Israel’s Nukes a Major Factor in Mideast Arms Race
Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, says the Iran deal provides an opportunity to challenge Israel’s unacknowledged, uninspected, but very well-known nuclear weapons arsenal
JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
Israel is making a concerted effort to forestall a resolution that would subject its nuclear facilities to inspection from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The resolution has been put forth by Egypt, and will be voted on in mid-September. Iran is also likely to support the resolution. Just last Friday Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif published an article in the Guardian titled Iran has signed an historic nuclear deal; now it’s Israel’s turn.
Joining us to discuss this is Phyllis Bennis. Bennis is a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. She is the author of Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis, Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer, and Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer. Welcome back to the Real News Network, Phyllis Bennis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Good to be with you, Jared.
BALL: So can you just start off by talking about this resolution, especially in light of the recent Iranian nuclear deal made by the Obama administration here in the United States?
BENNIS: Well you know, it’s actually been Israel’s turn for a very long time. Israel is the only country in the region that actually has a nuclear weapons arsenal. Unlike Iran, which is being punished, has been punished with sanctions of all kinds for the possibility that someday it might decide maybe sometime it wants to build a nuclear weapon, a decision that all the U.S. intelligence agencies agree they have not made yet.
Israel actually has nuclear weapons, somewhere between 300 and 400 of them, high-density nuclear bombs in their nuclear plant in Dimona, in the Israeli desert. They’re not acknowledged officially. Israel says, we refuse to confirm or deny the presence of these weapons. The whole world knows they exist. They’ve known about them since the early 1980s when Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear technician, took photographs in the Dimona plant and fled the country to make them public. He was then captured by Israel, sentenced to many, many years in prison. Did almost 18 years in solitary confinement, and was only recently released from prison only to face very serious restrictions on who he can meet with, what he can say, et cetera. So he’s paid an enormous price.
But there is no question that Israel has nuclear weapons. What it has not done, besides build the nuclear weapons, what it hasn’t done is to sign on to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And what that means is those weapons are not under inspection by any international agency. We have no idea if they are old, corroded weapons, if they’re leaching toxic chemicals, toxic radioactive material into the desert, into the sea. There’s just no way to know. And there has been an effort for many years, this is only the most recent by Egypt, to create a weapons of mass destruction-free zone throughout the Middle East, a nuclear weapons-free zone throughout the Middle East.
The U.S. has always accepted Israeli opposition to that demand and has allowed Israel to essentially get away with it. So this is one more effort in the wake of the new agreement between Iran and the six world powers that will revenge Iran from ever getting a nuclear weapon in the future if it ever decides to. Instead they’re saying, let’s have a nuclear weapons-free zone throughout the whole Middle East. And Israel so far is saying no. The Israeli foreign ministry has sent notices to all its embassies around the world, ordering its diplomats to fight against this resolution, even though the resolution isn’t even a binding one, that might happen in September.
And crucially there’s no indication so far that the Obama administration is prepared to do what they should do if they really were committed to non-proliferation in the region. They should start with disarmament in the region. This is not even an issue of non-proliferation, this an issue of disarmament of an existing, terrible, dangerous weapons arsenal.
BALL: So you’ve rightly talked about the fact that everyone who’s paid attention knows that Israel has nuclear weapons. I’m wondering if you could add a comment or two about how Israel came to acquire those nuclear weapons in the first place. Is there something in the history of them acquiring these weapons that is playing out in the response to this Iranian deal and to the general political situation of the region now?
BENNIS: Yeah, that’s an important question. Israel began its work on nuclear weapons back in the late ’60s and into the 1970s. It was helped initially, mainly by France. The U.S. came to the table basically later, mainly after 1967.
But the Israelis kept it very secret. And they, the reports are that they tested their first nuclear device, as it was called–they don’t like to say nuclear bomb. They tested a nuclear device in collaboration with apartheid South Africa off the coast of South Africa back in 1979. That was about four years before the Vanunu photographs were revealed to the world, confirming what many were beginning to suspect already, that Israel was building a nuclear weapons arsenal at its Dimona plant in the desert.
Since that time there’s been a refusal to confirm or deny their existence. Israel says, we won’t be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region, a deliberately ambiguous statement which some diplomats have said really means they wouldn’t be the first to use it. But since nuclear weapons are really designed to forestall someone else threatening any kind of military attack, the fact that everybody knows Israel does have nuclear weapons makes it a very destabilizing reality throughout the region. If you want to look at the kinds of arms races that have gone on in the Middle East, a big reason for those arms races is the existence of Israel’s unacknowledged, uninspected, but very well known nuclear weapons arsenal.
BALL: So if the resolution does pass, how would this then affect Israel as one of the most powerful political actors in the Middle East?
BENNIS: Well, in the immediate sense it wouldn’t at all. Because like resolutions of the UN General Assembly, for instance, it’s not binding. If the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, which is the venue where Egypt is bringing this resolution, those resolutions are not considered binding, number one. And any country of the 40–I think it’s about 40 countries who are on the board of the IAEA can actually use what amounts to a veto.
So if the U.S. says no, which it so far always has, it has always protected Israel, always defended Israel from being forced to admit or deny that it had these weapons, always protected Israel from having to bring those weapons under some kind of inspection, there’s every likelihood the U.S. would do that again. Particularly right now, when Israel is leading the charge against the Iran nuclear deal, there’s certainly no indication that the U.S. is going to crack down on Israel’s nuclear weapons. They should. The U.S. should use this as an opportunity to go back to a position that ironically is a long-standing United States position that the U.S. signed on to in a resolution back in 1991 in the UN Security Council, whose resolutions are binding in international law. This was the resolution that ended the first Gulf War, the first U.S. war against Iraq, in 1991 in what was known as the mother of all resolutions because it was very long.
It included in Article 14–this is Resolution 687, if anybody wants to go look it up. Article 14 calls for the goal of a zone in the Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them. Period, full stop. No exceptions. No Israeli exemption from such a thing. That’s the U.S. position.
I remember once asking a State Department official, what were you thinking when you wrote that language and then agreed to sign it? And he laughed very dismissively and said oh, we knew no one would take it seriously. And we said, well, we take it very seriously. He said, yeah, but we don’t.
So that was kind of the U.S. position back in 1991 and [ought]. The big question now that someone should ask the Obama administration is, do you take it more seriously than your predecessor did? When the Bush administration said we don’t take it seriously, President Obama came into office pledging a concern for bringing about a nuclear-free world. There’s no better place to start than by enforcing what is already U.S. official position to say there should be a weapons of mass destruction-free zone throughout the Middle East.
BALL: Phyllis Bennis, thank you very much for joining us here at the Real News Network.
BENNIS: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. For all involved, I’m Jared Ball again here in Baltimore. And as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
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