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Friday, November 29, 2013


Michael Llenos and I have exchanged several comments about Israel's nuclear weapons and the recent tentative agreements reached between Iran and the United States and other nations.  I would like to pursue this exchange for just a bit, here in the main portion of this blog rather than in the comments section.  Several caveats are necessary as I begin.  First of all, I suspect that Michael knows a great deal more about this subject than I, and although that does not entail that his point of view is correct, it certainly calls mine into some question.  Second, as we all know, this is a subject on which feelings run very high, with harsh accusations being launched by all parties against those in disagreement.  I really, really do not want to wander into that free fire zone.  Although I have strong feelings on the subject, as do all those who speak about it, I am quite content to keep them to myself rather than descend into charges and counter-charges. 

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.


Jacob T. Levy said...

I agree with you about the use of language. I don't object to states speaking as states speak, and diplomatic language is something different from truth-seeking language. (The other most famous example of "constructive ambiguity" in international affairs today concerns the scope of the U.S.' security guarantee to Taiwan, and constructive ambiguity is an excellent policy there even though it comes at a cost to plain speech.)

But this:
" Israel is one of the few nations in the world that holds an entire people in thrall [China is another, vis-à-visTibet, for example.] "

is plainly false on any meaning of "a people" that is not retrofitted to suit only the Tibetan and Palestinian cases. There is hardly a large state in thew world that *doesn't* do so. States are, as the phrase goes, founded in conquest and usurpation; and the peoples thereby conquered to not normally retain the liberty to undo the conquest. This is as true for indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia as it is for Chechens as it is for Kurds in Turkey or Iraq as it is for the hill peoples of notheastern India as it is for Palestinians as it is for Corsicans...

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,

I think you mean JHW. However, since I have a rather eccentric point of view, and therefore a unique one, I do want to include my two cents. There are three things going on here that no one has talked about:

1) Some leaders in Iran believe its religious/nuclear policies will bring the return of Jesus and the reign of the Madhi.

2) The majority of the Jewish people today were not responsible for the takeover of British/Islamic Palestine. However, anti-semitism is on the rise around the world and the Jewish people have no truly safe home except for Israel.

3) There is an Islamic Reformation, starting with European colonialism, that is in the works today. Muslim terrorists are just as much at war with other muslims as with the west. Obviously the terrorists side with the optimates while the reformers side with Western culture and freedoms.

Well, that's my two, or should I say, three cents.

Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,

By the way, I am strictly against terroism and am not condoning it. I was just trying to say that I believe Dr. Aslan is right and that there is a Islamic Reformation in the present.

Michael Llenos said...

By the way, if anyone does not know what the Madhi is, there is a very good 2002 movie called The Four Feathers that stars Heath Ledger and Djimon Hounsou, which gives some imput on what the idea of the Madhi can do to a people.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

"There is hardly a large state in thew world that *doesn't* do so."

Right. For example Norway, Sweden, and Finland hold the Sami "in thrall". The difference here is that the Sami are Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish citizens and vote in elections in those countries. I don't think the rest of the wold would have much of a problem with Israel's treatment of the Palestinians if they were allowed to vote in Israeli elections along with other basic civil rights.

Jerry Fresia said...

For those interested in pursuing the "in thrall" part of this discussion, I would recommend Max Blumenthal's new book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (in 2013), considered controversial by some.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Tibetans are citizens of China. The test that China and Israel fail but other countries pass is hard to devise. Not impossible, but hard-- hard enough to raise suspicion of ad-hockery.

Israel effectively annexed East Jersualem, offered its inhabitants the right to become Israeli citizens, and recognizes a right even on the part of those who refused (almost all of them) to vote in municipal elections anyways. The rest of the world does indeed still have a problem with that anyways, and it's not clear to me that they shouldn't: involuntary incorporation and the imposition of an unwanted citizenship are also a kind of holding in thrall. It's just a kind of holding in thrall that is very, very common in the world.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

I'm aware of that and said do, also on Nov, 30th (my comment on R.P. Wolff's post "A Royal Screw-Up") that the Tibetans are citizens of China. I agree that it's hard to devise any non-ad hoc test that China and Israel fail but other countries pass. I didn't mean to be understood as defending R. P. Wolff's parenthetical remark about Tibet. I was just offering what seemed to me to be a legitimate reason to treat the Palestinian case differently from the cases of the Chechens, Kurds, etc. (and, yes, Tibetans too). There are very few states that have captured territory in war but *not* annexed it and continue to occupy the territory for decades without extending the right of citizenship to the population of the territory. This kind of situation is a legitimate concern of the international community in a way that the internal affairs of states, no matter how poorly they treat some minority groups (e.g., Chechens, Tibetans), are not.