The Israeli protests against its new right-wing government have now touched on Israel’s nuclear weapons. To underline what is at stake, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak cast aside Israeli ambiguity over whether it possesses nuclear weapons to warn his compatriots that Western diplomats are worried that a Jewish messianic dictatorship could gain control over Israel’s nuclear weapons.
One thing we can be sure of is that the United States was not officially represented among those Western diplomats. American diplomats—in fact all US government employees—are forced to pretend they know nothing about Israeli nuclear weapons. Since everyone knows it’s not true, the pretense hobbles America’s policy on restraining the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Barak’s acknowledgment of Israel’s weapons, backhanded as it was, should free the United States from this outdated omerta.
The popular explanation of the US gag on Israeli nuclear weapons is that it is required by a September 1969 deal between Richard Nixon and Israel’s then-prime minister Golda Meir in which America would accept a nuclear-armed Israel and both would keep Israel’s nuclear weapons secret. US policy toward Israeli nuclear weapons was indeed eased after their meeting, but judging by Nixon’s memoirs, it was because he didn’t care much whether Israeli had them. His main interest was to gain Israeli support in the Cold War.
They spoke alone, kept no notes, and told no one what they talked about. A memorandum days later to the president from Henry Kissinger, then his national security advisor, shows even he knew little about the conversation. As to maintaining secrecy, they didn’t need a formal agreement. Nixon and Meir both understood a declared Israeli nuclear arsenal would have led to pressure on Moscow to provide their Arab allies with nuclear weapons. [Continue reading…]