JERUSALEM -- Israel's nuclear program continues to bedevil U.S. efforts to slow the spread of atomic armaments.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said yesterday that Israel will not sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. His statement came two days after Defense Secretary William J. Perry visited Israel during a four-nation tour to lobby for the treaty's extension.
Mr. Perry's tour was met at its first stop in Cairo last weekend by complaints of a U.S. double standard. How can he pressure Egypt and other countries to extend the treaty when the U.S. ally Israel, the only Middle East country with nuclear weapons, has yet to sign it? he was asked.
"Peace in the Middle East is under threat because Israel continues to accumulate weapons of total destruction," Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said. "Israel possesses a nuclear arsenal the extent of which no one knows."
Mr. Perry replied that "the U.S. regards extension of the treaty as important not just for the whole region but for the whole world, and I will say the same thing in Israel."
But few observers expected him to seriously pressure Israel on the matter. Indeed, at a joint press conference in Tel Aviv, Mr. Perry was mostly silent when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin dismissed the effectiveness of the treaty.
"We don't believe in the capability" of bodies set up by the agreement to stop the spread of nuclear arms, Mr. Rabin said. He noted those bodies did not detect Iraq's ambitious nuclear program before the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
A vote on extending the 1968 nuclear nonproliferation treaty -- either indefinitely or for a fixed length of time -- is scheduled to take place at the United Nations in April. A decision by Israel to sign the treaty would require Israel to submit all its nuclear facilities to international inspection.
Israel has refused to agree to any oversight, arguing it needs an ultimate deterrence to its enemy neighbors.
"Israel has said it has no intention of introducing nuclear (P weapons into the Middle East . . . but one must first introduce peace into the Middle East," Mr. Peres said yesterday in Paris.
Israel's strategy has been a thorn in the side of successive U.S. administrations.
Israel hid the development of its nuclear weapons program at Dimona in the Negev Desert from the United States in the 1960s, even erecting a mock control room to convince U.S. inspectors the plant was only for academic research.
Twice, Israel threatened to use its nuclear weapons to force a U.S. response, according to Seymour M. Hersh, a former New York Times reporter who is the author of "The Samson Option," a book about the Israeli nuclear program.
Israel's first nuclear alert was during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when a surprise attack by Arab forces threw Israeli troops back and panicked the Cabinet, Mr. Hersh said. Israel began openly arming its nuclear missiles and bombs, prompting a U.S. airlift to Israel of conventional weapons to turn the tide. The airlift marked the beginning of vastly increased U.S. military and financial assistance to Israel.
During the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir responded to Scud missiles launched by Iraq by ordering mobile launchers armed with nuclear missiles moved into the open facing Iraq, Mr. Hersh reported.
Again, according to Mr. Hersh, the United States hastened to provide Israel with money, Patriot defensive missiles and promises to hunt the Iraqi Scud launchers.
Israel still refuses to admit publicly it has nuclear arms. After Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Dimona, gave the Sunday Times of London a full account and photos of the underground Israeli nuclear program in 1986, he was apparently abducted in Rome by Israeli agents. He remains in an Israeli prison in his ninth year of solitary confinement.
Israel is widely believed to have hundreds of warheads that can be delivered by missiles, airplanes or long-range artillery. The U.S. administration has largely accepted Israel's justification for those arms.
"I think all American governments since the 1960s have understood the issue," said Dr. Mark Heller, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University.
During his stop in Israel, Mr. Perry wet out of his way to reassure Israel of America's "unshakable" support. He added mildly, "The United States is very committed to getting an extension of the NPT. We hope Israel will support us in that process."
After Egypt and Israel, Mr. Perry visited India, which has nuclear weapons, and Pakistan, believed to be developing them.
The U.S. reluctance to pressure Israel did not go unnoted. Egypt, a signatory of the nonproliferation treaty, has threatened not to vote for the treaty's extension without Israel's participation. That could lead a similar move by other nonaligned nations, the United States fears.
France this week called for Israel to sign the treaty. And an Iranian senior official, Mohammed Hashemi, said Tuesday that "if America had any credibility, it must force or oblige Israel to open its borders for international search" by atomic agencies.
Iran's intentions also shared the spotlight during Mr. Perry's tour, after reports originating from unnamed Israeli officials that Iran may get nuclear weapons within five years.
Ever since the Persian Gulf war diminished the military force of Iraq, then Israel's chief antagonist, Israel has accentuated the dangers of Iran. Israel recently renewed its 1992 threat to bomb any Iranian nuclear program, just as it did Iraq's Osirak plant in 1981.
Iran is a signatory to the nuclear treaty, and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, said there was no evidence Iran is working on nuclear weapons.