Canceled summit trip highlights Israel’s nuclear program
JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to abruptly cancel a trip to a nuclear conference in Washington spotlighted a key sore point yesterday in international nonproliferation efforts: Israel’s own atomic weapons.
The Jewish state wants to help lead the charge against allowing nuclear weapons to end up in undesirable hands, even when nobody doubts that Israel itself possesses them.
An Israeli official said yesterday that Netanyahu called off his trip after his government received word that participants at next week’s conference would “push an Israel-bashing agenda.’’ He and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the government’s reluctance to allow its members to speak publicly about nuclear-related issues.
Israel’s official policy of “nuclear ambiguity’’ — neither confirming nor denying that it has nuclear weapons — has long been a cornerstone of its military deterrence. But officials and analysts from various countries, in addition to one well-known Israeli whistle-blower, have all said the truth is not ambiguous: that Israel has dozens, perhaps hundreds, of nuclear bombs.
Muslim countries have long complained of a double standard when the West asks them to stay nuclear-free while turning a blind eye to Israel’s program. Many Israelis see atomic weapons as their ultimate defense against annihilation.
Netanyahu’s announcement that he would be at the summit, which is supposed to focus on how to prevent terrorists from getting nuclear materials, would have made him the first Israeli prime minister to attend an international nuclear forum.
The announcement raised some eyebrows at home, with some wondering why Netanyahu would attend a meeting where the words “Israel’’ and “nuclear’’ would inevitably be uttered in the same breath.
Two ministers who asked not to be named said they had warned Netanyahu against going because of the potential for unwanted attention on Israel’s nuclear program.
US and diplomatic officials in Washington familiar with Netanyahu’s decision said he opted to bow out after learning that several Muslim nations wanted to use the summit to criticize Israel for not having signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and renew calls for a nuclear-free Middle East.