March 5 marked the 45th anniversary of the ratification of the United Nation's nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, created to facilitate an end to the nuclear arms race and prevent future acquisition, development and/or stockpiling of nuclear weapons.
Its ultimate goal is total nuclear disarmament worldwide.
According to its terms, every non-nuclear country agrees to never acquire nuclear arms, never pursue a nuclear weapons program and never help other countries to do so.
Countries with existing nuclear programs agree to end proliferation, not assist or encourage it in non-nuclear states, and to have their facilities periodically inspected for compliance by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The most powerful nuclear nations — United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, and China — along with 40 other countries originally ratified the treaty. By 1995, almost all 190 nations had gotten on board. Even North Korea temporarily (1989-2003) put its name to it.
Only three nuclear-armed countries have never signed the treaty: India, Pakistan and America's closest ally, Israel.
India had just begun its nuclear weapons program when the NPT was drafted in 1968, and four more years would pass until Pakistan started its. North Korea, which eventually withdrew from the NPT, had a program, but no nuclear weapons. Israel, on the other hand, already had not only a nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant (thanks to France), but also a nuclear bomb by then.
What is troubling is that Israel has never admitted to its nuclear arms program, while the other three have. Recent conservative estimates are that it has stockpiled over 200 nuclear warheads capable of being delivered by intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines and aircraft it has amassed. That must make Arab countries very nervous, since all of them, with the possible exception of Iran, are non-nuclear NPT signatories.
The only strong public confirmation of Israel's nuclear weapons program came in 1986 from a former nuclear technician, Mordechai Vanunu, who had worked in it for nine years.
Out of conscience, Vanunu gave voluminous, detailed documentation and pictorial evidence of it to a British newspaper. He was subsequently arrested, of course, and imprisoned for 18 years, the first 11 in solitary confinement.
Despite those published revelations, the ensuing 27 years brought no change. Israel still won't acknowledge its nuclear weapons program and sign onto the NPT.
Instead, its officials continue to state with expert ambiguity that it will not be the first to "introduce" nuclear weapons into the Arab-Israeli area and that participating in the NPT would be "contrary to its national security."
Statements like these might fly as justifications here in the United States, but no longer in the rest of the world. What other country could get away with that logic? We won't admit we have them (even though everyone knows we do); we must be trusted when we say we won't be the first to use them; and we do not need to sign the treaty and we can scrutinize ourselves. We are, after all, Israel.
Such a stance is equivalent to spitting in the face of the international community and its admirable, common effort to reduce and eventually eliminate any risk of nuclear war. Even the United States, which has considerable leverage over Israel, seems powerless to change its arrogant position.
In Israel's defense, one might ask: What about the threat of Iran and its nuclear weapons program?
The answer is that Iran's program (if it exists) doesn't begin to compare with the strength of Israel's. It needs years to build even one nuclear bomb. Furthermore, if Iran does opt to have nuclear arms, Israel's abundance of them is one reason why.
What we should really be asking is how our government can continue in good conscience to accept Israel's refusal to sign the treaty and permit international oversight, while at the same time lean so heavily on Iran, which has done both?
That is not to suggest that Iran's motives are strictly on the up-and-up, but rather that Israel's are not known, which is scary.
For decades, Israel has been the only real nuclear power in the Middle East. If it stays on its intransigent course, and the U.S. continues such a double standard, both will be dangerously undermining, not ensuring, their national interest and security.
Elaine Washburn Shiber of Van Lear is a member of the American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voices for Peace.