THE AGE: Israel risks pariah status over secretive weapons policy 30Nov13 November 30, 2013
by Avner Cohen and Shane MasonÂ Â -Â Â The AgeÂ Â -Â Â 30 November 2013
Illustration: Jim Pavlidis
In a revealing recent exchange, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his outgoing national security adviser, former general Ya’akov Amidror, offered two competing visions of Israel’s future and its self-image.
On November 3, Netanyahu articulated what he calls the most important question facing Israeli leaders. ”How do we make certain that the most challenged and threatened state on the face of the earth not only continues to survive but continues to defend itself, to build up its strength, to prosper, and to ensure its future?” His answer is self-reliance – or as he put it, ”in the end, the thread of our existence depends on us and we will not let it be cut by anyone”.
Earlier that day, Amidror struck a decidedly different tone during his farewell before the Israeli cabinet. The former head of research for military intelligence highlighted the potential international backlash against Israel if the current round of peace talks with the Palestinians were to fail. He cited the European Union directives passed this northern summer, which forbid doing business with Israeli institutions in territory seized in 1967, as an example of how Israel would be treated if it were perceived as being evasive or inflexible on the Palestinian issue.
In other words, whereas Netanyahu emphasised Israel’s autonomy, as conservative Israeli politicians often do, Amidror worried that Israel’s growing international isolation could undermine its security.
In that vein, Amidror also touched on an area long-considered taboo in Israel: namely, the country’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). While welcoming the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program, he worried that the process could lead to demands that Israel acknowledge and ultimately get rid of its own ”unconventional weapons”. For decades, Israel has maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity, whereby it refuses to discuss whether it has nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. But as Amidror’s comments showed, that may no longer be viable.
From its birth in 1948, Israel found itself under threat. To protect itself, it acquired chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the hope that they would shield the fragile enterprise of building a Jewish homeland in the midst of a hostile region. WMD were viewed as the guarantor of Israeli survival – the embodiment of the commitment to never allow another Holocaust.
Ambiguity was the policy that allowed Israel to keep these weapons; as long as they were invisible, many other international players were ready to grant Israel’s weapons a special exception.
Israeli security officials have long considered strategic ambiguity – ”amimut” in Hebrew – a shrewd and singular achievement. Israeli President Shimon Peres, the founding father of the Israeli nuclear project, often credits himself with ”inventing” amimut and describes how an off-the-cuff, improvised response to President John F. Kennedy’s query about Israel’s nuclear program in 1962 turned into Israel’s nuclear ambiguity policy. Since then, whenever Israeli officials have been asked whether the country has nuclear weapons, they say that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.
The late Ze’ev Schiff, Israel’s legendary dean of national security journalism, said once that whoever devised the strategy of nuclear ambiguity deserved Israel’s highest award.
However, in the wake of Syria’s agreeing to dismantle its chemical weapons and its ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Israeli cabinet, chaired by Netanyahu, met last month to re-evaluate Israel’s stance on the CWC. (Israel has signed the treaty, which bans the use and possession of chemical weapons, but in keeping with the policy of ambiguity, it has not ratified it.)
While support for the policy of nuclear non-acknowledgment remains nearly universal in Israel, some people question why Israel should play dumb when asked about chemical and biological weapons it no longer has. (It is believed that while Israel had a chemical weapons program in the distant past it has not had an operational arsenal for some time. It is doubtful whether Israel ever equipped and deployed biological agents as weapons.)
The seemingly successful international effort (so far) to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program has not only given Israel an opportunity to reassess its stance on the CWC, but it also undermines the logic of wholesale strategic ambiguity. Ambiguity derives much of its staying power from the deeply held perception that Israel must possess WMD, the ultimate symbol of self-reliance, as an insurance policy – but Israel cannot openly admit it.
But so far, the Syria case has been a demonstration of how diplomacy and multilateralism can tangibly improve Israel’s national security. The early weeks of the international effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program, the largest and most integrated such program in the region, also appears to reinforce the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. Namely, if you use them, you lose them.
Moreover, the prospect of dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program, and the ratification of the CWC by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, spotlight an uncomfortable reality: by refusing to accede to international non-proliferation treaties, Israel finds itself in increasingly unsavoury company. It is one of four states with nuclear weapons that have either not signed or withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the others being India, North Korea and Pakistan); Israel is one of six states that have not ratified the CWC (others include Angola, Egypt, Myanmar and North Korea); and Israel is the only prominent state that has not signed the Biological Weapons Convention. Strategic ambiguity, in short, has become an anachronism unbecoming of a vibrant, liberal democracy.
Meanwhile, the argument used by some in Israel to justify the country’s exceptional posture on strategic issues – that Israel deserves a certain exemption from international norms due to the national trauma of the Holocaust and unique threat to the country’s existence – has become increasingly unpersuasive. That a wealthy, technologically advanced democracy, with the most dominant military by far in its region, nuclear weapons, and the unflinching support of the US, should have a sweeping exemption from important global norms no longer makes sense. Israel now finds itself in the position of Goliath, rather than David. And an exceptionalist policy that once was seen as responsible now appears increasingly at odds with Israel’s own national security challenges. The current nuclear negotiations with Iran are a case in point – Israel insists on holding Iran to standards of full transparency on its nuclear program that it would never accept itself.
The policy and conduct of strategic ambiguity has become a growing irritant, if not a burden, for Israel and its allies, and lags behind the political realities in the Middle East and around the world. It is not only antiquated – it is antithetical to Israel’s own interests and reflects an old mindset embodied in Netanyahu’s comments about the centrality of self-reliance and autonomy. What was once essential and beneficial has now become a handicap.
If Netanyahu’s mindset prevails, Israel would effectively abandon the founding Zionist dream of normalcy. Through its own insecurities, it would trap itself in a constant state of siege. If Israel insists on policies that imply an exemption from norms of international conduct, it will inevitably lead to further isolation and insulation. It would, tragically, turn Israel further into a Spartan ghetto that the early Zionist patriarchs would abhor.
Avner Cohen is a professor, and Shane Mason is a master’s student, at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. A version of this article first appeared in Foreign Policy.