According to Reports: Coverage of Nuclear Summit Focuses on Terror

In his weekly Canadian Jewish News media analysis column “According to Reports,” Paul Michaels, CIC Director of Communications, looks at coverage of the recent Nuclear Security Summit which – for the most part – did not focus on Israel.

With very few exceptions, the coverage of the two-day Nuclear Security Summit, held in Washington D.C. early last week, remained focused on the summit’s stated goal: to secure loose nuclear material worldwide and prevent its falling into the hands of terrorist groups.

While there had been reports in the lead-up to the summit that Turkey and Egypt planned to make an issue of Israel’s non-participation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – ostensibly one reason Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to attend, and to send his deputy Dan Meridor instead – in the final analysis, Israel was not singled out as feared.

Instead, attention was fixed upon what U.S. President Barack Obama said April 11, on the eve of the summit: “The single greatest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term, and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon…We know that organizations like Al Qaeda are in the process of trying to secure nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, and would have no compunction at using them.”

However, as Steven Hurst and Anne Gearan of the Associated Press reported on April 12, Obama’s sense of urgency about the imminent threat of nuclear terrorism isn't shared by all, and particularly not by some whose nuclear arsenals are most vulnerable. They noted that at an unofficial conference of 200 international nuclear experts (also held in Washington at the same time as the summit), well-known Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy remarked: “Unfortunately, I do not see this concern either in Pakistan or in India about nuclear terrorism. Both countries do not see the seriousness of the situation.”

This indifference is especially worrisome to those experts who warn that Pakistan’s expanding nuclear arsenal (which Pakistan claims is needed for “deterrence” – a reference to its enemy India) could fall into the hands of Al Qaeda given the instability in that country and in South Asia generally.

Even though Obama has generally received commendation for convening a 47-nation summit (Iran, North Korea and Syria were not invited) to tackle the nuclear terrorism threat, there has also been criticism that since the summit’s declaration about securing weapons-usable nuclear material within four years is non-binding, it is accordingly of limited effectiveness.

The challenge for the United States and the international community is immense. As the Globe and Mail’s Konrad Yakabuski wrote from Washington (April 14): “Indeed, Mr. Obama has so far made no progress in containing the biggest non-terror-related atomic threats – nuclear buildup in India and Pakistan, the prospect of nuclear-capable Iran and an obdurate North Korea. Mr. Obama talked tough [April 13] on pursuing sanctions against Iran, but in the same breath acknowledged that China’s dependence on Iranian oil is still an obstacle to getting a UN Security Council resolution with any teeth.”

A rare instance of sustained attention on Israel at this time was Patrick Martin's April 13 Globe and Mail article, "Universal assumption is that Israel has nuclear weapons," filed from Jerusalem. Martin wrote that Netanyahu's decision not to attend the Washington conference drew attention to the "question of Israel's alleged nuclear arsenal."

Martin's own question, "Does Israel have nuclear weapons?" appears to be rhetorical since, as he noted, despite Israel's policy of ambiguity (neither affirming or denying having an arsenal), "it is universally assumed that Israel does, in fact, have nuclear weapons." So there's nothing new in mentioning this long-assumed "open secret."

More controversially, Martin wrote that "Ironically, the universal assumption that Israel possesses nuclear weapons may have contributed to Iran's desire to also possess the bomb." The phrase "may have contributed" has its own ambiguity, as it leaves open the possibility that it may not have contributed.

In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons was motivated by factors unconnected to Israel's program – namely, Tehran's pursuit of regional hegemony (which is as much a threat to the Sunni-dominated Arab states as it is to Israel, a country Iran has repeatedly threatened to destroy).

The prospect that Iran could soon develop nuclear weapons and place nuclear material in the hands of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah is what keeps people, including many Arabs, awake at night.