No sooner had U.S. and Russian intelligence experts concluded Iran will have a nuclear bomb in three years and President Obama told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu he's giving Tehran another six months to get serious about negotiations than Tehran again changed the facts on the ground. A new missile launch brought Tel Aviv, U.S. bases in the Middle East, and parts of Europe into its lethal range, and moved the ticking nuclear apocalypse clock closer to midnight. This latest in-your-face provocation should give pause to the Obama administration's reported demand that Israel sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Just why did Israel go nuclear in the first place? In the 1960s, long before Iranian President Ahmadinejad's genocidal rants, another head of a pivotal Middle Eastern regime, Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser, committed to securing "atomic weapons at any costs" and campaigned to "drive Israel into the sea." Rather than wait around to see if Nasser was serious, Israel developed its own deterrent nuclear capacity, refusing to release details but pledging never to be the first to introduce nukes in the region.
For 40 years, Israel has honored its "no first use" policy, not only in theory, but in practice in 1973 when its very survival was threatened by the combined Egyptian-Syrian surprise Yom Kippur attack that could have been easily repulsed by tactical nuclear weapons. Israel has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, though it attended a 2008 conference dedicated to removing the threat of nuclear war from the Mideast. Contrast Israel's consistent non-provocative behavior with North Korea which signed it, violated it to develop nuclear weapons and missiles, and then withdrew from the Treaty!
The U.S.'s pursuit of non-proliferation has been far from stellar. In 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave a basketball signed by Michael Jordan to Kim Jong-Il—a big fan of the NBA but, unfortunately, also of nukes. The subsequent Bush administration pursuit of a full-court diplomatic press through six-power talks to restrain North Korea proved an abject failure. Pakistan followed India in unleashing the nuclear genie on the Subcontinent, and then allowed national hero Sir Ahmad Khan to proliferate nuclear weapons technology from Tehran to Pyongyang. Today, the world holds its collective breath with the Taliban at the gates of Islamabad and way too close to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
While most Arab leaders won't say so publicly, they—and the United States—share the Jewish State's interest in preventing the apocalyptic Ahmadinejad from acquiring the imminent nuclear means to go with his long-proclaimed vision to "wipe Israel from the map," to destroy the American "Great Satan"—and, along with it, the entire Mideast state system.
Instead of building a new coalition to thwart the threats from Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel both took pains to link the issue to fast-tracking an independent Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller broke with 40 years of consistent U.S. policy by explicitly demanding that Israel join India, Pakistan, and North Korea in signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Is our diplomatic use of a seemingly moral equivalence regarding nukes between Israel, rogue states like North Korea, and failed states like Pakistan really going to restrain Tehran's mad mullahs? Only in the minds of those who, like Atlantic Monthly blogger Andrew Sullivan, believe that Iran's acquisition of a nuke or two might serve as a wholesome counterpoint to a "warmongering" Israel.
Even Israel's greatest critics acknowledge that Shimon Peres, currently Israel's president, is the Jewish state's most ardent advocate for peace with the Palestinians and the larger Arab neighborhood. Less known is that he was the father of Israel's secret nuclear efforts, dating back a half a century. In April, 1963, he told President Kennedy at the White House that "Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East."
Peres—who has told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that Israel would be willing to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty within two years after the establishment of "regional peace"—believes that it was Israel's unstated but obvious nuclear capabilities that helped set the stage for peace with Egypt and that may yet encourage others to follow—but not if Iran's fanatics get their way.
Policy makers who want a successful two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should think twice before they revise U.S. nonproliferation policy of calculated silence about Israel's undeclared nuclear deterrent. Against the backdrop of Tehran's genocidal threats to Israel, its lengthening missile reach, and its destabilizing campaign against Egypt, the U.S. and its European allies should be counting on Israel's nuclear deterrence, not seeking ways to degrade it. Far from stabilizing the region, any change in U.S. policy could unleash the nuclear dominos in the world's most dangerous neighborhood. Tehran's missile launch sent an unmistakable challenge to Mr. Obama. The president's response should leave no ambiguities about Israel's continued right to maintain her nuclear deterrence.
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Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Harold Brackman, a historian, is a consultant to the Wiesenthal Center.