Israel Ups Ante With Subs

October 14, 2003

The United States long has winked at Israel's policy of ambiguity about its nuclear weapons. American leaders have turned a blind eye to the Israeli program ever since President Nixon struck a deal with Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1969 that the U.S. wouldn't insist on inspections as long as Israel did not go public about nuclear weapons or test them openly. Now, the disclosure by senior Bush administration and Israeli officials that Israel has modified U.S.-supplied cruise missiles so they can carry nuclear warheads from submarines is a dangerous step.

This is a hostile move aimed at intimidating Israel's neighbors. But it won't deter countries such as Iran from developing their own weapons; instead it will only encourage them to move ahead.

Israel's regional monopoly on nuclear weapons has been key to its security. Whether it was the 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein's nuclear project in Osirak or the more recent strike against a putative terrorist training camp deep in Syria, Israel has been able to attack without much fear of retaliation from its neighbors. Now it's apparently concerned that its land-based missiles might be vulnerable to an Iranian first-strike. Israel, in response, is creating a strategic triad — akin to what the U.S. has — of land-, air- and sea-based nuclear missiles. Even if an enemy wipes out your land-based missiles in a surprise attack, so the thinking goes, sea-based missiles are likely to avoid destruction.

This may not be Israel's only aggressive step in the name of security. The German weekly Der Spiegel, in a report that has been carried in Israeli newspapers also, says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon two months ago ordered a secret unit in his Mossad intelligence force to plan an air attack on six suspected Iranian nuclear facilities. Iran, even before the latest reports, had warned Israel not to attempt any incursion.

Israel of course has a right to defend itself, but its saber rattling undercuts U.S. and European efforts to wean Iran of its nuclear ambitions. Although Iran insists it is developing only power-generating plants, the International Atomic Energy Agency has given Tehran an Oct. 31 deadline to accept full inspections.

The U.S. tradition of ignoring or abetting Israeli nuclear arms, while blocking Iranian moves toward them, irritates not just Tehran but also Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The revelations about Israel's submarine force will only stiffen Tehran's resistance to outside inspections. It is helpful that Russia says that for technical reasons, it will delay until 2005 the start-up of a reactor it was helping the Iranians build.

President Bush has recognized the crucial role an Israeli-Palestinian peace could play in protecting a key U.S. ally and stabilizing the Mideast. But the administration needs more than wishful thinking. It must twist arms to get the parties back to peace talks, as well as let Israel know that U.S. interests — especially in light of the Iraq occupation — demand restraint, not a wider Mideast conflict that could plunge into chaos.

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times