Every few months, journalists in search of instant fame and a small fortune publish yet another book purporting to reveal more secrets of the Israeli nuclear weapons program. The topic is exciting, assuring wide attention and sales, and little research is required since the few people who have any real knowledge of this complex issue and not talking. Authors can practice creative journalism, indulging their fantasies and speculative abilities to the fullest, with no risk of being exposed.
Seymour Hersch used this formula in the Samson Option, in which he claimed that Israel has produced 200 nuclear weapons. with some aimed at Russian targets, as well as the obvious Arab capitals. Hersch never bothered to research his topic in Israel, showing his ignorance by asserting that the entire subject was taboo here. More recently, William Burrows and Robert Windrem received banner headlines with a book entitled Critical Mass, which alleges that Israel possesses nuclear-tipped submarine launched missiles and atomic land- mines.
In Israel, each revelation is greeted by large headlines and some hand wringing. From the early 1950s, when Ben Gurion realized that a nuclear deterrent might be the only way to prevent the Arabs from amassing huge armies and succeeding where they had failed in 1948, the Israeli government has maintained a policy of "deliberate ambiguity". No government official has confirmed or denied the prevailing assumption that the Dimona reactor was producing material for making nuclear weapons. This ambiguity allowed for continued development, without committing Israel one way or another. More importantly, ambiguity avoids direct confrontation with Washington, where the prevention of nuclear proliferation is a major goal.
However, the maintenance of deliberate ambiguity also prevents the government from responding to sensationalist publications, even when the claims are totally absurd. Although Israeli decision makers are well aware of the deep moral and political dilemmas posed by nuclear weapons, they must accept a policy of silence in order to preserve the state of uncertainty. This silence leaves the field open to wild speculation and periodic "revelations".
At one time, publications that allegedly provided details of Israel's "nuclear secrets" were thought to enhance the visibility and deterrence effect of the otherwise invisible weapon. Some prominent analysts even believe that Mordechai Vannunu, who had worked at Dimona and sold his secrets to the London Sunday Times, was "planted" by the ever clever Israeli government to enhance deterrence. Even his abduction and imprisonment were seen as staged for this purpose. However, the Vannunu affair dispelled much of the remaining technical uncertainty, and the deterrence value of media attention has diminished.
At the same time, the pace of publications and the scope of the claims is accelerating, increasing concern in Israel. Each new book and television expose raises fears that such publicity will increase tension between Washington and Jerusalem, and lead to more pressure on Israel to open Dimona and dismantle the deterrent. The Israeli press gives prominence to every new publication, creating a sense of panic, as if this time, the line has finally been crossed, and Israel will not be able to withstand the onslaught of the anti-nuclear idealists and abolitionists in the United States and Europe.
In reality, the importance attached to this issue by the US and the West has been distorted and exaggerated. Most serious analysts and policy makers know how to separate fact from fiction. In a review of Critical Mass published in the New York Times, Michael Krepon notes that the uncertainty, not only with respect to Israel, but also with respect to Pakistan, India, and other states, "poses real difficulties for Western reporters". Understating the case, he charges the authors with "recirculating poorly sourced and flawed reporting", and of "restating 'facts' in need of further checking." Some claims made regarding the Israeli nuclear force are dismissed as "dubious" and other assertions are clearly wrong.
The pace of publications regarding Israeli nuclear policies can be expected to increase in the buildup to the conference to extend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), scheduled to begin in March 1995. During this period, the Arab states will press their campaign to pressure Israel to sign the NPT. There is little that the Israeli government can do to prevent more "revelations", but their net impact is limited and should be seen in perspective. The fiasco in Iraq, the lack of response to North Korea's violations of its commitments, and the evidence of Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons have demonstrated the weakness of the NPT.
The Israeli position, linking nuclear arms control in the region to a broad and proven peace accord, major conventional arms reductions in the Arab world, and acceptance of regional verification and inspection, to prevent cheating, is increasingly understood. Most policy-makers recognize that the Israeli deterrence requirement is serious and, if anything, is increasing as a result of the peace process and territorial withdrawal. While Israel is taking security risks for peace, it cannot be expected to simultaneously give up its major strategic capability. Indeed, a new report published by the New York Council on Foreign Relations, suggests (unrealistically) that given the current balance of power, Israel should join the NPT system as a nuclear weapons state. While the topic will continue to attract attention, and generate more unsubstantiated and implausible claims, this should not lead to panic or to a hasty and unnecessary change in the overall policy.
The debate over the effort by four PLO members, responsible for the Maalot school murders, to enter Gaza in Arafat's motorcade, highlights the profound moral issues that are inherent in the peace process. These individuals, as well as those who planned the murder of the Israeli atheletes in the Munich Olympics, have "Jewish blood on their hands". For Israelis, the heinous and inhuman acts of terrorism and murder they committed permanently disqualify them from being partners peaceful coexistence.
Although the crisis was resolved when the four officials returned to Egypt, the moral issues raised by this incident have not disappeared so quickly. Indeed, if participation in murder is grounds for disqualification, then these four are no different, and may even be less culpable than Yassir Arafat himselft. For over thirty years, Arafat led the PLO in thousands of acts of random terrorism and violence. Well before the 1967 war and the so-called occupation, Arafat and his associates began planting bombs in buses, airplanes, stores and cinemas. It was Arafat who ordered the kidnaping of children in Maalot, and the murder of Israeli athletes in Munich. The mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children and friends of these victims are still haunted by the brutality of these murders.
The large demonstrations that took place in Jerusalem in protest to Arafat's first visit to Jericho were, in part, a rejection of the welcome he received. For many Israelis, Arafat has and will always be the "chief of the murderers", and they are demanding his arrest and trial. Many people who support the substance of the negotiations still cringe when they see Arafat treated as a statesman, and not brought to justice for his crimes against humanity. Like Hitler, the PLO leader is perceived as the representation of unmitigated evil.
In contrast, most Israeli officials have ignored the moral issues, and have tried to focus exclusively on what they view as pragmatic politics. From this perspective, the PLO is seen as the representative of moderate Palestinians, and Arafat is the only leader with whom Israel can negotiate a settlement of the conflict. Whatever his actions and sins in the past, argue Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Deputy Minister Yossi Beilin, the opportunity for a political accommodation takes precedence. After decades of hatred and total rejection, Arafat and other PLO officials have been transformed from terrorists to pragmatic diplomats and "partners for peace". Most foreign diplomats, journalists, and members of the Israeli government are uninterested or simply incapable of grasping the very real concerns of morality and justice that the victims of terror and the wider Israeli public cannot ignore.
For some time, Prime Minister Rabin was the only exception; he conveyed the dilemma in the signing ceremony in Washington on September 13 1993, when his body language indicated a clear reluctance to shake Arafat's blood-stained hands. Since then, and particularly in his last meeting with Arafat in Paris, Rabin seemed to close the moral distance he had maintained earlier. Indeed, while he ordered the eviction of the four PLO officials linked to Maalot, he emphasized that they had entered illegally, in violation of the Cario agreement, rather than the fact that these men were responsible for inhuman acts of terrorism. Rabin also indicated when the PLO finally repealed the clauses in its Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel, the ban on these and other terrorists would be lifted.
The ethical "laissez passer" which the Israeli government awarded to Arafat even took the United States and the Clinton Administration by surprise. American officials had maintained their distance from Arafat, and broke off a tentative dialogue with the PLO after the 1991 terrorist attack on Israeli beaches. However, once leaders of the Israeli government embraced the former terrorist, the United States had no choice but to end the taboo against direct contact with Arafat. The Israeli government gave Arafat and the PLO a "moral hechsher" (kosher approval), and pardoned all previous sins.
The difficulties in reconciling political pragmatism and morality are far from unique to these negotiations and the case of Arafat. During World War II, the United States and Britain formed a pragmatic alliance with the Soviet Union to fight the Nazis, despite the purges, gulags and mass murders that characterized Stalin's rule. At the same time, neither Churchill nor Roosevelt sought to whitewash the Soviet dictator or grant him moral legitimacy. Stalin was the lesser of two evils, and however repugnant, they had little choice but to do business with him.
Similarly, in the 1930s, Ben Gurion worked with the British to fight the Nazis, despite the immorality of London's policies limiting the immigration of Jews to Eretz Yisrael and preventing Jewish self- defense against Arab terror. Pragmatism took precedence over morality, but that did not mean that moral issues were of no consequence. Relations between the leaders of the Yishuv and the Mandate authorities were businesslike, but, in sharp contrast to Haim Weitzman, Ben Gurion consistently reminded both Jews and the British of the immorality of the latter's policies.
The Israeli leadership and the supporters of the peace process have tried to compare negotiations with Arafat and the PLO to the Egyptian-Israeli talks involving Anwar Sadat. The Egyptian leader was responsible for the 1973 Yom Kippur war, which took thousands of lives (far more than those lost to terrorism), and he expressed support for the Nazis during World War II. However, when Sadat came to Jerusalem in 1977 ready to negotiate a peace treaty, his past actions were forgotten or forgiven.
There are some important moral differences between Arafat and Sadat, however. In contrast to the PLO, the Egyptians did not engage in the indiscriminate murder of civilians. In the context of international relations, Sadat's actions were legitimate, however violent, and Arafat's were not. There is a vast difference between war, however repugnant, and vicious and entirely immoral terrorism directed against innocent civilians.
At best, negotiations between Israeli leaders and the PLO are pragmatic political efforts designed to lower the level of violence and terrorism. These negotiations do not erase the decades of heinous crimes, and do not require that the basic demands of justice and morality be forgotten. Roosevelt and Churchill were able to develop a pragmatic working relationship with Stalin without forgiving his crimes, and there is no reason that Rabin and Peres must embrace Arafat and grant de-facto pardons to terrorists in the process.