On its face, the nuclear deal signed by the Bush administration and India, now heading for approval before Congress, sets a good precedent for Israel. In effect, Washington is rewarding a country that developed nuclear weapons in circumvention of the landmark nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, sanctioning its arsenal after the fact because of its responsible behavior.
But critics both in and outside of Congress counter that making such exceptions for nuclear violators at a time of major concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions could prove to be a double-edged sword from Israel’s point of view. By granting legitimacy to India’s nuclear arsenal, critics say that the deal will raise complaints of double standards and spark new calls for international scrutiny. Any such debate is likely to bring an unwelcome spotlight onto Israel and to re-energize longstanding calls by Muslim countries for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.
Early indications already have surfaced that Israel, which never has acknowledged its nuclear status, could face renewed pressure as new efforts emerge to forge a new and improved nuclear nonproliferation regime.
Earlier this month, as a step toward a nuclear-free Middle East, a United Nations commission on weapons of mass destruction recommended that Israel refrain from manufacturing more nuclear weapons. The call to Israel was among 60 recommendations released by the U.N. commission, which is chaired by Hans Blix, former head of weapons inspections in Iraq. But while the commission urged most nations to refrain from developing nuclear weapons, it urged Israel to stop manufacturing them.
Another possible source of pressure is a draft treaty, aimed at banning the production of fissile material, introduced by the United States last month at a U.N. conference on disarmament in Geneva. The 65-member conference has been deadlocked for years on the proposed treaty, known as the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, because of disagreements over whether it should cover existing stocks and include a verification regime. Israel joins with existing nuclear powers in opposing an intrusive mechanism, but developing countries consistently have called for the treaty to include total nuclear disarmament. The American draft would leave existing stockpiles untouched and does not envision inspections, irking Third World countries. However, among actual or presumed nuclear countries outside the Non-Proliferation regime, such as India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, the draft is raising concerns about increased international monitoring. The five official nuclear countries — America, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom — are believed to be observing a moratorium on the production of fissile material. Washington is calling for an agreement on the treaty by the end of the year.
The debate is unfolding amid new disclosures that appear to confirm Israel’s nuclear activities. Last month, the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot reported on a newly disclosed document. It indicated that the American government became aware in 1979 of a joint nuclear test conducted at the time by Israel and South Africa, on an offshore platform in the northern Antarctic. Yediot reported that an American satellite had detected the explosion, and analysts concluded that it was a nuclear test conducted by the two countries, according to a previously undisclosed document transmitted at the time to the Carter White House. Though Israel is believed to have a number of nuclear weapons, it has never acknowledged it officially.
Wade Boese, research director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, said that Israel would send a powerful message if it would announce the closing of its nuclear plant in Dimona. “It would show that Israel is moving towards the nuclear mainstream,” he said, noting that all five major nuclear powers have stopped producing fissile material. However, he acknowledged that the prospects of such a step were limited given the current tensions in the region, especially with Iran.
The America-India nuclear deal, signed in March during a visit to New Delhi by President Bush, grants India a special one-time exemption from the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, acknowledging India as a “responsible” nuclear weapons state. In exchange for accepting international inspections of its civilian program, New Delhi will be able to obtain foreign nuclear technology, including that of America. Such sales had been banned to both India and its archrival, Pakistan, ever since the two nations conducted nuclear tests in 1998. The March deal effectively recognizes India’s status as a nuclear power. No such move is expected with Pakistan, which remains under a cloud because of the scandal over the illegal sales of nuclear material to rogue states by its former leading nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan.
As part of the discussions with India, Washington has asked that New Delhi enact a legal ban on further nuclear testing and pledge adherence to the fissile materials cutoff treaty.
For the deal to come into effect, Congress must amend the Atomic Energy Act. The administration had hoped to push the changes through this summer, but it got only lukewarm support from the senior Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Discussion of the deal is now expected to take place only after the November midterm elections.
While the Israeli government has not taken a strong position on the India deal, some of Israel’s supporters in America, including the American Jewish Committee, have urged Congress to ratify it.
The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, also has endorsed the agreement, calling it a “win-win situation.”
“The Bush administration has been very careful to stress that this is not a friendly favor,” Boese said “But it does send the message that it has a selective approach to nonproliferation and that it acts out of concerns for the regime rather than the nuclear capabilities.”
In addition, some observers argue that the agreement weakens the West’s position vis-à-vis Iran. Tehran is signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It has allowed inspectors to visit its facilities, and it claims to be entitled to develop nuclear energy for civilian purposes. Western countries believe that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons, however, and are pressuring Tehran to suspend all its enrichment activities or face sanctions.