Thursday, August 24, 2000 5:28

How long can nuclear ambiguity last?

By Ze'ev Schiff

Dr. Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb, argues that a lack of public debate about "nuclear ambiguity" is detrimental to Israeli democracy.Does his view of democracy require the publication of operational details that no country with nuclear weapons releases or even shares with its partners in alliances? Or maybe he thinks we need a referendum to assess whether Israel needs to maintain its policy of nuclear ambiguity - thereby allowing Shas and its Torah sages to meddle in this issue too.

What does nuclear ambiguity have to do with the character of a democratic country today? A blatantly non-democratic government run by a white minority in South Africa decided to scrap the nuclear weapons it had developed. This decision didn't turn the apartheid government into a democracy overnight.

Anyway, a public opinion poll in Israel after the Gulf War showed widespread public support for the claim that Israel needs to maintain nuclear weapons. Arguments can be marshalled to oppose the view of Knesset members who say the topic isn't fit for public discussion.

But arguments about stifling public debate have to cite the 1950's and early 1960's, when the censor and security establishment prevented any disclosure of internal arguments about the Bomb.

The argument today should properly center on national-security needs in the future. The nuclear issue is just one topic that needs to be addressed. It appears that no Israeli security invention has been more successful than the policy of "nuclear ambiguity." All governments have adopted it and has stood the test of decades.

The United States tacitly condoned Israel's position, although the ambiguity concept is at odds with US policy to halt nuclear proliferation. This tacit acceptance was based on the assumption that Israel wouldn't carry out nuclear tests.

Less ambiguity is not to be confused with disarmament. Dropping the ambiguity at a time when foreign reports suggest that Israel continues to maintain a nuclear program would raise proposals for advancing stages usually required by such a program.

The Arabs, led by Egypt, have come to accept that Israel's nuclear policy will remain in place so long as there is no comprehensive peace. Israel's willingness to discuss disarmament in the future is linked to this implicit Arab acceptance.

Israeli deterrence was just for being based on the policy of ambiguity. The view that it encouraged Arab countries to seek a peaceful resolution to the dispute with Israel is probably correct.

It's unlikely that Israel's nuclear policy could remain ambiguous forever, and it's naive to think that a shift to a policy of nuclear declaration will result from newspaper reports. Even if thousands of reports and "revelations" accumulate still they shouldn't determine the official policy.

A more realistic reason for renewed discussions on nuclear policy - including ambiguity - would emerge from any appearance of nuclear weapons in Iran, especially if it was marked by nuclear tests. The might be yet a different scenario if the Iranians did not make any tests.

But it's doubtful that Israel would automatically move to a policy of nuclear declaration in response to a nuclear Iran.

The Iranians certainly learned from mistakes made by Saddam Hussein when his plans to develop weapons of mass destruction were exposed and dismantled - and Israel too has learned to have its nuclear cake and eat it.

Rather than declaring itself to be a nuclear power, why shouldn't Iran mimic Israel and opt for a policy of nuclear ambiguity? Thus the region would face two versions of nuclear ambiguity. One would be Israel's long-standing, balanced policy, the other Iran's new stance. It is a scenario that might not survive long if other countries in the region begin to stockpile nuclear weapons too.