White House Raises Concerns About Jewish Atomic Arsenal
President Complains About Treatment of Turncoat
The FORWARD - May 14, 1999 - FORWARD STAFF
WASHINGTON - President Clinton is raising for the first time public concerns about Israel's nuclear program and about the man imprisoned for leaking Israel's nuclear secrets to the press.
Mr. Clinton's new position on Israel's nuclear program appeared in a response to a letter penned by 35 members of Congress. Mr. Clinton addressed his letter to a Democrat of Michigan, Rep. Lynn Rivers, who had written to Mr. Clinton about the plight of Mordechai Vanunu, a former employee of an Israeli nuclear facility who was convicted in 1986 of, espionage and treason for telling The Times of London about Israel's nuclear secrets.
The new, tough public stance contrasts with the traditional American approach toward Israel, which has never acknowledged the existence of its nuclear weapons program. Mr. Clinton's letter is dated April 22 and began circulating in the weeks immediately preceding Israel's May 17 election. It also comes as the Clinton administration downplays reports that China, obtained nuclear technology at the expense of American security and as America attempts to thaw relations with Iran, even as the Islamic republic strives to obtain a nuclear weapon.
"We have followed the matter of Mr. Vanunu's imprisonment closely. In particular, we are concerned about reports pertaining to the conditions under which he is held," Mr. Clinton wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Forward. "I ... share your concerns about the Israeli nuclear Program. We have repeatedly urged Israel and other non-parties to the Non- Proliferation Treaty to adhere to the Treaty and accept comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards."
An assistant defense secretary under President Reagan who is now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Richard Perle, ridiculed Clinton's letter. "It's silly in every respect," Mr. Perle said, arguing that Israel needed to take care of its own security needs. "Is Bill Clinton going to protect the Israelis?" Mr. Perle asked, quipping, "the way he protected the Kosovars, or the way he protected the Bosnians?"
Mr. Perle said the president was treating Israel unfairly compared to other countries with nuclear programs. "It's a ridiculous double standard. China's just taken a huge leap forward, and they're complaining about this guy who's in jail for a crime he's properly been found guilty of."
Jewish leaders reacted with shock at news that Mr. Clinton had weighed in on Mr. Vanunu and Israel's nuclear program.
"I can't believe the president would send such a letter. These are very sensitive issues," said the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, "It is so judgmental. He comes to conclusions, about his imprisonment and the nuclear Proliferation. I can't believe these are his words."
"The president's reference to Israel's nuclear program is surprising and disturbing - as far as we know it's unprecedented," said the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein. 'When we see Iran's nuclear program and the development of weapons of mass destruction in Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria, Israel's ability to defend itself becomes ever more important."
The executive director of the Jewish institute for National Security Affairs, Tom Neumann, suggested the letter might be a new way for America to force concessions in the Arab-Israeli negotiations. "It's very disturbing to me. it indicates a full-court press to get Israel from various different angles," Mr. Neumann said.
The national president of the Zionist organization of America, Morton Klein, raised questions about the timing of Mr. Clinton's letter. "One must question the motive of President Clinton responding on issue now when we are in the midst of an Israeli election campaign," Mr. Klein said.
The coordinator of the U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu, Samuel Day Jr., welcomed the president's letter. "I thought it was a good response. He expressed concern for the- well-being of Vanunu and concern about non-signing of the proliferation treaty," Mr. Day said. "I hope he will also persuade Israel to acknowledge it has an extensive nuclear-weapons program and sign the treaty and get rid of its nuclear weapons," he said.
Spokesman for Prime Minister Netanyahu, David Bar-Illan, said, "I'm not going to comment on this."
The executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, who is among those working for the release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, found irony in Mr. Clinton's sentiments about Mr. Vanunu. "I think that letter can be turned around," said Rabbi Lerner, saying Pollard has been extremely ill lately. "It's interesting that people are not being concerned about Jonathan Pollard's health or conditions. He cannot even get appropriate medical treatment which he desperately needs. "
The National Security Council did not respond to telephone calls seek comment.
See also: Clinton's Unmitigated Gall