The Israeli nuke kerfuffle

The Israeli nuke kerfuffle

Barack Obama’s commitment to diplomacy in the Middle East has been giving many in Israel heart palpitations since before the U.S. presidential election. Specifically, his declared intention to engage Iran has stoked Israeli fears that Tehran will take advantage of the breathing space to advance its nuclear program. In addition, says University of Maryland nukes expert Avner Cohen, Israel has long worried that in negotiations, Iran might try to link any meaningful nuclear concessions it might make to opening up Israel’s own presumed nuclear weapons program to international scrutiny. 

But Israel’s anxieties have now gone into overdrive after a recent article in the Washington Times highlighting comments made by the newly confirmed assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, Rose Gottemoeller (above left), at a conference in New York on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

“Universal adherence to the NPT itself, including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea … remains a fundamental objective of the United States,” Gottemoeller said, as cited by Reuters.

“She declined to say, however, whether the Obama administration would press Israel to join the treaty,” the Washington Times noted, after declaring in its lead paragraph that Gottemoeller’s comments indicated the Obama administration was prepared to “derail a 40-year-old secret U.S. agreement to shield Israel’s nuclear weapons from international scrutiny.”

U.S. officials and U.S. and Israeli nuclear experts dispute that interpretation.

Asked whether Gottemoeller’s comments indicate a shift in America’s position, a State Department spokesman said such an interpretation is “overblown,” adding, “We have always said that we wanted NPT to be universal — implicitly including Israel” as well as other countries that have not signed the NPT, including India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Gottemoeller “is saying a lot of things that sound more dramatic than they are,” he added.

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, and a former colleague of Gottemoeller’s at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, echoed the sentiment. “This story is overblown,” he told The Cable. “There is no change in the U.S. position. The U.S. has always supported universal adherence to the treaty. Rose just said it up front rather then burying it.”

The University of Maryland’s Cohen, an expert on Israel’s nuclear program, said Gottemoeller’s comments were nuanced, and not signals of an operational shift in Washington’s position.

Gottemoeller’s comment was “amplified much beyond its real worth, to make it an example of, or evidence that, the Obama administration had already started to depart from its traditional backing of Israel.” Cohen told The Cable, “I do not believe that is the case, surely not yet.”

The crux of her statement, that the United States supports the future goal of universal adoption of the NPT, is “essentially consistent with U.S. policy under Democratic administrations and support for NPT” and arms control treaties, Cohen added. Her comments “were unrelated to the fact that operationally, the U.S. would continue to shield Israel’s nuclear program from international pressure.” (Gottemoeller did not immediately respond to a query.)

So then what accounts for the story, which a source told The Cable the newspaper had before Gottemoeller delivered her remarks? Who would want to give Israel the impression that the Obama administration was prepared to toss the country’s so-far-undeclared nuclear program on the table as a bargaining chip?

The answer might have more to do with American domestic politics than with U.S.-Israeli relations. The story just happened to drop in the midst of the large annual AIPAC policy conference earlier this week, which brought some 6,500 pro Israel supporters to Washington. At the conference, conservative critics of the Obama administration, like Newt Gingrich, attacked the president as no friend of Israel, while indicating his own support — if he were president — to order strikes on Iran and North Korea.  

(Of course, it could be a coincidence that the UN NPT meeting at which Gottermoeller spoke happened to fall during the AIPAC conference. Whatever the case, the spin of the story as it was presented served to fuel Israeli anxiety, at a time that Israeli wariness about the Obama administration’s intentions to engage Iran and push for a Middle East peace settlement is already heightened.)

When added to the NPT issue, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden‘s call at the AIPAC conference for Israel to stop its settlement expansion and Israeli President Shimon Peres‘s subdued demeanor upon leaving a meeting with Obama at the White House Tuesday, “causes severe nervousness here,” an Israeli diplomat told The Cable Wednesday. “And, further, builds a drama over Netanyahu’s trip to D.C. in two weeks.”