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Nuclear Spotlight Shifts from Libya to Israel

by Peter Hirschberg
Inter Press Service
9 January 2004

JERUSALEM (IPS) - The decision last month by Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi to relinquish his weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles will have enhanced the sense among Israeli leaders that their regional strategic position, already improved by the toppling of Saddam Hussein, was far better at the start of 2004 than it had been at the start of the previous year.

But any rejoicing will have been shortlived, as Israeli decision-makers quickly began to understand that the decision by the flamboyant Libyan leader had suddenly reopened the discussion on monitoring of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East. This cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the Jewish state's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal, which no Israeli government has ever officially acknowledged.

In the wake of Gadhafi's announcement, as well as Iran's declared willingness to accept nuclear inspections, both Egypt and Syria have recently called on Israel to give up the bomb.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, now facing threats of U.S. sanctions similar to those encountered by Gadhafi, repeated that call on a trip to Turkey earlier this week.

Gadhafi made specific mention of Israel after his shock pronouncement. He reasoned that if other countries in the region followed his example, pressure would grow on Israel to follow suit. "This would tighten the noose around the Israelis so that they would expose their programmes and their weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Following Iran's declaration, and possibly knowing that a Libyan deal was in the works, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohammed ElBaradei called on Israel last month to give up its nuclear weapons as part of a regional peace agreement.

ElBaradei suggested Israel was fueling a WMD race in the Middle East. He said he feared a situation in which "there will be continued incentive for the region's countries to develop weapons of mass destruction to match the Israeli arsenal."

Arab League chief Amr Moussa sounded a similar note Wednesday, saying that Israel's possession of WMDs would "perhaps" lead other countries in the region to try "to protect themselves against such weapons."

Despite the diplomatic heat, Israel is not about to alter its decades-old policy of "nuclear ambiguity". It neither admits to, nor denies, having nuclear weapons -- and the United States is not about to force it to do so. Israel continues to view nuclear deterrence, even if undeclared, as the ultimate guarantee of its survival in a hostile neighbourhood.

But that does not mean the changing nuclear climate has gone unnoticed in the Israeli Foreign Ministry or the defence establishment. Officials are considering the question whether Israel should agree to monitoring of its own free will sometime down the line, or wait until outside pressures become irresistible.

There has been speculation in the wake of Libya's move that Israel might consider ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) if other countries in the region do the same. But the longstanding position of countries like Egypt and Syria, both believed to have chemical weapons, is that they will not sign th CWC until Israel signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Prof. Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv is unconcerned by the greater scrutiny of Israel that Gadhafi's decision has spawned. He views Libya's move as a positive development. "It's good news," he told IPS. "It removes a threat (to Israel)."

Inbar, who supports the "ambiguity" policy, is less enthusiastic about Iran's acceptance of nuclear inspections. "They might adopt the talk-and-build strategy of North Korea," he says.

Israel's nuclear programme began in the 1950s and was spearheaded by former prime minister and now Labour Party leader Shimon Peres. He initiated the building of a nuclear reactor with French assistance in the southern desert town Dimona. The project has been shrouded in almost complete secrecy ever since. There is no public monitoring of the facility.

That secrecy was breached once in 1986 when a technician at the reactor, Mordechai Vanunu, disclosed information about the facility to Britain's Sunday Times. Based on his disclosures, it was estimated that Israel has some 200 nuclear warheads.

Vanunu paid a price for the whistleblowing. He was abducted by Israeli agents from Rome, brought to Israel and sentenced to 18 years in jail. He is up for release in April.

Israeli officials have hinted he will not be allowed to leave the country, lest he disclose further information. Some observers have suggested, though, that the nuclear speculation fueled by Vanunu's revelations actually boosted Israel's deterrence capacity.

Vanunu is viewed as something of a hero in nuclear disarmament circles, but many Israelis consider his behaviour treasonous. A recent opinion poll conducted for the state-run Israel Radio indicates that any pressure on Israel to dismantle its purported nukes will not come from within, where there is broad consensus on the issue.

A majority of Israelis (77.4 percent) believe their country has nuclear capability, and 56.1 percent said they opposed giving it up even if the Middle East becomes a WMD-free zone, according to the survey. Some 25 percent said they would support such a move.

The liberal Israeli daily Ha'aretz seemed to reflect public opinion when it wrote in an editorial early January that "in the Middle East where there are still many groups that reject the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state in the region, it is too early to discuss Israel's nuclear capabilities."

Shimon Peres came closest among Israeli leaders to confessing to having the bomb. He suggested to a group of newspaper and magazine editors in 1995 when he was prime minister that in the event of comprehensive regional peace he would scrap his country's nukes. He is quoted as having said, "give me peace and we'll give up the atom. That's the whole story."

With no prospects of regional peace on the horizon, that is unlikely to happen soon. The one party that could force Israel to give up its nuclear weapons is the United States. But U.S. officials speaking anonymously have told Israeli media in recent days that Washington is not about to lean on its key Mideast ally..

"The United States knows we have a special problem," says Inbar. " That there are countries who want to destroy us. That as long as there is no comprehensive peace, this matter will remain untouched."

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