Nuclear Guarantee for Israel?

Brookings came out with a big report on Middle East strategy that contains an awful lot of conventional wisdom, much of it even correct conventional wisdom. And also this bad idea explained by CAP’s Peter Juul at the Wonk Room:

In a recent Brookings Institution report on Middle East strategy for the new administration, editors Richard Haass and Martin Indyk propose extending a nuclear guarantee to Israel in order to buy that country’s acquiescence for a lengthy period of engagement with Iran to bring Tehran’s nuclear program under international control. Along with Haass and Indyk, Bruce Reidel and Gary Samore, authors of the report’s chapter on non-proliferation, posit that Israel cannot abide by a nuclear Iran despite having adequate deterrent forces. Setting aside this debatable assumption about Israel’s own internal foreign and nuclear policy debate, there is little rational reason to believe that a U.S. nuclear guarantee would prove more reassuring to Israel than its own nuclear deterrent.

The United States has extended nuclear deterrent guarantees to other states — most notably NATO members and Japan — but these commitments existed in most cases to discourage allies from developing their own nuclear weapons programs. This is hardly the case with Israel, which it has its own highly developed, if undeclared, nuclear weapons program. A United States nuclear deterrent guarantee to Israel would be irrelevant to Israel’s overall strategic situation, and would likely have negative political repercussions for the United States in the region.

Read Peter’s post for more on this. I’d like to add two branching points. One is that this is a weird nukes-only subset of the idea you hear floated now and again for Israel to be admitted to NATO, or for the US to extend a general bilateral security agreement to Israel. The problem with both of these ideas is that Israel doesn’t have internationally recognized borders. In particular, not only does Israel have an ongoing military occupation of Palestinian-inhabited territories, but it claims sovereignty over areas in-and-around Jerusalem that are not recognized as Israeli by either the United States of America or any other country. You can’t extend explicit security guarantees to a country in that situation.


Somewhat similarly, I don’t see how you could possibly reach an explicit agreement on nuclear military cooperation with a country that that’s not in the Non-Proliferation Treaty specifically because it wants a secret, prohibited nuclear military program. Certainly taking that step as part of an effort to secure international pressure to get Iran to abide by the spirit of its NPT commitments would be . . . strange. In general, offering Israel carrots in order to allow us to hold diplomatic talks with Iran is a weird idea. If talk with Iran serve our interests, they should be engaged in. If Brookings Middle East scholars feel they need domestic political cover to propose talks with Iran, then that’s an interesting development, but probably shouldn’t guide our nuclear posture.

Put in a different context, though, all this works perfectly well. Extending explicit security guarantees to Israel — both nuclear and non-nuclear — could and should be on the table as part of a package that would lead to things like peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and Israel deciding to join the global non-proliferation regime. In general, a longstanding ally and democracy is exactly the sort of country to which we would offer explicit security guarantees. And offering Israel carrots to encourage them to take steps — peace with its neighbors and the establishment of a Palestinain state — that would improve America’s political position in the region is exactly the sort of thing diplomatic bargaining is all about.