Israel’s nuclear capabilities and its relationship with the United States can be controversial and problematic during Middle East negotiations, but Zaki Shalom, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a researcher at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the study of Israel and Zionism, says Israel is an example of stability and development in the region.
The United States has supported Israel since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, due to the legacy of the Holocaust and the shared democratic characteristics between each country. Shalom says U.S. support and Israel’s “nuclear option” deter violence from neighboring and regional Middle East states.
“The conclusion the Arabs came to is that it's better to live with a state and to try to benefit from it than to fight it for years for nothing,” Shalom says. “I think this brought both Egypt and Jordan to conclude with Israel.”
Israel’s reluctance to acknowledge the presence of nuclear weapons may encourage the acquisition of nuclear weapons throughout the region, but Shalom says that nuclear weapon acquisition by unstable regimes must be prohibited.
“We don't talk about nuclear ability. We talk about nuclear option,” Shalom says.
“Because what is important is not what Israel has or hasn't. The important thing is that others think that we have it. Once you think that we have it, you don't care if we have it or we don't have it.”
Historically, Arab-Israeli conflict created unrest in the Middle East; however Shalom says that this is no longer the primary source of Middle East unrest.
“Pakistan was a reliable regime when they acquired their nuclear capabilities. Now it's not the case,” Shalom says. “But if Iran was still ruled by the Shah, I think it [the response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions] would have been different. The question is ‘What kind of regime is holding this kind of very dangerous weapons?’”
Shalom says Israel can be a positive example of development, as citizens of Middle East countries begin to demand that their governments meet their social and economic needs.
“What is going on in the Middle East is the upheaval of the population. [They are saying] we want you to give us employment, education, health, and anything that the other people in the world have,” Shalom says. “Once they put their social and economic needs in first priority they will be more inclined to have good relationship with Israel because they know that they can benefit from our ability, technology, abilities, and our knowledge.”
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Dr. Zaki Shalom, Welcome to World Views.
SHALOM: Thank you.
GRILLOT: So you're an expert on Israel's defense policy, but I’d like to maybe go back a little bit and start with the work you've done on the historical relationship between the United States and Israel. Can you give us a little bit of context about that relationship? In particular, you've written a lot about Nixon's role, for example, in the Middle East and how that changed US-Israel relations. Tell us a little bit about that.
SHALOM: Well you're right. I think that basically the United States has been supporting Israel since its establishment in 1948. I think there were two or three reasons for that. First of all, the memory of the Holocaust: Over 6 million people were killed. The United States felt that the Jews have their right to settle their own and they were not in a very friendly neighborhood with millions of Arabs who do not like our existence there. They also felt it's our duty to ensure that we will survive as the only Jewish state in the world. That's why the United States has supported us economically, militarily, and politically throughout the years. Of course, there were ups and downs, there were controversies and agreements, but basically the United States is our best ally in the world. The other thing that I think connects us and the United States is the fact that we are both democracies in a world in which democracies are shrinking and we see the radical Islamic groups that threaten both us and the United States. I think the United States has great appreciation for our efforts. And I think America supports us but I don't want to say that this is a kind of charity that's given to us because we feel that it's kind of mutual relationship and we feel that we respond fairly with the United States and we hope this kind of relation will go on for many years ahead.
GRILLOT: So a mutually beneficial relationship between the two. But what are consequences of that relationship? Are there any consequences in terms of the greater relationship with the region - Israel's relations with its neighbors and the United States' role as an honest broker in the Arab-Israeli interaction?
SHALOM: Yeah. First of all it has brought at least two nations to conclude peace with Israel, because they know that the Israel is supported by the great powers of the United States and there is no possibility of wiping out the Jewish state from the map because the United States will not let it be done - so the conclusion the Arabs came to is that it's better to live with a state and to try to benefit from it than to fight it for years for nothing. I think this brought both Egypt and Jordan to conclude with Israel. We hope that this will lead other states to go in the same path.
GRILLOT: Well, so let's shift a little bit. You've done some work on Israeli's nuclear forces. Now, you know Israel is not terribly transparent about the types and kinds and numbers of nuclear forces that they have. We're fairly certain that they do, but it's a bit opaque. So tell me what it is you can tell me about Israel's nuclear forces and how that has an impact, to what degree does that have an impact on nuclear ambitions in the region? So for Iran, for example, and before that perhaps years ago Iraq, that had ambitions for at least nuclear power if not nuclear capabilities and weapons.
SHALOM: We call it nuclear option. We don't talk about nuclear ability. We talk about nuclear option. Because what is important is not what Israel has or hasn't. The important thing is that others think that we have it. Once you think that we have it, you don't care if we have it or we don't have it. There are some who believe that we have very powerful nuclear capability. Iran knows it. Syria knows it. In my view, this is one factor in the stability, relative stability in the Middle East because states like Egypt and Syria and Iran are treating us - for instance, Egypt is treating us, as I said before, because we have good allies in the United States and because there is no chance for them to destroy us because if god forbid this will happen we will be able to destroy them back, ok? So they are scared of our retaliation abilities, of our deterrence abilities, and I think this has been a positive factor in the Middle East. As I said, we don't declare anything about it. We keep it secret. We don't deny it. We don't acknowledge that we have it. What is important is that others think that we have it and this is a very strategic, important factor in the Middle East.
GRILLOT: But the lack of transparency or the fact that some believe, and you want people to believe, that you have the capability or an option - a nuclear option - that this promotes nuclear proliferation. That this promotes the desire of an Iran, let's say, to have a nuclear weapon. Is this not the case?
SHALOM: No. I don't think, I don't think that Iran went on nuclear project because of Israel. I think people are aware of the fact that Israel is a special case. We are a nation that has lost one third of its people in the Holocaust. We are the only Jewish nation in the world. We have to defend ourselves because we have suffered greatly from the hatred of the Jews in Europe and we take threats very seriously because when Hitler rose up to power people said, "You don't have to worry for me. He is just joking. He's not serious about it." and in fact we lost six million of our people. We don't take any chances anymore. So I think the United States and also the Arab countries know that Israel is a special case. Israel is a reliable state, a responsible state. We will not use nuclear weapons just for fun. It will be used, god forbid, only if it's under threat to its very existence. And I don't think that this was a factor in leading up any other state in the area to acquire nuclear capabilities.
GRILLOT: Well, if you listen to the rhetoric coming out of a country like Iran, they are saying, "Well, Israel has nuclear weapons. There are nuclear weapons all around us. We're a big state. We have a long history." So why shouldn't they be allowed to have those nuclear weapons?
SHALOM: Well, Iran probably is because there is a combination between having a capability and being ruled by a very, very fanatic Islamic regime. If it was like, nobody made a big deal about India having nuclear capabilities, okay? Because everybody knows that India is a reliable state, a reliable government. But when you have this combination of nuclear capability with such a regime that declares openly that it wants to wipe out Jews from the map, then okay. This is causing the danger in the region and that's why not only Israel but also the United States and the whole world is worried about Iran having nuclear capability.
GRILLOT: So it's not so much that Iran has the capability. It's this particular regime. Because the spread of nuclear weapons isn't as concerning as the regime that has it?
SHALOM: Of course.
GRILLOT: Pakistan, right? If we live with a Pakistani nuclear regime we can live with an Israeli regime, or an Iranian one?
SHALOM: Yeah, Pakistan was a reliable regime when they acquired their nuclear capabilities. Now it's not the case. But if Iran was still ruled by the Shah, I think it would have been different. The question is what kind of regime is holding this kind of very dangerous weapons.
GRILLOT: So moving forward, the Middle East is in a significant amount of turmoil. Interestingly enough, Israel is actually kind of the beacon of stability in the region. So what do you think about the future of the region? And what is Israel trying to do to promote peace and stability, if anything at all, throughout the Middle Eastern region?
SHALOM: Well, what is going on in the Middle East is the upheaval of the population. I think people are now trying to get their own needs met. This is a very positive development, by the way, because it's the first time that people in the Arab states say that we want the government to take care of our own needs. We don't want you to care about Palestinian, or [indiscernible]. We want you to give us employment, education, health, and anything that the other people in the world have. This technological revolution in the world with the internet and the TV has made it possible for young people in Egypt and in Syria and other places to see how young people live in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem, in Paris, in London, and say "Why don't we live in the same manner? What's wrong with us?" If you look at this, three years of rebellion in the Arab world and there's never been a case where they burn an American flag, an Israeli flag. They don't care about the conflict with Israel. They care about their own needs. And I think this is a very positive development because once they put their social and economic needs in first priority they will be more inclined to have good relationship with Israel because they know that they can benefit from our ability, technology, abilities, our knowledge, and so on.
GRILLOT: So it's not the Arab-Israeli conflict that's really characterizing the entire conflict throughout the Middle East? It's something much bigger than that. So solving the Arab-Israeli conflict isn't going to bring stability to the region.
SHALOM: It will have a good and we really want it to be so, but the upheaval now in the Arab world has not been caused by the Arab-Israeli conflict. The cry of the people for the government is to stop to put emphasis on conflict, on acquiring arms. They want the government to take care of the social and economic needs. They want to live like any other youngster in the world. And I think, that's basically as I said, this is very positive development.
GRILLOT: So it's about development, ultimately. Well, thank you, Dr. Shalom, for being with us today to provide your perspective on this important topic.
SHALOM: Thank you.
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