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Open Secrets

By Aluf Benn
Ha'aretz, Tuesday, March 14, 2000

In an appendix to the Wye agreement, President Clinton promised in writing that Israel's nuclear capabilities would be preserved if it continues its policy of 'ambiguity'

The safe of Zvi Stauber, the prime minister's foreign policy adviser, contains a small strategic treasure inherited from the office's former occupants: a letter from Bill Clinton to Benjamin Netanyahu promising that the United States will preserve Israel's strategic deterrence capabilities and ensure that Middle East arms control initiatives will not damage it in the future.The Clinton letter provides written - if secret - backup to the long-standing agreement between Jerusalem and Washington over the preservation of Israel's nuclear capabilities if Israel maintains its policy of "ambiguity" and does not announce publicly that it has the bomb. The letter was an appendix to the memo of strategic understanding that the then-prime minister and Clinton signed after the Wye River Memorandum. Clinton agreed to sign it only a few months after America's global nuclear policy was shattered by the shock waves of nuclear tests in India and Pakistan.

It was Uzi Arad, Netanyahu's foreign policy adviser, who initiated the letter. At the Wye conference in the fall of 1998, he and Israel's ambassador to Washington, Zalman Shoval, hammered out the document with American officials Martin Indyk and Bruce Reidel. This second, sensitive document reached the Prime Minister's Bureau a few weeks after the Wye agreement was signed, and Netanyahu sent Clinton a letter that Israeli sources say contained no obligations but only expressions of thanks.

Netanyahu saw Clinton's letter as one of his most important achievements, but is unwilling to discuss its contents. His successor, Ehud Barak, wants an updated strategic commitment from Clinton, to be included in the "relations upgrade" package if and when a peace treaty is signed with Syria. The plan is for Clinton to sign a new letter, with the exact same wording, but addressed to Barak rather than Netanyahu.

The American obligation will be tested next month at a meeting in New York of the signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Israel stands by its refusal to sign the treaty, which would eliminate its nuclear strength, and Jerusalem is readying for a diplomatic onslaught from Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, the sworn enemy of the Dimona nuclear reactor and its products.

The Egyptians are proposing a concluding statement that calls on Israel to sign the treaty and that establishes a nuclear disarmament monitoring committee for the Middle East. Both proposals worry Israel, which sought to exploit Egyptian President zqHosni Mubarak's visit to Washington next week in order to get the United States to use its powers of persuasion to soften Egypt's position and set "red lines" for its behavior at the conference. U.S. officials explained to Israel, however, that Clinton had already spoken with Mubarak.

Spring brings a thaw Mubarak's journeys to Washington are traditionally a time for thawing relations with Israel. The photographs and the handshakes with Barak and Foreign Minister David Levy at Sharm el Sheikh and Moussa's relatively moderate speech at the meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Beirut fit this annual ritual perfectly. Israeli officials are more interested in the other side of the visit, which is intended to further bolster Egypt's military might.

The Egyptian chief of staff visited the United States recently, and Mubarak will raise his request for the prepayment of his country's military aid, which comes to an addition of tens of millions of dollars per year to its purchasing budget - a favor that only Israel has enjoyed in the past. The Americans, however, are unwilling to listen to Israeli warnings of the threat posed by Egypt's growing strength. To them, Egypt is a friendly country and strengthening it will only contribute to the desired stability in the region.

U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk continues to sing the glories of the defense pact. At a meeting last week with an American Jewish Committee delegation, Indyk spoke of the advantages for Israel of a defense pact, such as the one between the United States and NATO countries, as well as the ones between the U.S. and Japan and South Korea; Indyk also spoke of the rare opportunity afforded for peace with Syria. But Israel has already informed the United States that it does not want a defense pact. Rather, it seeks a slightly less binding strategic agreement consisting mainly of American promises to continue aid and to preserve the qualitative superiority of the Israel Defense Forces.

Clinton proposed the pact to Netanyahu during their nighttime meeting in early 1998, shortly before the Monica Lewinsky affair broke. In between breaks for tense talks with his advisers, the president asked Netanyahu whether he thought a defense pact would help the peace process. The former prime minister answered that he saw a problem with such a binding agreement, which would limit the IDF's freedom to initiate and respond, and promised to consider the proposal. Some of Netanyahu's advisers supported the idea, including Uzi Arad, who suggested that Israel should enjoy a status similar to that of Great Britain's strategic intimacy with Washington. But the idea was never explored fully during Netanyahu's term.

Shoring up the agreement Israel's political-defense establishment has been focused in recent weeks on preparing to make Barak's dream of peace with Syria come true. Four teams were charged with creating the foundation of the agreement - strengthening relations with America. The director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Eytan Bentsur, charged the deputy director-general for North America, Yoram Ben-Ze'ev, with the task of preparing an informational file and recruiting support for underwriting the enormous aid package that Israel is requesting in exchange for withdrawing from the Golan Heights. Defense Ministry Director-General Amos Yaron is putting together the $17 billion package. Political adviser Zvi Stauber heads the team working on upgrading relations and framing the new strategic agreement.

The director of Military Intelligence, Major General Amos Malcha, is talking with the Americans about freedom of access to advanced intelligence-gathering systems that would free Israel of its dependence on the Mount Hermon early-warning station. Malcha, a member of the "Syrian lobby" in the Israeli elite, was sent to the United States before Barak's first visit in July 1999 to speak about the Syrians' interest in peace. Last week he was in Washington again, this time to talk about the early warning systems. Officials in Jerusalem believe that this time there is a chance of getting the photographs from the American spy satellites in real time.

In their talks at the Pentagon, Defense Ministry director-general Amos Yaron and his deputy, Yekutiel Mor, presented their aid request. A few questions, mainly related to accounting, were raised by the Americans and are still on the table. The main sticking point for the Americans is the request for hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles that would enable the IDF to reach sites within Iraq and Iran with great accuracy.

We have a problem with that, the Pentagon officials told their Israeli colleagues; we are signatories to a pile of arms control treaties with Russia and members of international missile nonproliferation agreements. How can we give you Tomahawks while we are preaching the opposite to the whole world? What do you need such weapons for, anyway?

The Israelis responded that after the Tomahawk's persuasive performance in Baghdad and Belgrade, where the United States used them to punish the Iraqis and Serbs, the cruise missile has a considerable deterrent value. In an era of peace, Israel will face distant enemies, without a common border, and it will find it hard to respond to an Iranian or Iraqi missile launch with an attack by aircraft - which would entail penetrating the airspace of neighboring countries and violating peace treaties with them. The long-range missile also requires much less infrastructure and preparation than aircraft, and provides the political echelon with a long operational arm without endangering pilots. For all these reasons, Israel sees the Tomahawk as a central tool in its defense policy after peace is reached with Syria.

American officials denied yesterday a report in Defense News that the administration has already refused to give Tomahawks to Israel. The final decision will come in due time, between Clinton and Barak, and Israel will probably agree to certain restrictions or to American supervision of the cruise missiles, as long as it can take possession of them.

Six weeks to go Officials in the Prime Minister's Bureau look at the calendar and see that time is running out before May, when a decision must be made - an agreement with Syria or maintaining the state of war for years to come. The prime minister spoke at this week's Cabinet meeting about six weeks of waiting. The updated assessment of the situation explains that the schedule was cut back due to the outcome of the primaries in the United States, which shortened by one month the internal campaign and the outgoing president's political life. Congress is already looking at Clinton's potential successors, George W. Bush and Al Gore.

The pressure is causing the pace to pick up for the fifth team set up by Barak, which is preparing for the referendum. It unequivocally recommended a "double referendum," for the simultaneous approval of peace with Syria and the final status arrangement with the Palestinians. Internal polls have shown that voting in favor of the government would increase significantly if the Palestinian question were included in the Golan referendum. According to a source close to Barak, the polls show between 62 and 63 percent support for a double referendum, compared to 56 percent support for a referendum on the Syrian agreement only. The explanation for the jump in support is that the public would prefer an end to wars in one fell swoop over continued foot-dragging on the fragmentary peace process. But first of all, Barak is still waiting for a green light from Syrian President Hafez Assad.

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