Israeli officials criticized the Obama administration last week when they thought the U.S. was about to support a United Nations conference on nuclear weapons in the Middle East—with or without Israel’s participation or consent.This has become a familiar pattern with the Obama administration. It will make some noises about possibly taking a tougher line with Israel, it will have a few officials make anonymous threats in the press, and when it comes time to do something that might actually inconvenience or annoy the Israeli government the administration balks and backs Israel’s position. The fact that the administration typically backs down and yields to the preferences of a client government doesn’t win it any goodwill or cooperation from that government on other issues. It does tell the client government that it doesn’t have to worry about any consequences for its blatant and public efforts to derail a major U.S. diplomatic initiative. On the contrary, the U.S. is only too happy to try to buy off the client to keep it quiet.
But by Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Secretary of State John Kerry and praised the White House for instead blocking the proposed meeting, which might have pressured Israel to disclose its presumed nuclear-arms program.
Paul Pillar calls the failure of the NPT conference a “missed opportunity” for nonproliferation, and that’s obviously correct. It undermines the cause of nonproliferation when the U.S. allows its relationship with the region’s only nuclear-weapons state to take precedence over its own nonproliferation goals in the same region. Of course, this has been going on for decades, but it has become harder to ignore when the same state with a nuclear arsenal lectures the U.S. about its efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear program. No one expects Israel to admit publicly to possessing nuclear weapons, and no one seriously expects Israel to ever reduce or dismantle its arsenal, but at the very least the U.S. could stop covering up something that everyone already reasonably assumes to be true and it could stop subordinating its nonproliferation agenda to the preferences of one of the world’s leading flouters and non-members of the NPT.
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