Canceled Netanyahu trip spotlights Israel nukes

Israel's decision to avoid a U.S. nuclear conference reveals tensions surrounding the issue

Published April 9, 2010 6:59PM (EDT)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to abruptly cancel a trip to a nuclear conference in Washington spotlighted a key sore point Friday in international nonproliferation efforts: Israel's own atomic weapons.

The Jewish state wants to help lead the charge against allowing nuclear weapons to end up in undesirable hands, even when nobody doubts that Israel itself possesses them.

An Israeli official said Friday that Netanyahu called off his trip after his government received word that participants at next week's conference would "push an Israel-bashing agenda." He and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the government's reluctance to allow its members to speak publicly about nuclear-related issues.

Israel's official policy of "nuclear ambiguity" -- neither confirming nor denying that it has nuclear weapons -- has long been a cornerstone of its military deterrence. But officials and experts from various countries, in addition to one well-known Israeli whistle-blower, have all said the truth is not ambiguous at all: That Israel has dozens, perhaps hundreds, of nuclear bombs.

Muslim countries have long complained of a double standard when the West asks them to stay nuclear-free while turning a blind eye to Israel's program. Many Israelis see atomic weapons as their ultimate defense against annihilation in a hostile Middle East.

Netanyahu's announcement earlier in the week that he would be at the summit, which is supposed to focus on how to prevent terrorists from getting nuclear materials, would have made him the first Israeli prime minister to attend an international nuclear forum.

The announcement raised some eyebrows at home, with some wondering why Netanyahu would attend a meeting where the words "Israel" and "nuclear" would inevitably be uttered in the same breath.

Two ministers who asked not to be named said they had warned Netanyahu against going because of the potential for unwanted attention on Israel's nuclear program. But they said the Israeli leader insisted on going anyway because of his desire to share his expertise on nuclear terrorism -- a topic about which he has spoken and written extensively.

Other Israeli officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Obama administration had assured Netanyahu that the assembly -- attended by more than 40 world leaders -- would not divert its attention to Israel. Then, a few days later, the officials said, Washington warned Israel that eight or nine Muslim nations attending the conference would in fact seek to shine a spotlight on Israel.

U.S. officials and diplomatic sources in Washington familiar with Netanyahu's decision said he opted to bow out after learning that several Muslim nations -- notably Egypt and Turkey -- wanted to use the summit to criticize Israel for not having signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and renew calls for a nuclear-free Middle East.

The Turkish and Egyptian governments had no comment on Friday. Both countries will be represented at Monday's conference, along with other Muslim-majority nations Algeria, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Egypt has repeatedly called for Israel to sign the NPT since 1995.

Syrian political analyst Imad Shueibi, who is close to the Syrian government, said he believed Netanyahu withdrew from the conference because "Israel does not want to be exposed in front of the international community."

"Such conferences are scandalous for them and Netanyahu's participation might force him to provide answers -- which is not in Israel's interest," Shueibi said. Syria is not among the countries attending the assembly, which begins Monday.

Instead of Netanyahu, Israel's deputy prime minister, Dan Meridor, will attend the conference -- raising the possibility that Israel and Meridor could still be the target of intense criticism even in Netanyahu's absence. It was not immediately clear if President Barack Obama, the conference's host, would try to prevent that from happening.

On Friday, U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones told reporters traveling with Obama aboard Air Force One that Israel will still have a "robust" delegation at the meeting and that the "Israelis did not want to be a catalyst for changing the theme of the summit."

Netanyahu's decision to call off the trip comes at a particularly tense moment in U.S.-Israel relations. The Israeli leader's trip to the U.S. capital last month failed to iron out differences between the allies on Israeli construction in east Jerusalem, a major diplomatic row disrupting U.S. efforts to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

One of the main reasons Israel is keen to calm those tensions is its desire to maintain strong U.S. support for its efforts to encourage decisive international action against what it sees as its biggest existential threat: a nuclear armed Iran.

Ephraim Asculai, a former senior official with the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, said there is no comparison between Israel having nuclear weapons and Iran having them.

"There is no double standard here," he said. "Iran constantly says it wants to wipe Israel off the map while at the same time it is developing nuclear weapons. Israel has never made threats like that."

For years, Netanyahu has been leading a campaign to publicize Iran's nuclear program, charging -- along with the U.S. and other Western countries -- that it is meant to produce nuclear weapons. Israel has called for stiff sanctions against Iran, but at the same time has not taken the option of a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities off the table. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful.

Netanyahu had hoped to press his case against Iran at the Washington conference.

The most detailed evidence of Israel's nuclear weapons emerged in 1986, when a former technician at Israel's main nuclear facility leaked pictures and information to the London Sunday Times. The technician, Mordechai Vanunu, was captured and served an 18-year prison sentence in Israel.


Associated Press Writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed this report.

By Steven Gutkin

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Israel Nuclear Weapons United Nations U.s. Military