What Anne Appelbaum calls Obama’s Odd Obsession with Universal Nuclear Disarmament holds a special meaning for Israel. As I wrote a couple of months ago, Israeli officials have long realized this could mean trouble — especially because Obama’s plan might focus on a treaty Israel became familiar with during the Clinton years, banning the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear explosives (the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, FMCT).
That would be a rollback in U.S. policy and a move toward the approach of President Bill Clinton, who called in 1993 for such a production ban. Two years later, the U.N. Conference on Disarmament took up discussions of a treaty to accomplish that — in part to try to halt weapons-enrichment programs in India, Pakistan and Israel, which had not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and thus were not subject to any international inspection regimen. In 2000, those three countries, the Clinton administration and the Conference on Disarmament agreed to pursue negotiations toward a Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty.
Israel wasn’t happy with this initiative ten years ago, and I don’t think its position has changed much since:
Ten years ago, Bill Clinton’s administration demanded that Israel not raise any obstacles with respect to this treaty. The prime minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, acquiesced unenthusiastically to the pressures. A few months later, when he signed the Wye agreement with the Palestinians, Netanyahu asked for and received from Clinton a written commitment that American moves toward weapons control would not harm Israel’s deterrent capability. In the summer of 1999, then-prime minister Ehud Barak received a similar letter.
As things turn out, we might be approaching a new round of Clinton (this time Hillary) vs. Netanyahu. In 1999, Professor Shai Feldman (today at Brandeis University) wrote a paper for the Institute for National Security Studies, outlining Israel’s point of view toward the FMCT:
[T]he objectives of the proposed treaty to ban the production of fissile material – plutonium and enriched uranium – would serve Israel’s national security interests by freezing the present distribution of nuclear capabilities in the Middle East. Yet to secure these interests, certain conditions related to the treaty text, the associated verification procedures, and U.S.-Israeli defense relations would have to be met. Meeting these imperatives would be necessary to ensure that Israeli deterrence remain intact until political and strategic conditions in the region allow progress in arms control in Middle East, beyond the capping of nuclear programs.
What has changed since 1999 may have an impact on Israel’s thinking: with Iran advancing uninterrupted toward its goal of obtaining nuclear capabilities, Israel will now be even more suspicious toward the FMCT.