The Samson Option upheld

According to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, the Samson Option is the name Israel has given to its nuclear arsenal. The title recalls the biblical superhero Samson, who himself was killed when by pulling on the support pillars he brought down the Philistine Temple in Gaza, killing its ruling class.

Beginning with the writing of the militarist Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the image of Samson has been central to construction in popular culture of the modern Zionist identity of "the fighting Jew" who has left exile and subjugation behind forever.

Hersh describes his book of the same name as the story "of how Israel became a nuclear power in secret." He continues: "It also is the story of how the secret was shared, sanctioned, and, at times, willfully ignored by the top political and military officials of the United States since the Eisenhower years." To these acts abetting Israel's nuclear armament may now be added diplomatic flimflammery to shelter that program from the controls and commitments to disarmament that even the nuclear power states have by treaty placed on themselves.

In recent weeks, the United States, Britain and Canada thwarted the will of 188 other signatories at the ninth quinquennial Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York by preventing a consensus to form on the final conference document. Their objection? An Arab proposal for revitalizing attempts at establishing a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East would have put Israel under undue pressure.

In an egregious act of nuclear favoritism, a nondeclared nuclear weapons state, which is not a signatory to the NPT, was allowed to remain undisturbed outside the international regime for nuclear disarmament. This took place after Israel, with the threat of war, has labored mightily to prevent Iran from obtaining the bomb. It also came at a time when, despite apparently successful diplomatic negotiations to disable the Iranian program, a race is breaking out among Arab countries to develop their own weapons.

A Middle East nuclear-free zone would have been one way to prevent that arms race, reducing the threat from the spreading disorder in the region, especially since the Arab countries backed the new proposals. The defeat of the nuclear-free zone may well prove a destabilizing factor in the region as a newly assertive Saudi Arabia, feeling that its national security interests in the region have diverged from that of the U.S., carried out its campaign against Iran and Shiite Islam across the region from the Persian Gulf in the east to the Mediterranean in the west and south to the Gulf of Aden.

The nuclear-free zone idea dates back to a proposal at the 1995 NPT Review Conference. Since then, it has been an important part of the nonproliferation architecture and, as even this year's failed review shows, an integral element in international efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.

There are now five such areas: Antarctica, Latin America and the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central Asia. (Mongolia also has declared itself a nuclear-free nation by law.) At a minimum, nuclear-free zones do two things. First, they prohibit the acquisition, testing, stationing, and use of nuclear weapons. Second, they bind the signatory states not to use or to threaten to use nuclear weapons against signatory states.

A Middle East nuclear-free zone has also been on the agenda for two decades. The last review conference in 2010 set in motion initiatives to call a conference to pursue the establishment of such a zone in 2012. But with a conference scheduled for December that year, the United States at the eleventh hour, on Nov. 23, announced no conference would be held "because of present conditions in the Middle East" and lack of agreement on part of nations in the region.

Israel has concurred with U.N. General Assembly resolutions in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 calling for such an agreement. But it seems nothing short of a peace agreement with the Arab countries and Iran would lead Israel -- currently the only nuclear power in the region -- to even engage in negotiation over a conference. With the far rightward drift of Israeli politics, it is hard to imagine Israel allowing a nuclear-free zone to test its will for nuclear disarmament.

Israel's reluctance to engage in dismantling a nuclear arsenal it doesn't even admit exists is understandable. But the decision of the North Atlantic powers, including non-nuclear and often peace-leaning Canada, to run interference for a nuclear outlier that is not a signatory of the NPT is hard to understand, unless perhaps this is part of a U.S. quid pro quo with Israel in exchange for giving the nuclear deal with Iran a chance.

Rose Gottemoeller, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said the proposal was "incompatible with our long-standing policies." She went on to say that the U.S. has always stressed "that the initiative for the creation of such zones should emanate from the regions themselves, and under a process freely arrived at and with the full mutual consent of all the states in the region."

The NPT is a compact between nuclear weapons states and nonpossessing states. The vast majority of states participating in the review conference supported the nuclear-free zone proposal, and its failure weakens the NPT system. The collapse of the conference also reinforces the perception that the nuclear states dominate the process without regard for world opinion and show favoritism when it suits their interests.

With the NPT crippled in its ability to advance the project of international disarmament, it is not surprising to see various coalitions of states looking for alternative means to advance the cause. The series of three conferences in Oslo, Norway; Nayarit, Mexico; and Vienna on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons was the last such effort. Future efforts are less likely to coddle the supersensitivities of uncooperative nuclear powers.

With the collapse of the 2015 review conference, it is not unreasonable that the non-nuclear states who have abided by their agreements should look for mechanisms outside the NPT to ban nuclear weapons. The NPT has proved a one-sided bargain, and the assumption that the only way ahead is to have the assent of nuclear powers, declared and undeclared, at every step of the way is outmoded.

The rejection of the Middle East nuclear-free zone proposal should be a watershed. The non-nuclear powers can't bind the nuclear powers to move ahead on disarmament on the current diplomatic assumptions. Perhaps with other methods, the global majority will be able to persuade and shame the possessing states and their protectorates -- however grudgingly -- into joining the global agenda for nuclear peace.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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