That's why Avner Cohen's new book, The Worst-Kept Secret, is important. Cohen argues that it's time to give up the "opacity" that keeps Israelis and too many Americans from talking and thinking about Israel's nuclear arsenal.
I've been trying to consciously bring Israel's nuclear arsenal into my thinking about Israel's geopolitics lately. A colleague asked the other day,
When in American thinking though did Israel become essential to its overall valuation of the region as being essential to US interests?In 1956, the United States broke up a French, British, and Israeli plot to take control of the Suez Canal away from Egypt. President John Kennedy saw that Israel was building a nuclear capacity at Dimona and tried to keep them from getting nuclear weapons. Israel has not always been a protected favorite of the United States. So it was after that.
Israel's favored position dovetails with its development of nuclear weapons. Kennedy and the Israelis played a game of cat-and-mouse, with Kennedy insisting on US inspections of the Dimona facility and Israel allowing the inspections but dissimulating. Then Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. At that time, there was no Israeli lobby in America as there is today; AIPAC was formed in 1963. President Lyndon Johnson was distracted by the Vietnam war and, in general, seems not to have been as concerned with nonproliferation as Kennedy was. Cohen shows that Israel had nukes by 1967. By the time of Richard Nixon's presidency, the US knew that Israel had a nuclear arsenal, and there wasn't much we could do about it. Nixon and Golda Meir agreed to keep those nukes a secret because of the real Cold War danger of Soviet aid to Arab nations to develop nukes. That made Israel the beachhead of "the free world" in the region.
Oil, of course, was part of it. The US more or less inherited Britain's interest in the Middle East, along with a great appetite for oil. It was largely US companies that developed Saudi Arabia's oilfields. We needed that beachhead.
So the Israelis had the threat of making known, or even using their nuclear weapons, and the US had the threat of removing aid. AIPAC strengthened, and the moral downsides of using nuclear weapons became more apparent. But the nuclear opacity persists, and, with it, something like blackmail on both sides.
I don't see an alternative argument, omitting the nuclear weapons factor, that is quite this strong, or explains why the relationship developed when it did.
It's possible that a solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions might involve inspections of Dimona or a cap to the weapons materials made there. Or we can wonder what the analyses (one example here) of the latest moves in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would look like if Israel's nuclear weapons were taken into account. Did part of the US deal have to do with preventing an Israeli attack on Iran? Or does opacity reach into the analyses done in the White House and Defense Department?