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Ha´aretz, September 11, 1998

No change in the nuclear policy

By Ze'ev Schiff

 

An unpublicized correspondence on the nuclear issue took place recently between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We can learn from Netanyahu's written response to Clinton whether Israel intends to alter its nuclear policy following the nuclear experiments carried out by India and Pakistan. The details are important also because two recently published reports could be misleading. One, in the American publication Defense News, quoted Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, head of development and planning in the Israel Defense Forces, as saying that Israel would discuss its nuclear ambiguity. Another publication, in Israel, said Israel intended to approve the treaty that will ban the production of fissionable material, which will allow for international supervision of the Dimona nuclear reactor.President Clinton's letter came first, asking Israel not to oppose the convening of an international committee that would formulate a treaty to ban the production of fissionable material for military purposes. Such a sensitive issue should have been discussed personally between the prime minister and the U.S. president rather than in a letter. However, recent attempts to set up a meeting between the two have not been successful, and it was therefore decided to send Clinton a letter. In hindsight, it was a good decision, because the U.S. administration now has Israel's clear position, and in writing.

Although Netanyahu wrote Clinton that Israel would not oppose the establishment of a committee to discuss the treaty, two central points emerge from between the lines. One is that Israel reserves the right to make an independent decision in spite of Washington's wish for Israel to accept the treaty. A different tone emerges from Israel's official answer regarding the treaty, presented in Geneva (that it would reserve the right to decide in due time), and that is the second point. It is clear that Israel opposes isolated treatment, through this or that covenant, of the nuclear issue and international supervision. In Israel's view, the nuclear issue cannot be disconnected from the comprehensive peace arrangements and comprehensive regional arms control. Therefore, Israel's attitude toward the expected covenant is a negative one. However, Netanyahu's letter expresses Israel's willingness to openly discuss the various details with the United States.

The letter does not deal with nuclear ambiguity, which is an important part of Israel's nuclear policy. The answer on this issue is also unequivocal. There is no change in the policy of ambiguity. In the current conditions, there is also no intention to change the policy significantly. Moreover, there is known discussion of this matter at the top levels. Discussions in the security establishment in the framework of the redefinition of the defense perception have been of a different character from the outset.

Does this mean that nuclear ambiguity will continue to be Israel's policy forever? Right now, that is how it seems. The reality might change, but it is clear that the reason for a change must be substantial, such as nuclear armament by Arab countries. Even in such a case, a state, especially a small state, always maintains a certain degree of ambiguity. The ambiguity exists in many operational issues, including conventional weapons, and not only surrounding nuclear arms. This is exactly what Maj. Gen. Ben-Yisrael spoke about in his interview with Defense News. He emphasized the contradiction embedded in any deterrence: On one hand there is a tendency to reveal certain things, to deter, and on the other hand there is an aversion to exposure, to maintain some element of surprise against the enemy.

One must remember also that nuclear ambiguity is an important component of Israel's qualitative edge, and that removing it could also lead to a confrontation between Israel and the U.S. Congress. Israel does not want this, and it appears that Washington, too, prefers that Israel keep up its current nuclear ambiguity.

� copyright 1998 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved



Source: http://www3.haaretz.co.il/eng/scripts/show_katava.asp?id=28211&mador=4&datee=9/11/98


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