become the region’s pre-eminent military power while avoiding a direct collision with U.S. policy on weapons proliferation, a collision that might jeopardize portions of its aid from Washington, which exceeds $3 billion annually.

This official posture of ambiguity “has enabled Israel for decades to enjoy the best of both worlds,” said Shai Feldman, director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

Whether the policy suits a new era and the perils that Israel faces is another matter. Does the veil around Israel’s weapons of mass destruction program undermine or encourage what the Israeli government says it wants — a Middle East free of doomsday weapons?

In recent speeches, Israeli military officials have said that the country faces no threat on its “eastern front.” Brig. Gen. Eival Giladi boasted last month that the next time Syria and Israel clash in a war, the army will reach Damascus as quickly as U.S. troops drove to Baghdad in the spring.

The officials also have conceded that traditional concepts of deterrence and victory do not apply in the war on terrorism, where the combatants mainly are states and organizations, not states and states. In short, nuclear weapons are useless against jihadis calling for holy war.

There is widespread agreement, too, that the strategic landscape of the Middle East has been transformed by Col. Gadhafi’s about-face, Saddam Hussein’s ouster from power in Iraq, and the decision by Iran’s mullahs in mid-October to allow stricter international weapons inspections. Indeed, membership in the nuclear club appears to be losing value owing to the financial costs and risks of outside intervention.

Still, Israeli leaders are skeptical, Mr. Feldman said. To them, Col. Gadhafi’s turnabout, like Iran’s, reveals the weakness of international inspections and safeguards. Although Tehran and Tripoli are signatories of the Nonproliferation Treaty and subject to its sanctions, evidence shows that both made significant advances toward development of mass-destruction weapons that went undetected for years.

For all its military strength, Israel also remains profoundly anxious. Influential Israelis think that the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States ushered in a rising global tide of hate aimed at Jews and the Jewish state. It is not hostility to Israel’s policies, they insist, but a racially tinged venom that has been a harbinger of some of the most tragic chapters of Jewish history.

Against this background, only one in four Israelis think that their country should give up its nuclear arsenal as part of a regional disarmament campaign, according to survey published this month by Israel’s state broadcaster.

Under these circumstances, any serious talk of relinquishing germ, gas and nuclear weapons probably is unrealistic. Also, if recent news accounts about a famed nuclear whistleblower are any indication, even acknowledging what the world assumes to be true appears premature.

Last month, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency was said to be considering how to silence Mordechai Vanunu, who is scheduled for release from prison in April.

Mr. Vanunu, a former nuclear technician, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for espionage after giving dozens of pictures and a description of purported weapons from Dimona to London’s Sunday Times newspaper in 1986.

He was lured from London to Rome by a female Israeli spy and taken to Tel Aviv for trial. The disclosures led to a sharp upward revision of the number of nuclear warheads Israel was thought to possess.

[Mr. Vanunu was convicted of treason in a secret trial and kept in solitary confinement for more than a decade. A partial transcript of the trial was released by the state attorney in 1999 at the request of the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, which devoted half its front page and nine inside pages to the court records.

[The transcript told Mr. Vanunu’s personal story, following him from an Orthodox Jewish upbringing through his conversion to Christianity, his political activism on behalf of Palestinians when a student, and his decision to go public with Israel’s nuclear secrets.

[“I wanted to confirm what everyone knows,” he said at his trial. “I wanted to put … [Israel’s nuclear program] under proper supervision.”]

Israeli authorities are said to be afraid that Mr. Vanunu could become a leader in a campaign to pressure the state to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction programs. Local news reports have said that the options under consideration for muzzling Mr. Vanunu included barring him from traveling overseas or speaking in public after his release.

Israeli officials have confirmed the reports, but denied further comment.

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