By James M. Dorsey
On their way from Tel Aviv airport to Jerusalem in 1977 then Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin asked President Anwar Sadat, the first Arab leader to ever officially visit Israel, why the Egyptian military had not moved deeper into the Sinai during the 1973 Middle East war. “You have nuclear arms. Haven’t you heard?” Mr. Sadat replied.
Mr. Sadat’s strategic calculations in the war, the last all-out military confrontation between Israel and Arab states, takes on renewed significance coupled with a recent report that asserts that Iranian nuclear advances are irreversible and have reached a stage at which Iran needs only one month to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb.
The report has sparked public debate in Israel about whether the Jewish state, which is long believed to have multiple nuclear weapons but consistently stopped short of confirming or denying the assertion, should finally do so to lay down a marker for Iran.
Israeli acknowledgement of its nuclear capabilities would likely force it to join Iran as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). It would also constitute a tectonic shift in the geopolitical environment that frames thinking about a future security architecture in the Middle East.
The debate theoretically creates an opportunity for the administration of US President Joe Biden to position the rejiggering of the United States’ commitment to the region’s security in a totally different light and make a significant contribution to a situation in which the Middle East’s numerous conflicts and disputes can be better managed in the absence of resolutions.
The administration has a first chance to explore the opportunity when Eyal Hulata, the head of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s national security council, meets this week in Washington with Mr. Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan.
Mr. Sullivan has just returned from a visit to the Middle East during which he focused on the war in Yemen and Iran and became the administration’s highest official to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, days before the third anniversary of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Mr. Bennett, despite warning in remarks last month to the United Nations General Assembly that Israel would not shy away from military action to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, reportedly disagrees with the conclusion of the report by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. The report’s conclusions are supported by the likes of former Israeli prime minister and chief of staff Ehud Barak and Aluf Benn, the editor of Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
A senior Israeli official said that Mr. Bennet had read Mr. Barak’s assertion in a recent oped that Iran had “probably crossed the point of no return” and that Israel should reconsider its policy of nuclear ambiguity.
“Bennett doesn’t think that it's game over about Iran’s nuclear program. He thinks that Iran is indeed very close to that point, but that there is still time, and if Israel acts on its own and with its allies in a systematic way, it is still possible to stop them.,” the official said.
Mr. Bennett’s position appears to be backed by former prime minister Ehud Olmert who argued that Israeli acknowledgement of its nuclear capability would allow Iran to justify the development of a capability of its own. Mr. Olmert’s opposition is rooted in his belief that Israel is not able to permanently destroy Iranian nuclear facilities with a conventional military strike.
Even so, acknowledgement would facilitate an international negotiation that focuses not only on Iran but also on Israel and, in doing so, helps lay the groundwork for a more sustainable regional security architecture.
John Carlson, a nuclear expert, argued, in a report published earlier this year by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDR), that negotiation of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons would “itself help build regional confidence and trust.”
In the absence of a tectonic shift in Israeli policy, Israeli Chief of Staff Avi Kohavi has suggested on various occasions this year that Israel was developing “operational plans” for a potential strike prompted by Iran’s nuclear progress. Mr. Kohavi said last month that Israel had “greatly accelerated” preparations.
The potential opportunity created by an Israeli acknowledgement would not only contribute to averting the threat of a new Middle East war but also help fend off possible Saudi and Turkish thinking about expanding the region’s nuclear club. That league is currently a club of one if one ignores Pakistan that sits on the Middle East’s periphery.
The moral of Mr. Sadat’s reply to Mr. Yadin’ question is that Israeli ambiguity about its nuclear capabilities may no longer serve a purpose and that acknowledgement of its long-standing open secret may help ensure greater regional stability.
Mr. Sadat was telling Mr. Yadin that both he and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad were fully aware of Israel’s nuclear capability as they planned the war and were determined to ensure that the attack would not push the Jewish state to the point where it would use nuclear weapons to ensure its survival. In other words, it was the knowledge of Israeli capabilities, not whether Israel acknowledged them, that shaped their strategy.
Disagreement in Israel’s national security community is not limited to whether the Jewish state should radically shift gears but also includes the question of how close Iran may be to being able to produce a nuclear weapon.
Countering alarmist assessments, Maj.-Gen. Tamir Hayman, the head of Israel’s military intelligence, argued this weekend that “there is an enriched amount [of uranium] in volumes that we have not seen before, and it is disturbing. At the same time, in all other aspects of the Iranian nuclear project, we see no progress. Not in the weapons project, in the financial area, not in any other sector… They are not heading toward a bomb right now: It may be in the distant future.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.