Gingerly Pussyfooting Around the Third Rail: Semi-Brave Washington Post Ombudsman Mentions Israel’s Nukes
For a number of years the mainstream media and politicians have been in an uproar about Iran’s nuclear program, alleging that the Islamic state is developing a nuclear weapons program, or at least the capability of developing nuclear weapons, and thus threatening the peace of the world. But no reputable source claims that Iran actually possesses a nuclear weapons arsenal. In 2009, the then-dean of the Washington White House Correspondents, Helen Thomas, was so intrepid as to ask President Obama in his inaugural press conference if there were any Middle Eastern countries that currently possessed nuclear weapons. President Obama was caught flat-footed, uttering that he did not want to “speculate” (somehow America’s varied claims about Iran’s nuclear program do not count as speculation), and then, resorting to the verbal gymnastics common to American politicians, dodged the question as best he could. (A little over a year later, Thomas would be hounded out of journalism for what were widely regarded as anti-Semitic remarks about Israel, which were made in private but were video-recorded by an individual unknown to Thomas who turned out to be a an ardently pro-Israel rabbi, and then publicized by the major media.)
On August 31, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Patrick B. Pexton, dared to touch on the taboo subject of Israel’s nuclear-weapons program in a piece titled “What about Israel’s nuclear weapons?” The Post’s ombudsman is supposed to deal with complaints about the newspaper and he began by noting: “Readers periodically ask me some variation on this question: ‘Why does the press follow every jot and tittle of Iran’s nuclear program, but we never see any stories about Israel’s nuclear weapons capability?’”
Pexton then offered some ostensible reasons for such a state of affairs. He wrote: “First, Israel refuses to acknowledge publicly that it has nuclear weapons. [Israel’s policy is known as “nuclear ambiguity.”] The U.S. government also officially does not acknowledge the existence of such a program.” But the very purpose of a purportedly free media is to ferret out and mention things that governments don’t acknowledge. And the fact that Iran actually denies trying to develop nuclear weapons does not prevent the U.S. media from charging it with that very activity.
Then Pexton glommed onto the idea that since Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) its nuclear weapons are not ipso facto illegal and that it is under no legal obligation to have them inspected, whereas since Iran did sign that treaty it is not allowed to develop nuclear weapons and must allow for full inspections of all of its nuclear facilities. Pexton maintains that “the core of the current dispute is that Tehran is not letting them [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) weapons inspectors] have unfettered access to all of the country’s nuclear installations.” It is not apparent that the NPT actually allows inspectors to have “unfettered access” to go wherever they want. And while the IAEA has found some faults with Iran’s adherence to the NPT, Israel and the United States go beyond the letter of the Treaty in demanding that Iran be prohibited from developing a “nuclear weapons capability” or engaging in the enrichment of uranium to high levels that could lead to nuclear weapons. Such demands would inhibit the promotion and sharing of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, which is one of the fundamental “pillars” of the NPT and a significant reason why countries lacking nuclear weapons would be motivated to become Treaty members. Iran thus has some justification in claiming that its treaty rights in this area have been violated by existing sanctions.
Furthermore, the NPT does not give the United States the right to enforce its provisions—even if they were being violated—by attacking Iran, and still more outrageous would be the claim that it would be legal for Israel to enforce a treaty to which it is not a party.
And, finally, Iran could withdraw from the NPT, which it could legally do according to Article X of the Treaty, which allows such a move if “extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” To do so, Iran would simply be required to give the reasons for leaving and three months’ notice. In sum, the clear-cut legal distinction between Israel and Iran on the nuclear weapons issue made by Pexton does not actually seem to exist.
Next, Pexton points out that Israel “has military censors that can and do prevent publication of material on Israel’s nuclear forces.” But is Iran without such censorship? If this were the case, then all the charges that the Islamic Republic is an oppressive government, which is the fundamental argument for “regime change,” would have to be abandoned. And if Iran does have censorship, then its existence cannot be a reason for the failure to discuss Israel’s nuclear program.
Then Pexton attributes the failure to discuss Israel’s nuclear program to the fact that Israel and the United States “are allies and friends.” This explanation obviously contains much truth, but it is insufficient. It is not the whole truth and is certainly not a justification for the existing situation. It is an admission of bias, while most people, even government leaders and media officials, profess to believe in truth. An obvious question would be: why can’t the light of truth shine through on this issue?
This same critique could also apply to Pexton’s next exculpatory explanation: “not being open about Israel’s nuclear weapons serves both U.S. and Israeli interests.” More than this, while it obviously serves Israel’s interests, to be seen as biased in favor of Israel does not benefit U.S. interests in regard to the rest of the Middle East or, for that matter, the rest of the world. This has been a concern of U.S. diplomatic officials from the time of the creation of Israel.
Then Pexton tells an obvious, but rarely mentioned, truth: criticizing Israel “can hurt your career.” He quotes George Perkovich, director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “It’s like all things having to do with Israel and the United States. If you want to get ahead, you don’t talk about it; you don’t criticize Israel, you protect Israel.”
But Pexton ends up his article by trying to show that he really identifies with the best interests of Israel, and thus implies a benign intent, and even justification, for the current blackout and double standard on Israel’s nukes, while simultaneously chiding the lack of press coverage of the subject. In exonerating Israel, he avers: “I don’t think many people fault Israel for having nuclear weapons. If I were a child of the Holocaust, I, too, would want such a deterrent to annihilation. But that doesn’t mean the media shouldn’t write about how Israel’s doomsday weapons affect the Middle East equation. Just because a story is hard to do doesn’t mean The Post, and the U.S. press more generally, shouldn’t do it.” Note that in his effort to show his identification with Jewish suffering, Pexton plays the obligatory, and often debate-ending, Holocaust card.
The problem with what Pexton asserts is that the Jews of Israel are not facing annihilation, whereas, as a result of Israel’s nukes, its neighbors do confront such a possibility. And it is quite understandable that they do not like that situation and there is no moral reason why they should have to face annihilation any more than the Israeli Jews.
Moreover, contrary to what Pexton claims in his above statement, many people around the world do fault Israel for having nuclear weapons. For example, the 120-nation Nonaligned Movement in its 16th global summit recently voted for global nuclear disarmament, with no exception for Israel. And the Arab states for a number of years have advocated that the Middle East become a nuclear weapons-free zone. Even a majority of Israeli Jews in a November 2011 poll favored the idea of a nuclear weapons-free zone, though it was made known to them that this would entail Israel giving up its nuclear arsenal.
Finally, many Americans might oppose the nuclear double standard, too, if its stark reality were often thrust before them in the same way that the alleged misdeeds of Iran are placed in the media’s spotlight. It is quite understandable that an issue ignored by the mainstream media would not attract widespread public attention.
What Pexton leaves out in his discussion of Israel’s nuclear arsenal is also of the utmost significance. First, while Pexton invokes legalistic arguments in his quasi-apologetic for the status quo, it is not apparent that the United States government is following federal law on this issue. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 as amended by the Symington Amendment of 1976 and the Glenn Amendment of 1977 prohibits U.S. military assistance to countries that acquire or transfer nuclear reprocessing technology when they do not comply with IAEA regulations and inspections. For the United States to provide aid in such cases requires a special waiver from the office of the President, and it has issued such a waiver for Pakistan, another non-signatory of the NPT with nuclear weapons. But, in line with Israel’s wishes, the United States government does not want to publicly recognize Israel’s nuclear weapons, and thus eschews this approach. Hence, it directly violates federal law in its provision of aid to Israel, America’s foremost foreign aid recipient.
United States actions regarding Israel’s nuclear weapons program may also run afoul of the NPT. There is considerable evidence that Israel has relied on material and technology from the United States in order to develop its nuclear weapons arsenal. Grant Smith, who has been studying recently declassified U.S. government documents on Israel’s nuclear weapons program, wrote in response to Pexton’s article: “The ongoing clandestine movement of material and technology out of the U.S. may mean America has violated Article 1 of the NNPT, since according to the GAO it has never apparently taken successful efforts to stem the flow.”
Moreover, it is not apparent that Israel would only resort to nuclear weapons to prevent the annihilation of its populace; rather, it might use its weaponry to prevent any type of significant defeat. The Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir, revealed this mindset in an interview with British commentator Alan Hart in April 1971 for the BBC’s Panorama program. Hart queried Meir: “Prime Minister, I want to be sure that I understand what you are saying . . . . You are saying that if ever Israel was in danger of being defeated on the battlefield, it would be prepared to take the region and the whole world down with it?” And Meir replied: “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.” (Alan Hart, “Zionism The Real Enemy of the Jews,” volume 2, 2005, p. xii)
In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, it has been argued by analysts such as Seymour Hersh that Israel used the threat of launching nuclear missiles to blackmail the United States to begin an immediate and massive resupply of the Israeli military. It was correctly perceived in Israel that American strategy intended to delay any resupply in an attempt to let the Arabs achieve some territorial gains and thus force Israel to be more pliable and trade the occupied land for peace.
Grant Smith pointed out in his response to Pexton that blackmail of the United States government was not simply restricted to the Yom Kippur War of 1973, but has been a major purpose of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. “As understood by the CIA back in the early 1960s,” Smith stated, “Israel’s nuclear arsenal is primarily used to coerce the United States to provide enough benefits that they will never have to be used.”
Since the United States government has given in to this blackmail it would seem that it believes that Israel is not simply bluffing.
In sum, Pexton offers a rather tepid and incomplete account of Israel’s nuclear program and its ramifications, one that often verges on the apologetic. Still, given the limited parameters of permissibility in the American mainstream on anything concerning Israel, even broaching this subject is courting danger, and for this Pexton has been lauded by Phil Weiss as having “some spine,” especially for noting that to give Israel negative publicity on its illegal settlements can lead to the destruction of one’s career.
And that fact underscores how unfree American society is on the whole subject of Israel. Grant Smith, however, after pointing out the shortcomings of Pexton’s article, writes: “The Washington Post in particular seems to want to play a role in shoring up the decrepit policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ [rather] than enlighten readers about the true role of Israel’s arsenal in US and Iranian relations.” It is apparent that in the mainstream the full truth about Israel’s nuclear weapons remains strictly verboten.