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The desperation of the 1973 war may have ensured that, once Nixon left office, his deal with the Israelis would hold. And it has. But the world has changed in the past 40 years. Israel’s conventional military forces are now far more powerful than all of its neighbors’ militaries combined. Anyway, those neighbors have made peace with Israel save Syria, which has held out mostly for political reasons. From Israel’s view, there is only one potentially existential military threat left: the Iranian nuclear program. But that program has not produced a warhead and, with Tehran now seeking to reach an agreement on the program, it may never.
Some scholars are beginning to ask whether the old deal is outdated, if Israel should consider announcing its nuclear weapons arsenal publicly. Cohen, the historian who studies the Israel program, argues that the policy of secrecy “undermines genuine Israeli interests, including the need to gain recognition and legitimacy and to be counted among the responsible states in this strategic field.”
The dilemma for Israel is that, should Iran ever develop a nuclear warhead, Israel will surely feel less unsafe if it has its own nuclear deterrent. But, ironically, Israel’s nuclear arsenal may itself be one of the factors driving Iran’s program in the first place.
“History tells us that Israel’s position as the sole nuclear-armed state in the region is an anomaly — regions either have several nuclear states or none,” said Cirincione, of the nonproliferation Ploughshares Fund. “At some point, for its own security, Israel will have to take the bombs out of the basement and put them on the negotiating table.”
Some scholars suggest that world powers, including the United States, may have quietly tolerated Egyptian and Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles as counterbalances to Israel’s own weapons of mass destruction; a concession just large enough to prevent them from seeking nuclear weapons of their own.
Ultimately, while every president from Nixon to Barack Obama has accepted Israel’s nuclear weapons, at some point the United States would surely prefer to see a Middle East that’s entirely free of weapons of mass destruction.
“We are not okay with Israel having nuclear weapons, but U.S. policymakers recognize that there is not much we can do about it in the short-term,” Cirincione said. “But these are general back-burner efforts. All recognize that Israel will only give up its nuclear weapons in the context of a regional peace settlement where all states recognized the rights of other states to exist and agree on territorial boundaries. This would mean a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issues.”
In other words, the Middle East would have to cease being the Middle East. Maybe that will happen, but not anytime soon.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.