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The US silence on Israeli nuclear weapons and the right-wing Israeli government

While the US government tiptoes around the issue, Israel brags about its nuclear force.

Who would have imagined that, just as we have been worrying about Pakistani weapons falling into the hands of Islamic fanatics, we would come to the point where we have to fear Israel’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Israeli fanatics, who, as Ehud Barak explained, are “determined to attack Islam.” Our government cannot deal with these issues if it ignores the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons.

By Victor Gilinsky | May 4, 2023, Victor Gilinsky is a physicist and was a commissioner of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations

The Israeli protests against its new right-wing government have now touched on Israel’s nuclear weapons. To underline what is at stake, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak cast aside Israeli ambiguity over whether it possesses nuclear weapons to warn his compatriots that Western diplomats are worried that a Jewish messianic dictatorship could gain control over Israel’s nuclear weapons.

One thing we can be sure of is that the United States was not officially represented among those Western diplomats. American diplomats—in fact all US government employees—are forced to pretend they know nothing about Israeli nuclear weapons. Since everyone knows it’s not true, the pretense hobbles America’s policy on restraining the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Barak’s acknowledgment of Israel’s weapons, backhanded as it was, should free the United States from this outdated omerta.

The popular explanation of the US gag on Israeli nuclear weapons is that it is required by a September 1969 deal between Richard Nixon and Israel’s then-prime minister Golda Meir in which America would accept a nuclear-armed Israel and both would keep Israel’s nuclear weapons secret. US policy toward Israeli nuclear weapons was indeed eased after their meeting, but judging by Nixon’s memoirs, it was because he didn’t care much whether Israeli had them. His main interest was to gain Israeli support in the Cold War.

They spoke alone, kept no notes, and told no one what they talked about. A memorandum days later to the president from Henry Kissinger, then his national security advisor, shows even he knew little about the conversation. As to maintaining secrecy, they didn’t need a formal agreement. Nixon and Meir both understood a declared Israeli nuclear arsenal would have led to pressure on Moscow to provide their Arab allies with nuclear weapons.

The US bureaucracy and academics later created a myth about a nuclear deal, turning a convenient accommodation into a perpetual obligation, and subsequent presidents fell in line. But an international deal of which there is no record is no deal at all.

Nevertheless, US presidents since Bill Clinton are said to have signed a secret letter that they will not interfere with Israel’s nuclear weapons, and Israel acted as if it was entitled to such a commitment from every incoming US president. It got the commitment. When President Obama took office in 2009, the first question at his first televised press conference, from veteran reporter Helen Thomas, was: “Do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?” The president’s slippery reply was: “I don’t want to speculate.” Helen Thomas got fired soon after, and while this was for her anti-Israeli remarks on a different occasion, no reporter has asked the question since. In February 2017 Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer managed to infuriate even the newly arrived Trump White House staff, sympathetic to Israel, with his heavy-handed demands the new president sign “the letter.” Still, it worked.

A change won’t come easily. A realistic US government assessment of Israel’s nuclear weapons will have to overcome not only Israeli intervention for its own reasons, but also State Department and White House resistance, in part because of the embarrassment of such an admission after years of denial, but also because such an admission could lead to complications under US law.

There is persuasive evidence that Israel detonated at least one test nuclear explosion on September 22, 1979, about a thousand miles south of South Africa. The signal, detected by a US Vela satellite, with corroborating evidence, was widely interpreted by the US intelligence community and most analysts as coming from an Israeli nuclear test explosion.

While the Carter White House publicly argued otherwise, months after the event Carter wrote in his diary: “We have a growing belief among our scientists that the Israelis did indeed conduct a nuclear test explosion in the ocean near the southern end of Africa.” Such an explosion was a violation of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, to which Israel was a party.

Confirmation of such a test would also trigger the 1977 Glenn Amendment to the Arms Export Control Act, which imposes tough economic and military sanctions on any state, other than the five nuclear powers authorized under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, that detonates a bomb post-1977. The president can waive the penalty, but not without political embarrassment.

While the US government tiptoes around the issue, Israel brags about its nuclear force. At the 2016 ceremony for the arrival of the fifth German-built submarine which Israel outfits with long range nuclear-tipped missiles, Netanyahu said: “Our submarine fleet is used first and foremost to deter our enemies who strive to extinguish us. They must know that Israel is capable of hitting back hard against anyone who seeks to hurt us …” No mention of “nuclear,” but the message was unmistakable.

Who would have imagined that, just as we have been worrying about Pakistani weapons falling into the hands of Islamic fanatics, we would come to the point where we have to fear Israel’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Israeli fanatics, who, as Ehud Barak explained, are “determined to attack Islam.” Our government cannot deal with these issues if it ignores the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons.

In his book on Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, Wolf Blitzer wrote there is “a widely held attitude among Israeli officials that Israel can get away with the most outrageous things. There is a notion among many Israelis that their American counterparts are not too bright, that they can be ‘handled’.” We should not any longer put up with that. The Cold War reasons for America to stay mum about Israeli nuclear weapons evaporated decades ago. What the Israeli government says about its nuclear weapons is its business—but what our government says about it is American business.


May 10, 2023 - Posted by | Israel, secrets,lies and civil liberties

1 Comment »

  1. Like why America feels so uniquely broken, so weirdly cruel, so grotesquely selfish. People don’t life a finger to help.

    Why not, though? What had happened to K was that she had encountered a very, very strange, and very, very backwards social norm. Or lack of one, to be precise. A lack of reciprocity.

    And when you think about that lack is one of the things that makes American life so weird, so bleak, so scary. One thing you can be sure of in America is that no help is on the way.

    But we all need help at times, don’t we?

    Let me put that more formally and technically. Societies — functioning ones — are built on three norms. First, the norm of decency. I treat you like a person. Second, the norm of reciprocity. I treat you like a person — a being with dignity, agency, inherent and inalienable worth — because I expect to be treated like one, too. And third, the norm of inviolability — there are certain injuries that nobody in a society should suffer, and be left for dead, simply abandoned. Like, say, something as seemingly small as falling down on a train.

    Let’s think about how America fares with respect to each one of those norms. The grim truth as we’ll soon discover, is that these norms of functioning societies simply don’t exist in America. And then we’ll think about why they don’t.

    Would you say the norm of decency exists in America? It means: I treat you like a person. A being with dignity, agency, and inherent and inalienable worth. I think it’s pretty obvious to see that this norm is totally absent in America. Americans make their kids perform the bizarre ritual of active shooter drills — masked men burst in and the kids pretend to die, sometimes replete with being smeared with fake blood. The average American will face choices like: your healthcare or your life savings, that critical operation or your home, educating your kids or basic medicine and retirement, and so on. Nobody — nobody — else in rich countries and by now even plenty of poor ones faces these choices.

    Such choices are inherently dehumanizing. They cheat people of agency. Americans can’t really be said to be free — they’re more like wage slaves. The vast majority of them are working “jobs” they despise, because they’re afraid of not having healthcare. They’re trapped in unpayable debt. Their choices are limited to the ones above, your money or your life, basically. That’s not freedom — it’s a kind of slavery, or at best serfdom, and yes, I mean that. The idea that anyone has inherent worth is laughable at best in America, which is a society where people actually are simply left to die if they can’t “afford” insulin, which is kept, like every other basic of life, astronomically priced, through artificial scarcity, so that profits of mega-corporations and billionaires perpetually rise.

    But that also shows that the norm of reciprocity doesn’t exist in America, either. Act with the expectation of reciprocity — do something nice or kind for someone — and you’re the sucker. The abject, chilling proof that the norm of reciprocity is totally absent in America is in Americans’ political choices — long-standing ones. Americans don’t reciprocate the idea that healthcare should be a basic human right — they deny it to each other. But the same is true of any basic of life — retirement, money, housing, safety nets, education, and so on.

    Now let’s come to the third norm: inviolability. This one is going to seem foreign and alien to many Americans. “What is this guy talking about?” It seems strange and alien because it doesn’t exist in America. Inviolability is the idea that there are red lines. Things nobody should suffer, ever. Take Canada and Europe as examples. School shootings are a profound violation — and so there are rules that make them more or less impossible. The idea that someone, anyone, would die because they can’t afford a basic medicine like insulin is, again, a profound violation — something that offends and disgusts Canadians and Europeans to the point that when told this actually happens to Americans, many begin to cry.

    Do you see what I mean by “inviolability”? If you do, though, then it’s also obvious that it doesn’t exist at all in America. In America, anything — and I mean anything — goes. Sure, there are “laws.” But the laws don’t really work, because culturally and socially, anything’s tolerated. School shootings? Fine, they go on endlessly. People just being left to die if they can’t “afford” healthcare? It happens a thousand times a day, maybe more. And so on. Nothing is inviolable in America — not the body, not the mind, not dignity, safety, trust, meaning, happiness, the simple idea that everyone in a rich society should at least have enough.

    In fact, what’s really chilling is that in America the only inviolable thing is my right to harm you. Guns? I can carry an AK-47 to Starbucks in much of the country. I can deny you healthcare. I can deny you retirement. Millions of Americans do. And they call that freedom. What on earth?

    The problem is that without these three norms — reciprocity, inviolability, and decency — a society simply breaks down. I mean that in a technical way. Social bonds cease to exist. People see each other as commodities, disposable, only worth what they can produce, sell, profit, not beings with inherent worth. They see each other as hated rivals and adversaries and enemies in an endless battle, a contest to the life and death. And that’s the key to understanding the grim question all this leaves us with:

    Why is America a society which lacks the norms of reciprocity, inviolability, and decency?

    Consider K’s train story again. She fell down badly, as a train was about to depart. A train full of doctors. Not one lifted a finger to help. They scowled at her. Why? They were angry at her. They were afraid. She was imposing a burden on them. She was going to make them late. They had work to do. Maybe they had big thoughts to think. Emails to send.

    And who knows what might have happened if they had lifted a finger to help? Maybe K would have been the type of person focused on retribution and retaliation. Maybe she would’ve sued them for not helping enough. Maybe the whole thing was staged anyways.

    You see the kind of dismal, paranoid thoughts that are all too typical for the American mind?

    K was just what she appeared to be — a med student who fell. But nobody helped her because it wasn’t worth it. The costs were too great and too grave — and the benefits too illusory. What were those costs? Well, working life is brutal in America — even for a doctor. Be late, and you’ll be reprimanded. Miss an appointment or a meeting — even for a good reason, like being kind to a stranger who needs your help — and nobody’s really understanding. It’ll just go down as a black mark on your record. And who needs that, in a society where the tiniest misstep can cost you everything? Lose your job — and there goes that healthcare, that retirement, your kids education, your savings, your mortgage. Even for someone who thinks of themselves as middle class, like a doctor, because the truth is that 90% of Americans now live paycheck to paycheck.

    Meanwhile, the benefits of helping K were vanishingly small. Knowing they live in a brutal society, Americans aren’t kind, because they don’t expect anyone to be kind back, when they need it. Why bother helping this poor stranger — nobody’s ever helped you, and you don’t expect anyone to help you.

    Compounding that is mass culture. The idea that people should be “self-reliant” and “stand on their own two feet” is drilled into Americans a thousand times a day. Especially in the weird dreck that substitutes for their culture — superhero movies and comic books, video games where you kill things, and so on. Receiving this message over and over again, the average American is more or less conditioned never to help anyone, never to lift a finger for those in need, except maybe once a week, on Sunday, at church. But that’s not enough to make a functioning society. Because, well, what about the other six days of the week?

    There’s a simpler way to sum all that up. America has an incredibly brutal and cruel culture. And that is because Americans are forced to compete with each other, endlessly. Even if they’re “rich,” like doctors. Those values and norms of intense, brutal, life-or-death competition never leave them. If anything, they’re more present among people like big city doctors — Ivy-League educated fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, schooled in the idea that life is just one endless contest for money and power and advantage — than among town folk. If the norms of reciprocity and decency exist anywhere, it’s in small-town America, in the Virginia countryside hillbilly-land where I grew up — but sadly, it doesn’t extend from there beyond the country line or town limit. And in cities? Forget it entirely.

    Why does America have this strangely brutal and cruel culture? Because Americans don’t really get it, know it, see it, since they aren’t educated about it — you’ll never read about it in the NYT or hear about it on CNN — but their lives are controlled by artificial scarcity. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is in actual shortage in America. And yet the average American can’t get enough to live a decent life on — enough medicine, healthcare, money, time off, retirement, childcare. So why is average American deprived of the basics? Because the basics are kept artificially scarce.

    Consider K’s story again, because here’s where it gets really painfully illuminating. Why didn’t those doctors lift a finger to help her? They were worried they’d be late, or they’d get sued, and their day was overflowing with patients. Why? Because medical care in America is kept artificially scarce. Med school costs a fortune, and so when you’re a doctor, you have to charge a fortune, and work around the clock. Not enough doctors, not enough hospitals, not enough appointments. If you were a doctor, you might be too stressed and depressed to help a random stranger, too.

    Artificial scarcity breed cruelty. Indifference, Brutality. Viciousness. Selfishness. All the things Americans are renowned for. The world looks at America, and wonders: who denies their fellow citizens the basics of life, like medicine and a little bit of money? Why would anyone do that? The answer’s simple: you don’t ever have enough yourself. And you’ve been told over and over again until you’re conditioned to believe that the only way to have the basics is to go out there every day and compete for them, against everyone else, in an endless battle for subsistence, where the stakes really are life and death.

    Sure, Americans have big houses and drive big cars. But that’s superficial. Beneath that surface is a broken society. A place where depression and suicide are skyrocketing. Where debt is a lifelong prison, and people are wage slaves or serfs, take your pick, with little to no meaningful freedom about what their lives could and should be, if only they weren’t imprisoned by debt and stagnant incomes. Because of that, it’s a place where social bonds have been torn apart completely — Americans don’t trust one another, don’t respect one another, don’t even like each other anymore. They regard each other as rivals, adversaries, enemies, in an endless, brutal game, where my survival depends on taking the food, money, medicine, from your table and mouth, in whatever way that I can.

    If you had to live that way, then your society, too, would end up lacking the norms of reciprocity, inviolability, and dignity. Anything would go, because it would have to. In this brutal contest to just survive, to win a morsel from today’s round of “artificial scarcity controls you,” you’d have to do whatever it took, too. If it meant ignoring a helpless, injured stranger on a train. If it meant denying your neighbours healthcare. If it meant taking retirement away from that city or town. Even if it meant preying on the young, and denying them the chances you were given — hey, you need to survive, too, still.

    This is the terrible, tragic trap America’s in. It can’t evolve the norms of a functioning society, because it’s trapped in the vicious cycle of a failed state. Competing for existence, for the basics, which are kept artificially scarce, so that profits rise perpetually for their “owners,” Americans have to regard each other as adversaries and rivals — or else they are weak, and weakness is death, punishable in a thousand ways, from getting fired, to being shunned, to being late, to being seen as fragile and vulnerable, someone to be taken advantage of. That also means, though, they can never be friends. Fellow citizens. Colleagues. Compatriots. They are not free in that vast and profound sense. They are badly limited in who they can be to each other.

    America’s a predatory society.

    Comment by Emair | May 11, 2023 | Reply

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