There’s been plenty of speculation about Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-minute cancellation of his plan to attend the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. The official explanation was that it was to avoid facing criticism from Turkey, Egypt and other Middle East states over Israel’s nuclear program. Such criticism was long anticipated so that was never a credible explanation, but maybe the real reason became apparent this afternoon when President Obama said Israel should sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
This is what he said in a news conference:
Scott Wilson, Washington Post: You have spoken often about the need to bring U.S. policy in line with its treaty obligations internationally to eliminate the perception of hypocrisy that some of the world sees toward the United States and its allies. In that spirit and in that venue, will you call on Israel to declare its nuclear program and sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty? And if not, why wouldn’t other countries see that as an incentive not to sign on to the treaty that you say is important to strengthen?
President Obama: Well, Scott, initially you were talking about U.S. behavior and then suddenly we’re talking about Israel. Let me talk about the United States. I do think that as part of the NPT our obligation as the largest nuclear power in the world is to take steps to reducing our nuclear stockpile. And that’s what the START treaty was about — sending a message that we are going to meet our obligations.
And as far as Israel goes, I’m not going to comment on their program. What I’m going to point to is the fact that consistently we have urged all countries to become members of the NPT.
So there’s no contradiction there. We think it is important that we have a international approach that is universal and that rests on three pillars: that those of us who have nuclear weapons are making serious efforts to reduce those stockpiles; that we all are working against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and those countries that don’t currently have nuclear weapons make the decision not to pursue nuclear weapons; and that all countries have access to peaceful nuclear energy.
And so whether we’re talking about Israel or any other country, we think that becoming part of the NPT is important.
US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs Ellen Tauscher spoke with Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon last week and said that the US was going to adopt a policy of “calculated ambiguity” towards friendly nuclear nations that are outside the NPT.
That calculated ambiguity may be exactly what spooked Netanyahu. In a play on Israel’s own policy (which is that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East), did the Obama administration merely promise the Israelis that at the summit the US would not “introduce” the topic of Israel’s need to sign the NPT?