First, a review of the exchange. Yesterday [Good grief, was it only yesterday!], in response to Robert Shore, I wrote the following paragraph:
"I have already commented in this space about the absurdity of obsessing about the possibility that Iran will "get the bomb" and "turn the Middle East into a nuclear zone" without ever mentioning that it is Israel that has a full-blown nuclear weapons arsenal and the delivery systems to accompany it. But although I have said that, I am in fact not knowledgeable at all about the complexities of Middle Eastern affairs, and beyond a simple observation or two, I do not have useful things to add to the public discussion."
Michael Llenos posted the following extended comment to that remark:
"I am usually in tune with your views on policy matters, but your comparison of Israel's alleged possession of nuclear weapons to Iran's hypothetical development of nuclear weapons strikes me as misguided. In Israel's 60 year history, they have been involved in seven wars, faced constant and violent opposition from multiple sources, and have fought to defend their country and its 7 million residents from hostile neighbors. No doubt one reason other rogue countries and groups have held back from a full invasion of the country is because of Israel alleged nuclear weapons that might be used against them. The putative Israeli nuclear weapon buildup has been a necessary requirement for the safety and stability of the nation and the region, since they are under constant threat from the countries that surround them on all sides. Iran has been among the largest threats to the region in the past few years, not only because of their determination to obtain nuclear weapons, but because of their sponsoring of terrorist organizations. Iran has been giving hundreds of millions a year to support Hezbollah, providing various types of weapons including rockets, mines, arms, explosives, anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. It is the responsibility of the rest of the world to act in preventing Iran from obtaining the materials and knowledge necessary to produce this type of weapon of mass killing. Failure to stop them will result in a dramatic exchange of nuclear weapons and effect a dramatic concomitant destabilizing effect on the region."
I responded briefly as follows: "I agree with much of what you say, but I am mystified by your use of the words "alleged" and putative." I have never actually seen a nuclear weapon of any sort, needless to say, but it would never occur to me to refer to America's nuclear weapons, or Britain's, or Russia's or Pakistan's, or India's as "alleged" or putative." What are those terms intended to convey?"
Michael answered with this reply:
"I appreciate your reply to my comment. I only use the terms 'alleged' and 'putative' because Israel has never officially acknowledged its construction or possession of nuclear weapons. In contrast, all other nuclear nations - with the possible exception of South Africa - advertise their nuclear status and thereby maintain the capacity to issue explicit nuclear threats. This sui generis posture of nuclear ambiguity is underpinned by an important array of historical, political and ethical determinants."
I am troubled by Michael's use of language, which seems to me the sort of language that states use, not scholars or serious students of international relations. I believe [correct me if I am mistaken] that Israel is one of the few nations that are not signatories to an international treaty designed to constrain the spread of nuclear weapons. This fact, coupled with Israel's possession of nuclear weapons, makes it illegal for the United States to provide foreign aid, and may even require the United States to impose sanctions on Israel. So Israel pretends that it does not have the weapons that everyone knows it has and the United States pretends that it believes Israel. The "sui generis posture of nuclear ambiguity" is thus "underpinned" by "political determinants," but I cannot see that it is underpinned by ethical determinants. As for Israel's capacity to "issue explicit nuclear threats," I think it is obvious that Israel, like all other nations possessing nuclear weapons, makes it unambiguously clear that if attacked it reserves the right to defend itself with its nuclear weapons.
Does Iran have the right to develop nuclear weapons to defend itself? Obviously yes. Does it have the right to use those weapons to threaten Israel or any other nation, or to use those weapons in an unprovoked attack? Clearly not. Would it be better if the Middle East were a zone free of nuclear weapons? Yes. Could the United States guarantee Israel's right to exist and Iran's equal right to exist on condition that both nations foreswore nuclear weapons? Yes. Should Israel rely on that assurance and give up its nuclear weapons? That is a question only Israel can answer, and it would certainly be understandable if it concluded it could not in conscience do so.
So why not just say all of this openly? Presumably because Israel wants to continue to receive aid from the United States.
The final sentence of Michael's original comment is extremely ominous, and also quite ambiguous. He wrote: " Failure to stop them [i.e., stop Iran from making nuclear weapons] will result in a dramatic exchange of nuclear weapons and effect a dramatic concomitant destabilizing effect on the region." I can see absolutely no reason at all to suppose that Iran, if it were to develop nuclear weapons, would launch them against Israel. Is Michael saying that Israel would respond to Iran's development of nuclear weapons by launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike? I hope not, because such an act would be unconscionable, reckless, and unforgivable.
One final point that it is simply impossible not to mention in a discussion of this sort. Israel is one of the few nations in the world that holds an entire people in thrall [China is another, vis-à-vis Tibet, for example.] It systematically and progressively seizes the territory of that people, divides them into non-contiguous regions, and militarily patrols them. That fact, which is manifest and undeniable, profoundly weakens whatever "ethical determinants" Israel may appeal to in defending its posture in the Middle East.
None of this speaks to the existential threats Israel has faced nor does it answer the question that only Israel can answer, namely what should it do with its large nuclear weapons armory. But it does very much rob Israel, in my judgment, of the right to demand that its case, unlike that of Pakistan and India, say, should be judged on moral grounds rather than by the tenets of realpolitik.