News Analysis: Israel Weighs Ramifications of India’s Defiant Nuclear Tests

Israeli policymakers are treading warily around the potential pitfalls posed for the Jewish state by India’s nuclear tests.

While Israel shares the world’s fears of a dangerous atomic arms race between Indian and Pakistan — fears heightened this week by reports of an imminent nuclear test by Pakistan — there are aspects and repercussions of the ominous conflict in the Indian subcontinent that create special challenges for Jerusalem.

Foremost among Israel’s concerns is the longstanding fear of an “Islamic bomb” — particularly one in the hands of an extremist state like Iran or Libya.

This apprehension is not new, of course, just as the knowledge of India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons potential has existed in the world’s strategic consciousness for more than a quarter of a century.

Israel has long been concerned that in Pakistan’s quest to achieve nuclear parity with its larger neighbor, it will turn — or has turned — to rich Muslim states for cash aid and, where available, for brainpower and technology transfers.

There have been scenarios under discussion here in which Libya or Iran request a quid pro quo for such help in the form of subsequent cooperation from Pakistan, also a Muslim country, that would in effect equip them with a finished weapon.

A variation on this scary prospect has Pakistani personnel, motivated by religious and pan-Islamic as well as mercenary considerations, participating in Muslim military action against Israel.

Israeli observers say the fear of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is the foremost concern of the U.S. administration as well, and it accounts for the severity with which President Clinton has reacted to India’s move and the energy he is investing in trying to head off a Pakistani response.

These observers say the president is determined to demonstrate that nuclear proliferation will be painfully punished, in the hope that the lesson will be learned in Iran and Libya.

Beyond the Islamic spillover effect, however, Israel is troubled by two other ramifications of the stepped-up arms race on the subcontinent that could affect the Jewish state.

Israel, India and Pakistan are the only three countries that are widely believed to have a nuclear weapons capability who are not signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In addition, all three countries have, for different reasons, adhered to a policy of deliberate vagueness in all public pronouncements connected to their nuclear capabilities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adhered closely to this long-standing policy this week, when, asked on American television for his reaction to the news that India had detonated five underground nuclear tests, he immediately reiterated that “Israel will not be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.”

The meaning of that statement? Make what you want of it, Netanyahu advised his questioners.

But with India, under its new Hindu nationalist government, boldly deciding to step out of the nuclear closet, and Pakistan threatening to do likewise, people here wonder how long Israel’s option of nuclear vagueness will remain available.

There could be, as a consequence of the world’s sudden new interest in the danger of proliferation, a reawakening of international pressure — on all three recalcitrants — to come clean and sign onto the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Israeli policymakers, regardless of their political affiliation, are almost unanimous in their belief that Israel cannot afford to relinquish the vagueness posture — at least as long as the Israeli-Arab conflict remains unresolved.

Indeed, in a readily understandable paradox, it is often the staunchest soft- liners on Israel’s hawk-dove spectrum who are the toughest proponents of Israel jealously guarding its nuclear capacity as the surest guarantee of its security.

These doves believe that all progress made in the peace process rests ultimately on the Arab realization that Israel is ineradicable — in no small part thanks to their perception that the Jewish state has the ultimate weapon at its disposal.

On a more immediate and tactical level, Israeli officials are concerned that the country’s relatively recent but burgeoning relationship with India in the sphere of military cooperation could fall victim to American sanctions.

This week, a delegation from Israel Aircraft Industries was visiting India in the hope of promoting military sales between the two countries.

Israel’s proven expertise in aircraft maintenance and refurbishment is of particular interest to New Delhi, with its large but aging fleet of Soviet-made warplanes.

Israeli officials hope that signed contracts can be implemented without interference, despite Washington’s anger at India.

But they say that if the United States is adamant about sanctions, the Israeli defense establishment could hardly enter into new contractual relationships with India.

For the moment, consultations among various government ministries and agencies in Israel have resulted in a decision not to rush into a knee-jerk endorsement of the American declaration of sanctions.

Further down the road, Israeli officials realize, some deft diplomacy will be required to keep all of these business dealings afloat.

Finally, the Indian decision to go public could well result in increased international pressure on Israel to free its famous atomic spy, Mordechai Vanunu.

Vanunu, a technician at the nuclear reactor in Dimona, was not really a spy in the classical mold: he gave detailed information in 1986 on the workings of the plant to the London Sunday Times because, as he has consistently maintained, he believes Israel should disarm unilaterally.

But he was sentenced to 18 years for passing secrets to the enemy, and earlier this month a review board refused to commute his sentence by one-third, as is usually the case for well-behaved prisoners.

Vanunu’s cause has been taken up by pacifist and leftist groups around the world. His imprisonment until this year in solitary confinement has come in for especially strident criticism both within Israel and abroad.

India’s decision to forgo the comfortable protection of vagueness in its nuclear stance will certainly provide ammunition for the worldwide pro-Vanunu movement to argue that his crime looks less heinous — especially now that the walls of vagueness may be crumbling.

NEXT STORY