On Tuesday, at a rare joint session of Congress for a foreign leader, members of Congress will clap hands raw for Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel—a nation many members of Congress are incapable of speaking simple truths about.
The upshot of the professional wrestling “fight” between Obama and Netanyahu the last several days is that they both want the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be decided by “negotiations between the parties.” These “negotiations” are between a nuclear armed Goliath Israel and largely defenseless Palestinians. It’s like “negotiations” between the Corleone family and a bandleader—except we’re not even supposed to notice the Corleone family comes to the table with huge guns drawn.
Sunday at AIPAC Obama spoke of the “existential fear of Israelis when a modern dictator seeks nuclear weapons and threatens to wipe Israel off the face of the map—face of the Earth.” He spoke of “our commitment to our shared security in our determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” Obama said to applause from the attendees at the pro-Israel group: “So let me be absolutely clear—we remain committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. … Its illicit nuclear program is just one challenge that Iran poses.” Of course, Netanyahu is ever more vociferous in his accusations regarding Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.
But at his first news conference at the White House in February 2009, Obama was asked by Helen Thomas if he knew of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons. Obama replied that he didn’t want to “speculate.”
It’s simply not a credible position to have.
Obama is accusing Iran of having an “illicit nuclear program” (which seems to exaggerate the National Intelligence Estimate findings) while refusing to acknowledge the Israeli nuclear weapons arsenal. Mordechai Vanunu definitively exposed Israel’s nuclear weapons program in 1986 and was tossed into prison for 18 years, most of it in solitary confinement, for doing so. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that Israel has between 70 and 400 nuclear weapons. These weapons pose a real—not a potential or an imagined—threat to millions upon millions of people in and beyond the region. So do nuclear weapons held by other countries, but at least they are acknowledged.
But the U.S. and Israeli governments have maintained a stance of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” since Richard Nixon and Golda Meir made a deal on the matter and stopped nuclear inspections in Israel in 1970.
The U.S. government’s stance is particularly absurd given that the main pretext for invading Iraq was false claims about that country’s alleged possession of WMDs.
As part of Washington Stakeout, where I ask tough questions of politicians as they leave the Sunday morning chat shows, I’ve asked a host of politicians about Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Though they’ve varied somewhat in their answers, none has actually been straightforward.
John Negroponte, who when I questioned him was director of national intelligence, outright refused to engage on the issue: “I don’t want to get into a discussion about Israel’s nuclear powers.” While they were in office, Cheney and Rice wouldn’t stop for Stakeout questions at all.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told me that “there is no comparison between Israel and Iran, and those who would draw a comparison ignore the fact that Israel is our ally,” virtually defining what hypocrisy is. Similarly, I asked John Edwards, “Doesn’t Israel have nuclear weapons?” and he responded by voicing his concern about “Iran having a nuclear weapon” and the proliferation that would allegedly cause: “odds are high that if Iran goes nuclear that the Saudis will go nuclear, the Egyptians will go nuclear, the Jordanians may go nuclear”—all without acknowledging that Israel has nuclear weapons.
Which raises a central question: If Iran is going nuclear, why would that be? One possible answer is because Israel has nuclear weapons. Contrary to conventional wisdom, that seems to have been the case with Iraq. Imad Khadduri, who worked on the Iraq nuclear weapons program beginning in 1981—after Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor— told me that the Israeli attack actually drove him and others to work on a weapons program: “I worked on the pre-1981 nuclear program and I was certain it would not be used for military purposes. But after the 1981 bombing, we were so angry that we were ready to work on a military program.” (Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Khadduri argued that, contrary to what the Bush administration was claiming, the Iraqi nuclear weapons program had been dismantled.)
Another reason that regimes might get weapons of mass destruction is self-preservation. That is certainly a lesson one could draw looking at Iraq and Libya over the last 10 years: Both disarmed and both were attacked. Viewing U.S. policy in that light, it would seem rather suicidal for the Iranian government to not develop nuclear weapons. Of course, we don’t know that they are, but if anything, militarized U.S. policy seems to be pushing them in that direction.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who is vice-chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, paused when I asked him if he knew that Israel had nuclear weapons, then said, “I’m aware that Israel is our most cherished ally…” I followed up: “Do you think it increases or decreases U.S. credibility around the world when U.S. government officials can’t even acknowledge that Israel has a massive nuclear arsenal?” Pence stuck to his line: “The American people support Israel. I call Israel our most cherished ally…” He was utterly incapable of engaging on the issue.
Somewhat similarly, former ambassador Martin Indyk replied: “What does that got to do with it, sir?”
Newt Gingrich, initially when asked if he knew Israel had nuclear weapons, said “of course,” but then backtracked, saying it was a “guess” since the Israeli nuclear weapons program could be a “Potemkin village.” A friend retorted that perhaps Gingrich would be inclined to question the reality of the moon landings. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), when I questioned him, was chair of the House Armed Services Committee. He similarly said he “thought” Israel had nuclear weapons, but didn’t “know,” because “I’m not the government.”
I questioned Russ Feingold in 2010, shortly before he lost his seat, and he initially said, “I’m not free to comment on that.” I asked: “Why can you not say that Israel is a nuclear power, Senator?” Feingold replied: “I basically think it is, but I’m not somebody who is privy to all the details on that.” But Feingold was on the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time of this exchange. In any case, the necessary information on Israel’s nuclear weapons is public.
This year, I questioned John Kerry: “Do you know that Israel has a nuclear weapons program?” Kerry: “Sure. Everybody—it’s common knowledge and commonly understood.” Question: “Why won’t the administration acknowledge that?” Kerry: “I don’t know what the administration policy is on that.” It was good to get a “sure,” but it’s rather remarkable that Kerry states he doesn’t know what the administration policy is given that he is chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.
Former Minnesota governor—and current presidential aspirant—Tim Pawlenty: “It’s a determination for Israel. … If it’s been established as a matter of fact, it speaks for itself.” Thomas Pickering, former U.S. ambassador to the UN: “It’s a decision for Israel to make.”
In April 2007 I asked former president Jimmy Carter at the National Press Club about why no administration would acknowledge Israel’s nuclear weapons. He responded: “When I was president, I did not comment on Israel’s nuclear arsenal. But it’s generally known throughout the diplomatic and scientific world that Israel does have [a] substantial arsenal. … It’s [Israel’s nuclear power] well known anyway to every diplomat, scientist involved in nuclear affairs, it doesn’t make it incumbent or important that the president of the United States announces that another nation does have nuclear arsenal. … I don’t think it’s up to the U.S. government, president or officials to announce that another country does indeed have or have not nuclear arsenal if they themselves don’t acknowledge it. I don’t think it’s helpful to do that, but … it’s not harmful either because everybody knows it” (The Press Trust of India, April 5, 2007).
Finally, in 2008 Carter acknowledged the obvious truth somewhat more forthrightly: “The U.S. has more than 12,000 nuclear weapons; the Soviet Union [sic] has about the same; Great Britain and France have several hundred, and Israel has 150 or more.” Perhaps, when he is years out of office, Obama will tell the truth about things like Israel’s nukes.
In 2006, in what were described as “slips,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then-incoming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates referred to Israel’s nuclear arsenal.
As with anticipated moves at getting the Palestinian issue seriously before the United Nations in September of this year (a move Obama is denouncing), in 2009, the U.S., Canada, and other Western nations attacked and tried to block a vote by the International Atomic Energy Agency calling on Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. After 18 years of trying, the measure was finally passed.
In his widely heralded 2009 speech in Cairo, Obama emphasized the need for truth. It’s long past time to stop the games, get real about the Mideast, and have a fact-based discussion. A good place to start is an acknowledgment of the threatening elephant in the room that is Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
Many thanks to Chris Belcher of Alchymedia for camera and video work.