Disarming Dreams, Nuclear Realities

Opinion

By Avner Cohen

Published April 22, 2009, issue of May 01, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

President Obama’s landmark speech in Prague on April 5, in which he proclaimed “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” was certainly historic. But it was not entirely without precedent.

Ever since the days of Harry Truman, America’s first atomic president, almost every American administration — Democratic and Republican alike — has invoked the ideal of nuclear abolition in one form or another. Indeed, legally, the commitment to nuclear disarmament has been the law of the land ever since the United States Senate ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970. Article 6 of the treaty commits all signatories “to pursue… the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date.”

In the past, however, this talk was little more than idealistic rhetoric devoid of political content. One could make the case that no American president — with perhaps the short-lived exception of Ronald Reagan at Reykjavik in 1986 — took seriously the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Ever since the collapse of the Baruch Plan in 1946, the first and last American plan for comprehensive nuclear disarmament, such a vision has been anathema to American statesmen, diplomats and military leaders. A world without nuclear weapons was viewed as neither feasible, nor desirable. From this historical vantage, Obama’s pledge signifies the kind of transformative change he promised during his campaign.

Still, even as Obama committed himself in Prague to the vision of a nuclear weapons-free world, his commitment remains, for now, tentative and exploratory. This is prudent. At present, nobody in America or elsewhere has a thought-out plan for what the path to global nuclear zero would look like. Even the optimists among nuclear abolitionists think that it would take decades to achieve the goal of complete nuclear disarmament.

Meanwhile, progress toward this ambitious goal could easily be thwarted before it even has a chance to gain momentum. The first real test of the seriousness of Obama’s vision will be Iran. If Obama succeeds in persuading Iran not to become a nuclear-armed state (or a nearly nuclear-armed state), his global vision will be boosted. This requires a deal that would leave Iran unequivocally — politically and technically — within the non-nuclear-armed camp. Failure to achieve this would be also a major blow to Obama’s vision. If a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, such as Iran, is allowed to brazenly violate its treaty obligations, other countries would be loath to forswear the development of a nuclear weapons capability, and declared nuclear states would hardly be likely to take even modest steps toward giving up their existing arsenals.

Israel, meanwhile, presents a very special, if much more distant, challenge to Obama’s vision. Israel has been in possession of nuclear weapons since the late 1960s. Unlike Iran, Israel did not violate any international treaty obligations when it initiated its nuclear program half a century ago. This was only a decade after the Holocaust, when tiny Israel had no alliance with any international power, and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion feared a pan-Arab coalition would try to wipe Israel off the map. Israel had perhaps the strongest case of any nation — both morally and politically — to go nuclear in a world still lacking nonproliferation norms.

But Israel has never formally acknowledged its status as a nuclear power. Instead, Israel has maintained a policy known as “nuclear opacity,” in which it neither confirms nor denies having nuclear weapons. Israel assumed this stance in order to minimize the likelihood of Arab nuclear proliferation and to avoid confrontation with the United States. This policy was born out of a secret deal that Prime Minister Golda Meir made with President Richard Nixon in 1969. The United States knew about Israel’s nuclear capacity and understood the reasons for it, and Israel, for its part, pledged to keep its arsenal invisible — a pledge it has honored to this day.

At the time this policy was conceived, it made sense. Today, however, it puts Israel in an increasingly awkward position. Nuclear opacity is fundamentally incompatible with the logic and vision of nuclear disarmament, which requires transparency. If and when Obama’s vision advances to the stage of international consultations, Israel, with American diplomatic assistance, will have to find a way to come clean and abandon its policy of nuclear ambiguity.

This is a challenge that has a much broader political dimension. Since the early 1980s, Israel has publicly supported the vision of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. But it has emphasized that this goal could only be realized when all states in the region recognize one another.

Israel’s unique nuclear stance is an outgrowth of its unique regional circumstances. Until Israel succeeds in normalizing its international position, and achieves recognition from its neighbors, it will continue to present special challenges to those pursuing the goal of global nuclear disarmament.

Avner Cohen is the author of “Israel and the Bomb” (Columbia University Press, 1998) and the forthcoming “Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb,” due out next year from Columbia University Press.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.