Iran Watch: What about Israel's nukes?

Iran Watch, part 3.

Last night's Newsnight was pretty disappointing. Diplomatic editor Mark Urban and host Jeremy Paxman had a nice, long chat about the logistics of an Israeli attack on Iran - from refuelling mid-air to the availability of US bunker-buster bombs. I don't recall either Urban or Paxman discussing the legality, legitimacy or catastrophic consequences of such an attack. So much, as I often say, for the "anti-war" BBC. Watch the discussion for yourself.

Then Paxman introduced his main guest on the subject: Daniel Taub, Israeli ambassador to the UK. It was a soft interview by Paxo standards (including questions such as "How long do you think you've got?" and other such curveballs) and I found myself yelling at the television: ask him about the nukes, their nukes.

This is the closest that the Newsnight presenter came to pressing Taub on Israel's nuclear weapons programme, in his penultimate question:

You speak, of course, as a nuclear weapon regime...

To which Taub responded:

The Israeli policy as far as nuclearisation hasn't changed for decades.

And that was that. Taub was allowed to hide behind the Israeli policy of nuclear "ambiguity" (or "amimut" in Hebrew). Paxman moved on. The fact that Israel is the only nuclear-armed nation in the Middle East, refuses to sign up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 487 which "calls upon Israel urgently to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards" and continues to ignore the IAEA's September 2009 resolution calling upon the Jewish state "to accede to the NPT and place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards", seems to be off-limits in the current debate about Iran.

In fact, discussing Israel's secret nuclear weapons arsenal has long been a taboo for the west's media. It's as depressing as it is outrageous. My own view is that no Israeli official or spokesman should be allowed to come on the BBC or ITV or Sky News and fear-monger about Iran's nuclear programme unless he is first questioned about Israel's own nuclear weapons programme - and any self-proclaimed "impartial" journalist who fails to ask such questions, or follow up on them, should hang their heads in shame.

Here's the New Yorker's excellent John Cassidy, writing on his blog yesterday:

In case you'd forgotten about them -- and that wouldn't be hard, given how seldom their existence is mentioned in public debates -- Israel has perhaps a hundred nuclear weapons, maybe even a few times more than that, and it has the capacity to launch them from underground silos, submarines, and F-16 fighter bombers.

Outside of the Israeli defense ministry, very few people know precisely how many nuclear-armed missiles the country has. According to a non-classified 1999 estimate from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, which was cited in a 2007 bulletin from the Federation of American Scientists, Israel had between sixty and eighty nuclear warheads. More recent estimates say the figure is considerably higher.

The London-based Institute of Strategic Studies says Israel has "up to 200" warheads loaded on land-based Jericho 1 and Jericho 2 short- and medium-range missiles. Jane's, the defense-information company, estimates that the over-all number of warheads is between a hundred and three hundred, which puts the Israeli nuclear arsenal roughly on a par with the British and French capabilities. And some of these warheads are widely believed to have been loaded onto the new Jericho 3 intercontinental ballistic missile, which has a range of up to four thousand five hundred miles -- meaning it could theoretically strike targets in Europe and Asia.

Cassidy concludes:

The regime in Tehran is a deeply unpleasant one, and many of our other allies, including Britain, France, and Saudi Arabia, are also determined to prevent it from joining the nuclear club. But publicly acknowledging what everybody already knows about Israel -- that it's one of the world's nuclear powers -- would make the United States less vulnerable to the charge of double standards.

Hear, hear! (Read Cassidy's full blogpost here.)

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation