Obama, Israel and nukes

Aluf Benn, the well-regarded correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, is reporting that the incoming Obama administration intends to offer Israel a "nuclear umbrella" to protect that nation from any nuclear attack launched by Iran. This might initially be perceived as being a positive development. Israel is a close ally, surrounded by adversaries intent on its destruction. Foremost among these enemies is Iran whose budding nuclear program continues apace in the face of dithering diplomacy and weak sanctions (when they are even enforced). Hillary Clinton's campaign vow to destroy Iran should that nation launch a nuclear strike was well-received because it was believed that such a promise, so starkly made, would have a deterrent effect.

However, Benn notes problems with the offer:

But America's nuclear guarantee to Israel could also be interpreted as a sign the U.S. believes Iran will eventually acquire nuclear arms.

 Granting Israel a nuclear guarantee essentially suggests the U.S. is willing to come to terms with a nuclear Iran. For its part, Israel opposes any such development and similar opposition was voiced by officials in the outgoing Bush administration.

"What is the significance of such guarantee when it comes from those who hesitated to deal with a non-nuclear Iran?? asked a senior Israeli security source. "What kind of credibility would this [guarantee have] when Iran is nuclear capable?"

The same source noted that the fact that there is talk about the possibility of a nuclear Iran undermines efforts to prevent Tehran from acquiring such arms.

A senior Bush administration source said that the proposal for an American nuclear umbrella for Israel was ridiculous and lacked credibility. "Who will convince the citizen in Kansas that the U.S. needs to get mixed up in a nuclear war because Haifa was bombed? And what is the point of an American response, after Israel's cities are destroyed in an Iranian nuclear strike?"

Benn and the experts he quotes are correct. Offering such an umbrella is a tacit sign that America has given up on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. This acceptance-or resignation-will only prompt other nations to cool their own efforts to strengthen sanctions. The French President Nicolas Sarkozy  reportedly has already expressed misgivings towards Barack Obama's approach towards Iran. Other nations and companies in Europe are eager to strengthen business ties with the Iranian regime (in May the leader of the giant Austrian energy company OMV stated that it was eager to do business with Iran once a new administration was in Washington, D.C.).

Israelis -- and Jews -- have learned the hard way that trusting the good intentions of others is not a way to ensure survival. The world averted its eyes and closed its borders during the Nazi years. Result: 6 million Jews died. The UN offered numerous guarantees to Israel throughout its short life (among them, that it would protect navigation through the Straits of Tiran before the 1967 War: it did not: the UN placed forces between Israel and Egypt to prevent war from breaking out before 1967. When Egypt asked for these troops to be removed, the UN obeyed with alacrity-placing Israel in a perilous position; the list is endless of the broken promises made by others to Israel over the years).

Israelis are understandably reluctant to place the security of its citizens in the hands of others (this is the reason they have foresworn any other nation's soldiers  fighting on behalf of Israel).  The idea of extending a nuclear umbrella may be hard to reconcile the pledge made by Senator Obama on the campaign trail when he pledged to maintain Israel's qualitative military advantage:

Those who threaten Israel threaten us. Israel has always faced these threats on the front lines. And I will bring to the White House an unshakeable commitment to Israel's security.

That starts with ensuring Israel's qualitative military advantage. I will ensure that Israel can defend itself from any threat - from Gaza to Tehran.

Accepting the inevitability of Iran becoming a nuclear-armed adversary would not ensure our ally's qualitative military advantage nor does it ensure that "Israel can defend  itself from any threat-from Gaza to Tehran."

Obama's pledge echoes the assurances given by George Bush to Ariel Sharon (as noted by Rick Richman, proprietor of Jewish Current Issues and a blogger at Commentary Contentions) in the April 14th, 2004 letter regarding America's commitment to the security of Israel. Bush committed the United States to the ability of Israel to "defend itself, by itself" against all threats. Richman believes the reference "by itself" was a reference to supporting Israel's right to retain a nuclear deterrent. Sharon anticipated the day would come, Richman believes, when peacenicks would demand a "nuclear-free zone" (which, in itself, would be hard to verify when it comes to the vast Muslim hinterlands).

One can think of a few other problems not broached by Benn.

Israelis will lose flexibility if it relies on American power to deal with its adversaries. Will America be able to confront Israel and coerce Israel to follow its policies because America has extended the "nuclear umbrella"? Will America prevent Israel from attacking Iran?

One more risk should be considered.

If such a "nuclear umbrella" is extended over Israel, will there be calls for Israel to give up its own nuclear arsenal? People who have advised Barack Obama have blamed Israel's nuclear program for proliferation by other nations in the region and believe that stripping Israel of its own nuclear deterrent would lead other nations to disavow nuclear arms. Barack Obama's goal of a nuclear arms-free world would comport with this view.

The Arab world and the International Atomic Energy Agency have long campaigned for pressure to be exerted to strip Israel of its nuclear weapons (Israel is under no obligation to do so because it never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). The diplomats have complained that American acquiescence of a nuclear-armed Israel is a double standard that harms our image abroad and frustrates nuclear non-proliferation efforts. They would be ecstatic at the prospect of Israel being compelled to strip itself of its one defense against another Holocaust.

A hypothetical (hopefully, only a hypothetical) should also be considered. What if nuclear weapons are smuggled into Israel or launched from Gaza or Lebanon? There are no contrails that lead back to rocket launching sites in Iran -- no return addresses with a Persian moniker.

What then? Will Israel have a policy that any nuclear attack presumably is the responsibility of Iran and that Israel will take appropriate measures to retaliate? That provides a level of security. Would such a policy be followed by America?