A disturbing comment in Vienna was picked up in Jerusalem Tuesday, May 5, at the same time that President Barack Obama was talking to Israeli President Shimon Peres in the White House.
US Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller said on the second day of a two-week meeting of the 189 signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty: “India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel should join the nuclear NPT, the global pact designed to limit the spread of atomic weapons.”
Defending the US-India civilian nuclear deal, which developing nations have complained rewards New Delhi for staying outside the NPT, she said:
“Universal adherence to the NPT itself, including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea … remains a fundamental objective of the United States.”
The meeting hopes to agree on an agenda and plan to overhaul the treaty at a review conference next year.
Speaking to reporters later, Gottemoeller declined to say whether Washington was preparing new steps to press Israel to join the treaty and give up any nuclear weapons it is reputed to have stocked.
In Washington, a senior administration official was asked the same question and replied “no comment”.
Nevertheless, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that the comment set red lights flashing in Jerusalem over a hard question: Is President Obama proposing a tit-for-tat deal that would hold up Israel's nuclear capabilities as a bargaining chip for negotiating a nuclear disarmament accord with Tehran?
Wednesday, May 6, a senior official at the Israeli Foreign Ministry cited the shortcomings of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in failing to prevent the spread of nuclear arms to non-member countries. It had not stopped Iraq and Libya from acquiring them or proved a panacea for proliferation in the case of Iran.
“It is hard to understand the insistence on a treaty that has proved inefficient,” said the Israeli official. “We are baffled by Washington raising the question of Israel signing.”
Might four decades of secret cooperation be held hostage?
At stake is US concurrence in Israel's nuclear “ambiguity” policy, which originated in a tacit agreement reached in 1969 by prime minister Golda Meir and president Richard Nixon and was carried on by subsequent US presidents. This tactic has allowed Israel to avoid admitting to the possession of nuclear arms while enjoying the strategic advantages of a nuclear power.
The Gottemoeller remark in Vienna is feared in Jerusalem as presaging a decision by President Obama to inform Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu that this unwritten contract is nullified when they meet formally for the first time at the White House on May 18.
Since the 1970's, every new Israeli prime minister organized an early trip to Washington to get the contract extended by the incumbent president without delay. Its renewal has served for decades as the core of the special strategic, military and intelligence ties binding the US and Israel and of Washington's commitment to the security of the Jewish state.
Over the years, some US presidents automatically extended the pact unaltered, while others broadened its scope.
When he meets Obama, Netanyahu will be bidding for extension for the second time. In 1998, after his election to his first term as prime minister, he applied to President Bill Clinton, who acquiesced.
Eleven years later, he is not at all sure that Barack Obama will follow suit.
Israeli political and military officials are trying to double-guess the US president's tactics on this matter, DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources report from Jerusalem.
One supposition is that Obama will inform Netanyahu that the pact must be renegotiated. It would not be the first time a US president has taken this tack.
George W. Bush turned prime minister Ariel Sharon down in 2002. Their personal relations were not good and only when they thawed two years later, did Bush affix his name to the “ambiguity” accord.
Obama refusal would be taken in Jerusalem as pressure to force Israel to toe the White House line on Iran and the Palestinians. In this context, decision-makers in Jerusalem are beginning to suspect that when administration officials link “progress on the Iranian nuclear program to progress with the Palestinians”, they are referring obliquely to the fate of the nuclear ambiguity pact between the US and Israel.
A cornered Israel pushed to attack?
This might not happen all at once. Reputed to be pragmatist, the US president may not take things to extremes at first, but ask for time to consider, just as the Israeli prime minister has taken time to form his Middle East policy.
But, meanwhile, Obama will hold the option of withholding his approval of the nuclear accord with Israel if relations deteriorate over disputed issues. He may also propose that both governments set up teams to negotiate the terms of renewal, another way of keeping his options open.
The worst scenario for Israel would be a directive to US negotiators facing Iran to promise to withhold US presidential consent from Israel if Iran undertakes to halt its nuclear weapons program on the threshold of production. This would create an opening for the Obama administration to work for the total denuclearization of the Middle East and Gulf.
Is this Barack Obama's end-game?
The US president has made global nuclear disarmament a high priority for his administration – in part to undercut Iran's and North Korea's rationale for proliferation. His administration is negotiating a new nuclear arms limitation treaty with Russia and advocates another treaty covering the production of fissile material.
“To cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons,” Obama said last month in Prague. “If we are serious about stopping the spread of these weapons, then we should put an end to the dedicated production of weapons-grade materials that create them.”
The next question for Israel could evolve from this Obama proposition: If the United States adopts this position and Iran is willing to sign on, why wouldn't you?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources see no chance of any Israeli government signing on, certainly not as long as Tehran and its proxies are sworn to wipe the Jewish state off the map. Cornering the Netanyahu government on this issue, as Rose Gottemoeller suggested doing this week, would give Jerusalem one more compelling motive for attacking Iran's military nuclear program and destroying it before its leaders can make good on their oath.