American and Israeli leaders hardly ever talk about nuclear matters, in particular not Israeli nukes. For nearly a half-century, the nuclear issue has been a near taboo for both sides.
Only twice in the past American and Israeli leaders addressed head on this sensitive subject. The first time was in May 1961, when President Kennedy and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion met in New York City. Mr. Kennedy insisted on receiving assurances from Mr. Ben-Gurion on the Israeli nuclear program.
Somewhat evasively, Mr. Ben-Gurion pledged that - adding the qualifier “for the time being” - Israel’s nuclear program was peaceful. The historical record is declassified now on both sides, and there is clarity about what was said.
This is not the case with the second - and, apparently, the last - encounter of American and Israeli leaders on the nuclear issue. This was on Sept. 25, 1969, at the White House, in a one-on-one meeting between President Nixon and Prime Minister Golda Meir. That conversation is shrouded in mystery and secrecy to this day. Mr. Nixon apparently dictated a memo of conversation after the meeting, but if it still exists today, it has not yet surfaced.
There are reasons to believe that, in the meeting, Mrs. Meir revealed to Mr. Nixon that Israel already had the bomb. Shortly before Mr. Nixon died, he told CNN’s Larry King that he knew for many years that Israel had the bomb but would not tell how. It is also probable that Mrs. Meir presented a compelling case for a nuclear Israel, assuring the American president that Holocaust-haunted Israel sees nukes merely as the ultimate insurance policy.
While we do not know what was exactly discussed in the meeting, it is believed the two leaders agreed that the Israeli bomb should remain invisible - that is, Israel would not test, declare or make other visible use - and the United States, in return, would tolerate the Israeli bomb. That meant there would be no more American visits at Dimona and no more American pressure to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. In essence, America understood with sympathy why Israel got the bomb, and Israel pledged to be restrained and opaque.
While the understandings were made in secret, they had far-reaching consequences. They constituted the ground rules that shaped the cautious way both nations dealt with Israel’s nuclear exceptionalism.
The meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 18 will be the third American-Israeli nuclear summit. It will probably be as important as the one between Mr. Nixon and Mrs. Meir.
While the meeting will focus on how America should address the Iranian nuclear issue, in particular about the parameters of the American-Iranian negotiations, it inevitably will have to address the Israeli nuclear issue. According to news reports in today’s edition of The Washington Times, Mr. Netanyahu will urge Mr. Obama to disallow linkage between Iran and Israel. It is also reported that Mr. Netanyahu would urge Mr. Obama to reaffirm the old Nixon-Meir understandings which, in Israel’s view, entail such an American commitment to shield the Israeli nuclear program.
This approach reflects long-seated Israeli instincts, but it may not serve Israel’s best interests. Here is why: The Nixon-Meir understandings are by now anachronistic and obscure; they are rooted in a political reality that no longer exists. Israel today is a very different place than it was in 1969. It is a mature and responsible nuclear state, and it should be treated that way.
Furthermore, because those old understanding were based on secrecy and nonacknowledgement, they invoke the notion - a wrong and unfair one - there is something sinful or conspiratorial about Israel’s nuclear exceptionalism, that there is a double standard in how America accepts nuclear Israel. Indeed, these understandings left Israel as an exceptional case outside the nuclear order. Also, Israel’s nuclear opacity is incompatible with today’s norms of nuclear transparency.
Instead of reaffirming those ancient Nixon-Meir understandings, Israel’s interest favors forming with Mr. Obama a set of new and more open nuclear understandings that would reflect today’s political reality and nuclear norms. Those understandings should follow the idea of the Indian nuclear deal with the United States. That is, those understandings should openly recognize Israel’s status as a “responsible democracy with advanced nuclear technology.”
Only such recognition would allow Israel to be engaged in meaningful arms-control and nonproliferation negotiations. The time has come to end the hypocrisy of not recognizing Israel’s nuclear status for what it is.
However, for being granted recognition, Israel should also give something it is at present fearful of giving. While official Israel vehemently opposes considering any linkage between Israel and Iran - a position Mr. Netanyahu presumably would ask Mr. Obama to affirm - a certain linkage may be ultimately inevitable and even desirable. It could be a key to fashion a meaningful and credible deal that would prevent a nuclear Iran.
Such a deal is clearly in the interest of Israel. If some constraints on Israel’s nuclear program could credibly and effectively prevent a nuclear Iran, this is surely something Israel should not automatically rule out. One idea, for example, would be to explore how to make the entire Middle East a zone regulated, or even free, of all mass-destruction-capable technologies, reprocessing and enrichment. This could be seen as a first move toward establishing the Middle East as a zone truly free of nuclear weapons.
Recent polls have shown that Israeli citizens believe military action could be the ultimate way to address the Iranian nuclear program. However, even if successful, such a strike would only delay and provide short-term benefits. For the long run, it would ensure that Iran would go nuclear openly. A diplomatic deal, if credible and effective, is much preferrable to military action.
Avner Cohen, a prominent expert on Israel’s nuclear policy and on global nuclear proliferation at large, is the author of the forthcoming “Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb” to be published next year by Columbia University Press.