Yet again, Covid-19 has led to the postponement of the 10th Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, which was originally scheduled for 2020, the 50th anniversary of the treaty going into effect. The meeting of the state parties to the treaty is now delayed until this coming August. The treaty is the most important in the badly shredded network of arms control agreements that were drawn up in the Cold War and post-Cold War eras to prevent nuclear war and to set the world on the path to abolition of nuclear weapons.
The NPT is the one treaty to which the historic, or legacy, nuclear powers (China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States) all belong. All have opposed the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that explicitly aims for the abolition of nuclear weapons. But non-nuclear states largely support the TPNW, as they believe the legacy states have abused the NPT to defend their own interests and, particularly in the last decade, to evade their own commitments to nuclear disarmament.
Israel can longer justify its evasiveness about its nuclear status, and its aggressive policies toward other potential nuclear states have made it a destabilizing force.
Non-nuclear states also perceive legacy states as playing favorites with certain nations outside the NPT, including Israel. In today’s nuclear landscape, however, Israel can no longer justify its evasiveness about its nuclear status, and its aggressive policies toward potential nuclear states among its regional rivals have made it a destabilizing force, constraining progress toward disarmament. It is time for Israel to come clean about its nuclear capacity and to join the international system of arms control.
The new realities of a multipolar nuclear world
While the TPNW establishes a duty for member states to try to universalize the treaty, the NPT has no such requirement. Its members seem content to sustain the status quo with a divide between the legacy nuclear states and non-nuclear states, with four nuclear-armed states outside the treaty (Pakistan, India and North Korea, in addition to Israel). In recent years, however, the bipolar balance of power between the United States and the former Soviet Union that sustained the treaty, with lesser powers in subordinate roles, has evolved dramatically.
This means that in its 52nd year, the NPT, with its current membership, is less useful as a framework for nuclear disarmament than it was only a decade ago. New realities include the fact that China is vying to become a nuclear superpower on par with the United States and Russia by modernizing its nuclear arsenal. Also, North Korea has become a powerful rogue state, developing a variety of weapons and delivery systems, challenging the United States, and threatening America’s East Asian allies of South Korea and Japan.
The bipolar balance of power between the United States and the former Soviet Union that sustained the treaty, with lesser powers in subordinate roles, has evolved dramatically.
As for Israel, it remains the sole (though undeclared) possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and seems determined to remain so. Securing its nuclear superiority has become the driving force of its strategic policy. After bombing nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, it has reportedly conducted assassinations of nuclear scientists and sabotage operations, and it encouraged the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement designed to deny Iran the potential for developing its own bomb. Senior Israeli aides now regard those moves as a mistake because the Iranian program has shown surprising resilience. The situation in Iran is also a reminder that in a multipolar nuclear world, with major actors outside the NPT, that treaty fails to provide the nuclear peace it once promised.
Some arms control proponents hope that if the historic superpowers, the United States and Russia, can make progress toward bilateral disarmament, China may be induced to join a trilateral arms control treaty. And South Koreans hope that a declaration of peace followed by a treaty to formally end the Korean War will entice North Korea along the path to denuclearization, a formula the North has sometimes advocated itself. As for the regional rivals India and Pakistan, both of which are threatened by China, a trilateral treaty among the superpowers might well persuade them to pursue disarmament in some form as well.
Among the principal outliers to the NPT, only Israel remains without a path toward nuclear arms control and non-nuclear peace.
The new realities for Israel
Historically, Israel has maintained a policy of opacity about its nuclear arms. But the circumstances around this strategy have changed dramatically. First, Israel is no longer surrounded by Arab enemies. After the Abraham Accords in 2020, it has treaties with many of the states in the region and collaborative relations with the regional heavyweight, Saudi Arabia. Second, Israel is the dominant military power in the region with exceptional technological advantages, particularly in cyberwarfare. As a result, its citizen army no longer puts it at a disadvantage. Third, even the narrow confines of its borders are not the potential weakness they once were: Israel has effective control of the West Bank, and—in defiance of the Oslo Accords and international law—it has enlarged its colonization of that area, securing the presence of a growing population of Israeli settlers there.
Its main regional enemy remains Iran. The chances of normalized relations with Iran are difficult to determine without diplomatic probes. With the fall of Benjamin Netanyahu, however, Israeli elites now openly regret opposing the Iranian nuclear disarmament agreement, and they rue how the former prime minister supported the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the agreement. My own informed sources say that under the new coalition government, Israeli intelligence and military officials are closer to their American colleagues, and they support a renewal of the Iranian agreement.
Israeli elites now openly regret opposing the Iranian nuclear disarmament agreement.
If the agreement is renewed and the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon disappears from the scene, the major historic reasons for Israel’s policy of strategic nuclear ambiguity will no longer be salient. There would be an opportunity to go public about its nuclear standing and its nuclear policies, and so enter into international arms control and disarmament agreements—including the NPT.
Why should Israel, or any other outlier nuclear-armed state, join the NPT? For one, it is the keystone agreement of the international arms control regime. The legacy nuclear powers already belong to it, and they regard it as the principal vehicle for nuclear disarmament. By contrast, none are state parties to the TPNW, and they actively oppose it. Second, the NPT envisages gradual progress toward disarmament preceded by various measures of arms control. Countries like Israel, whose defense policies rely on nuclear deterrence and even the possible use of nuclear weapons, will understandably be more comfortable with the NPT than the TPNW, which requires the abolition of nuclear arsenals in a shorter time frame.
A possible obstacle to Israel’s joining the NPT is the fact that the conferees of the treaty and the United Nations General Assembly support a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. Such zones already exist in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and Antarctica. They are a principal means under the NPT for extending the treaty’s Article VI commitments to make progress toward global nuclear disarmament.
The United States has repeatedly run interference to prevent the implementation of the Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone so as not to inconvenience or embarrass Israel. But if a renewed deal with Iran prevents the further development of a nuclear weapons program there, Israel will no longer have reason to object to the formation of a nuclear-free zone by its neighbors. Indeed, the region would be far safer for Israel if nearby countries were to renounce nuclear weapons. The world, moreover, would be safer still if the Israeli nuclear arsenal came out of the shadows and committed to international supervision in the same way that the arsenals of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are today.
In a fast-changing geostrategic environment, the NPT would be a far more effective instrument of international security and nuclear stability if the state parties were to reach out to include outlier nuclear-armed states, including Israel, in their number. In the Middle East, Israel possesses unparalleled military superiority, and with aggressive tactics against possible rivals, it has ensured its exclusive nuclear hegemony. Under these conditions, it is time for Israel to be open about its nuclear arms, to join in global arrangements for preventing nuclear war, and, along with the NPT legacy states, to travel the path toward nuclear disarmament.