Biden Should End U.S. Hypocrisy on Israeli Nukes
For decades, U.S. presidents have pledged not to talk about Israel’s nuclear arsenal despite pushing for nonproliferation in the region. It’s time for Washington to end the double standard.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
Until Feb. 17, U.S. President Joe Biden had delayed making the usual post-inauguration ceremonial call to the Israeli prime minister. Washington insiders concluded that the apparent cold shoulder meant Biden had not yet signed “the letter,” which Israel routinely demands of U.S. presidents to ensure the United States doesn’t mention Israel’s nuclear weapons when discussing proliferation in the region or pressure the Israeli government to reduce its formidable atomic arsenal.
As described by Adam Entous in a 2018 New Yorker article, every U.S. president since Bill Clinton has, at Israeli insistence, signed a secret letter upon entering office that effectively pledges the United States will not “press the Jewish state to give up its nuclear weapons so long as it continued to face existential threats in the region.” Whatever policy the United States adopts toward Israeli nuclear weapons, it’s time it stopped this demeaning rite.
The consequence for U.S. policy has been that the United States does not press Israel to give up its nuclear weapons—when doing so would have been the only course consistent with U.S. nonproliferation policy. However, Washington actively assists Israel, both diplomatically by quashing discussion of its nuclear weapons in international forums and materially by looking the other way at nuclear-related Israeli violations of law, including some within the United States.
This included pretending in 1979 that what was almost certainly an Israeli nuclear test in the South Indian Ocean, which was observed by a U.S. satellite, didn’t happen. Former President Jimmy Carter’s White House and its successors classified documents and debunked what was known, but the signal evidence is extremely compelling, as we and others have detailed in Foreign Policy.
Perhaps the worst result of accommodating Israeli demands for such letters is that the U.S. government has voluntarily blinded itself by pretending not to know anything about Israeli nuclear weapons—and thus corrupted its efforts at coherent and constructive policymaking.
By maintaining this fictional ignorance within the government, when everyone on Earth who has the slightest interest in the subject knows the truth, the U.S. government has promulgated a regulation—described in the U.S. Energy Department’s Classification Bulletin WPN-136 on Foreign Nuclear Capabilities—that threatens government employees with severe punishment if they acknowledge Israel has nuclear weapons. Naturally, the regulation is withheld from public release. The government hides behind a stretched reading of the Freedom of Information Act’s exemption for documents that “would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions,” which the withheld material would not.
At former President Barack Obama’s first televised press conference, the late journalist Helen Thomas asked him whether he knew of any nuclear armed countries in the Middle East. Obama was already primed with the right answer: “With respect to nuclear weapons, you know, I don’t want to speculate,” as if an intelligent person couldn’t be sure. Such presidential statements provide guidance for the rest of the government. At a meeting we attended during the Obama administration, a senior state department official—an intelligent man—covered his embarrassment for following the party line by saying sheepishly, “personally, of my own knowledge, I can’t be sure.”
There is a myth that this charade is required because of a secret 1969 understanding between former U.S. President Richard Nixon and former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Supposedly, she promised not to test a nuclear weapon and he promised not to press Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or give up its nuclear weapons.
The trouble with this conclusion, so confidently presented by historians and officials, is that Nixon and Meir spoke alone with no aides present, not even the ubiquitous Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and there is nothing in writing that reveals what they talked about. Nevertheless, successive Israeli governments have bluffed U.S. officials into accepting a supposed obligation to continue to protect their nuclear weapons from public disclosure or criticism.
The press occasionally mentions Israeli nuclear weapons, but journalists hesitate to ask a government official about the subject, knowing it is not helpful to a journalist’s career to venture into that territory.
But the stakes are much higher at a time when nuclear proliferation in the region is a global concern and a growing risk. A government that is not able to admit that Israel has nuclear weapons cannot credibly discuss the issue of nuclear proliferation elsewhere in the Middle East. This leads to more foolishness. The 2010 NPT Review Conference voted unanimously to have a Middle East conference discussing the problems of a ban on nuclear weapons.
The day after his own conference delegate voted in favor of the discussion, Obama trashed the idea: “Our view is that a comprehensive and durable peace in the region and full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and nonproliferation obligations are essential precursors for [a ban’s] establishment. … We strongly oppose efforts to single out Israel and will oppose actions that jeopardize Israel’s national security.” Although this secrecy-driven policy is what the Israelis insist on so they can maintain their ambiguity, it isn’t at all clear that it is to Israel’s ultimate advantage, as the scholar Avner Cohen has argued. It certainly isn’t to the United States’ advantage.
One can imagine this statement’s effect on the credibility of U.S. pronouncements regarding the need to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons. U.S. credibility is critical because recently, the Saudi crown prince and the Turkish president have cast doubt on their NPT pledges not to obtain nuclear weapons, and Iran’s nuclear future continues to be in doubt. The idea of a conference on a nuclear-free Middle East is also not going away—the Egyptian foreign minister said Egypt will bring the issue up again in the NPT Review Conference scheduled for August 2021. Signing the letter would force a repeat of Obama’s performance.
In this respect, the behavior of U.S. officials appears to track with Israel’s famous policy of ambiguity regarding nuclear weapons. But there is a difference: U.S. presidents sign the letter, and the government keeps mum. But ironically, the Israelis find ways, without mentioning the word nuclear, to brag about their nuclear weapons.
They have their own triad: nuclear-tipped land-based missiles (of French design), nuclear-capable aircraft (U.S. design), and advanced German submarines armed with Israeli long-range nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. When the last addition to their submarine fleet arrived from Germany in 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of the devastation this submarine could wreak on Israel’s enemies if they were to try to harm the country. You can’t inspire fear if you don’t give adversaries an idea of what you are capable of.
The United States has put itself in a ridiculous position. If Israel wants to maintain ambiguity about its nuclear arsenal—whether for national security or domestic bureaucratic reasons to avoid scrutiny—that is its business. But the United States’ acceptance or rejection of a muzzle on what it can say is now Biden’s business.
There may have been a time when revealing Israeli nuclear capabilities might have produced a seriously adverse reaction from the Soviets, perhaps assisting nuclear weapon programs in Arab states, but that time has long passed. The United States is now in the process of trying to keep Iran from developing the wherewithal to obtain nuclear weapons. Washington cannot credibly or effectively discuss the subject without acknowledging that Israel has nuclear weapons too.
The letter Israel expects all U.S. presidents to sign supposedly speaks of U.S. protection so long as Israel faces “existential threats”—which raises the question of whether Israel still faces any such threats, especially after the landmark 2020 Abraham Accords and other agreements with key Arab states. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his Senate hearing, spoke of Israeli security being “sacrosanct” as if it were a David surrounded by Goliaths.
It is time to update Washington’s thinking. Israel is a powerful, nuclear-armed state—stronger than all of its neighbors combined. The United States’ credibility and standing as it seeks to prevent further regional proliferation are more important than indulging Israel in a charade that undermines U.S. interests.
Victor Gilinsky, a physicist, was a commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations.