Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Hiding The Bomb For Israel: At Yeshiva U Panel, Bret Stephens Keeps Israel's Nukes 'In The Basement' As Sheldon Adelson 'Bombs Iran'
The week before last in upper Manhattan, Yeshiva University sponsored a debate with the provocative theme of “Will Jews Exist?: Iran, Assimilation and the Threat To Israel and Jewish Survival. The moderator was “America’s Rabbi” Shmuley Boteach, who was joined by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, The Wall Street Journal's foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens and Yeshiva U. president Richard Joel.
The event’s framing, putting Jewish American assimilation on par with the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons development was itself provocative. Why would pro Israel partisans equate Jewish intermarriage or a decline in the connection that college-age American Jews feel toward Israel with Iran’s imminent crossing of the nuclear threshold, an existential threat which the state of Israel has been so adamant about preventing? Didn’t fretting about assimilation here diminish, or even trivialize the specter of nuclear weapons over there? Or was this merely one of those intellectual bait and switch things, the kind of impish, animating premise often used in Oxford Union debates, which Boteach knows well from his years leading Oxford’s L’Chaim Society?
What turned out to be most provocative about that night though was Sheldon Adelson’s apocalyptic call for the US to drop an atomic bomb in the Iranian desert as a shot across the bow so that Tehran would gave up its nuclear weapons program. In the past, the combination of Adelson’s money, the political uses he puts it to and his Zionist extremism has led some to liken him to a parody character sprung from the Protocols. That night at Yeshiva, however, Adelson was channeling Doctor Strangelove.
Dismissing the idea of negotiating with Iran, even if it ceased enriching uranium, Adelson told moderator Boteach:
What are we going to negotiate about? What I would say is, “Listen, you see that desert out there, I want to show you something.” You pick up your cellphone … and you call somewhere in Nebraska and you say, ‘O.K., let it go.’ So there’s an atomic weapon goes over, ballistic missiles, in the middle of the desert, that doesn’t hurt a soul. Maybe a couple of rattlesnakes, and scorpions, or whatever. Then you say: “See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran. So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development. You want to be peaceful? You want to be peaceful? Just reverse it all and we will guarantee you that you can have a nuclear power plant for electricity purposes, for energy purposes.”
Adelson drew hearty applause from the audience of mostly conservative and orthodox American Jews. He made some news as well, with Time, Politico and the New York Times running withering accounts and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes airing a ten minute segment titled “Sheldon Strangelove “ Hayes:
It is absolutely unequivocally not OK to use a nuclear weapon to send a message. A first strike nuclear tact is a war crime of epic, historic, historic, horrific proportions and is unanimously viewed as such by everyone, seriously, not OK.
Hayes also said to bear in mind that:
This is not coming from some powerless old crank. These might sound like the rantings of an anonymous basement dwelling wing-nut internet commenter, but they are not. They are the rantings of an insanely rich and incredibly powerful conservative.
As completely over-the-top as Adelson was, Stephens comments on the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon stood out too, but in a far more muted way where the meaning was in the negative space. This was due largely to the way Stephens discussed the Iranian bomb without ever directly acknowledging Israel’s own nuclear arsenal. In keeping with Shmuley Boteach’s description of him as “one the foremost defenders of Israel (who) some consider the best current defender of Israel in the English language,” Stephens euphemized, obfuscated and otherwise sidestepped the issue of Israel’s middle eastern nuclear monopoly, even as that issue is very much a part of the larger conversation on Iran.
When asked by Boteach what he thought of Adelson’s remarks, Stephens said he agreed with “98%,” though he didn’t say what he disagreed with. Stephens then went on to say that what is not sufficently understood in most conversations about nuclear weapons---Iran’s and others---is that “In nuclear weapons, possession equals use. “ A country with a nuclear weapon “can do things as a country that countries that don’t have nuclear weapons cannot.” People may say that Iran would never be so crazy as to attack Israel with nuclear weapons because Iran knows Israel has the capability for “devastating reprisals.” But what makes the Iranian bomb really dangerous is the way it will energize Iran’s allies in Hezbollah and Hamas and how much more aggressive Iran itself would be in terms of terrorism worldwide against Jewish targets than it has already been once it gets a nuclear umbrella. “Sophisticated people” who believe that Iran won’t attack Israel because Israel has “the means of reprisal” were indulging in “idiot-think.”
I don’t think Stephens is entirely wrong in understanding how Iran will use its weapon to intimidate and expand terrorism. But in saying that with nuclear weapons “possession equals use” he very much is ignoring an elaphant in the living room---the Israeli possession of such weapons. And the phrases “Devastating reprisals” and “means of reprisal” seem more apt to coming from an Israeli government official intent on spinning the issue rather than a journalist speaking plain truth.
It’s not that Stephens hasn’t acknowledged the Israeli bomb in the past. In 2004 while editor of the Jeruselem Post for instance, Stephens noted the Isreali nuclear weapons program in a column excoriating Mordechai Vanunu an Israeli whistleblower who leaked documents about it in 1986 and served almost 20 years in prison for it. The larger point made about Vanunu, Stephens wrote in rejecting said larger point, “is that the West cannot demand the wider Middle East to be disarmed of weapons of mass destruction without demanding as much from Israel.” In 2009 in the Wall Street Journal, Stephens lamented a UN Security Council vote, from which the Obama administration abstained, which resolved to have Israel give up its nuclear weapons,” as he wrote. The abstention, an Obama administration told Stephens--- an explanation which the columnist seemed to deride even as he quoted it--- showed a rejection “of a double standard where Israel gets a nuclear free ride but Iran has to abide by every letter in the NPT… How can we tell Tehran that they're better off without nukes if we won't make the same point to our Israeli friends?" And at an Americn Jewish Committee annual meeting panel in 2010 with the New York Times Roger Cohen, Stephens explained that he didn’t stay up at night thinking about the current roster of nuclear powers because “Britain is a responsible nuclear power , so is France, so very importantly, and this can’t be stressed enough so is Israel”
So why did Stephens bite his tongue that night? It might have been a bit awkward for Stephens to acknowledge the I Bomb right in front of Sheldon Adelson, especially after he ranted about dropping a warning nuke on the Iranians. Adelson’s influence in the right wing Israeli political circles which Stephens is closely allied to is formidable; Adelson underwrites many pro Israel organizations in the US that offer generous speaking fees.
And as much as Stephens may have acknowledged Israel’s nukes in the past, Israel’s nuclear monopoly is back on the table now in the pubic diplomacy involving Iran’s nuclear pursuits, underscoring the Israeli double standard, which might have encouraged Stephens’ reticence. In late September during UN week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told a UN nuclear disarmament conference said Israel must admit its nuclear capabilities ahead of “landmark” meetings between Iranian and western foreign ministers, AFP reported. Shortly after that during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called Israel’s nuclear weapons “the source of insecurity in our region.”
Just four days before the Yeshiva panel, Israeli-American national security scholar Avner Cohen gave an interview to AL Jazeera discussing Israel’s nuclear program, based on the research he conducted for a recent book The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain With the Bomb. Of official resistance to admit the obvious, Cohen said: “This issue is the creme de la creme of national security, and one cannot expect whatsoever to get any data. “ Cohen added:
I think that sometimes, some Israelis enjoy the opacity or the ambiguity around the nuclear program, because they would like others to think all sorts of things. Theyʼre not going to say it, but they wouldnʼt mind if others would speculate all sorts of ideas, including that nuclear weapons are usable.”
Breaking with the taboo, which is shared in official Ameican circles as well, Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus, who has been covering the American-Israeli security relationship for decades, declared:
It’s time for Israel to stop making military threats and to propose an imaginative diplomatic move — risky as it may seem — to help ease nuclear tensions in the Middle East.
It can start by acknowledging its own nuclear weapons program.
An open discussion of Israel’s nukes also carries the risk of focusing attention to the history of how Israel acquired them and the symmetries, hardly exact but nevertheless noteworthy--- between Israel’s emergence as a nuclear power and Iran’s attempt to do the same. Avner Cohen told Al Jazeera, that Israel’s reaction to the specter of an Iran bomb has some element of projection in it---“mirror imaging” in Cohen’s words: “That is to say that the Israelis look at the Iranians as if the Iranians were the Israelis themselves, who are determined to have the bomb.” Pincus noted the parallels in seeking to explain the passion with which Netanyahu has attacked Iranian suggestions that its program is peaceful:
Perhaps Netanyahu sees Iran following the path Israel took 50 years ago when it’s known that his country joined the relatively small nuclear weapons club…When the Israeli prime minister asked, “Why would a country that claims to only want peaceful nuclear energy, why would such a country build hidden underground enrichment facilities?” I thought Dimona.
Indeed, as Avner Cohen and William Burr revealed in a 2006 article for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Israel’s bid to acquire nuclear weapons was marked by a cat-and-mouse game with the US involving subterfuge, duplicity, manipulation and stalling throughout the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, which were concerned that an Israeli bomb would jeopardize US led nonproliferation efforts in the Mid East and beyond. While Israel agreed that it would not “introduce” nuclear weapons to the region, it’s understanding of that pledge did not mean physical “possession” which the US assumed. Israel also insisted that its nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Dimona was peaceful and purposely misled American inspectors on tours of that facility, which were only agreed to after considerable, calculated delay. Just as with Iran, American officials suspected that Israel was pursuing a “last wire strategy” in which it would develop all the constituent parts for a bomb, but stop short before completing their assembly. When a secret meeting between Golda Meir and Richard Nixon left no doubt that a weapon had been acquired, the two countries adopted a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. As Cohen and Burr explain it:
Secrecy, taboo, and non- acknowledgement became embedded within the U.S.-Israeli posture … Politically, the Nixon-Meir agreement allowed both leaders to continue with their old public policies without being forced to publicly acknowledge the new reality. … As long as Israel kept the bomb in the basement—which meant keeping the program under full secrecy, making no test, declaration, or any other visible act of displaying capability or otherwise transforming its status—the United States could live with Israel’s “non-introduction” pledge.
I certainly don’t want Iran to get a bomb, and I also don’t mind Israel having a regional nuclear monopoly, at least until some kind of effective nonproliferation and disarmament process can be established. As far as Israel is concerned, “possession” of a bomb has not in fact meant its “use,” contrary to Stephens’ categorical formulation. Israel may be a bully, and certainly some in the pro Israel community here, such as Stephens, have bullied people intellectually and politically on its behalf. But it is not in fact a nuclear bully.
Still the dodging and weaving about this is off-putting, especially coming from a journalist. It’s fine if governments want to uphold official pieties, bilateral taboos, conspiracies of silence or diplomatic fictions. But journalists shouldn’t. Stephens verbal tricks seem coy, calculated to establish and maintain loyalty to a government line rather than journalistic dedication to the full truth. It’s a particular form of deception and manipulation that unfortunately marks all too much of the discourse on the US-Israel relationship: lying by omission.
Studiously ignoring such a major factor in the Iranian-Israeli-US relationship makes diplomacy, as well as the public opinion and public perceptions it depends on harder to shape. Maintaining this totally open secret about Israel’s bomb hands Iran an advantage that they use in court of world opinion, making demands for transparency on the part of the Iranians simply seem one-sided. It’s yet another manifestation of a pro Israel double standard that has makes the special relationship problematic. It says to the world that Israel can be opaque or duplicitous and that US will protect that.
Interestingly, in Israel, the taboo about Israel’s nukes is no longer observed outside official circles. According to Avner Cohen in his Al Jazeera interview:
In terms of substance, the old policy remains unchanged. It is fair though, to say that the general taboo and discourse has slightly become more amenable, more flexible, because otherwise it would look so idiotic.