Normalizing a Nuclear Middle East

“Israel makes provocatively timed inflammatory announcement” seems to be a headline with plenty of mileage these days. While the settlement announcement during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit is getting the spotlight, I’d say the news out of Paris — where Israel’s infrastructure minister announced its intentions to build a civilian nuclear reactor — is even more significant, for muddying the waters on so many different high-stakes fronts at once. To bullet-point them in no particular order:

– It puts France and the U.S. on the spot regarding a potential non-NPT “India exception” for Israel, at the very moment when both are trying to round up support for sanctions against Iran’s non-compliant — but NPT-bound — nuclear program.

– It normalizes the simultaneous possession of an opaque weaponized nuclear program and a transparent civilian nuclear program at the very moment when fears of this very normalization are at the top of the regional agenda.

– It illustrates the glaring contrast between Israel’s perception of Syria’s rights as an NPT signatory (i.e., unilaterally bombed-out suspect facility) and its perception of its own presumed rights as a non-NPT signatory nuclear weapons state (i.e., international cooperation in developing a nuclear energy program).

There are already many ways in which Israel’s “ambiguous” (i.e., silent) nuclear posture significantly complicates the effort to simultaneously normalize civilian nuclear energy in the Middle East while discouraging a regional nuclear arms race. But vividly broadcasting the inconsistencies of that posture in such a tone-deaf way displays either an ignorance of the optics surrounding the issue or a willful disregard of them.

2010 has been a pretty bad year so far for Israeli diplomacy. Hopefully it gets better, because it’s hard to see how it could get worse.