By Chad O’Carroll
Efforts to place unique pressure on Israel over its presumed nuclear arsenal could scuttle plans for the scheduled 2012 Conference on establishing a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction, President Barack Obama said earlier this month. In summarizing Obama’s comments, the White House suggested that “the Conference will only take place if all countries feel confident that they can attend” and that the U.S would thus oppose the singling out of Israel at the forthcoming September IAEA General Conference. Tellingly, President Obama also stated that he appreciated “that Israel has unique security requirements” with the White House adding that “the United States will…ensure that arms control initiatives and policies do not detract from Israel’s security.”
These points imply Israeli attendance in 2012 will be unlikely should it continue to be called out in isolation at non-proliferation fora, or should there be no improvement in its “unique security” situation. Without Israel’s participation at the proposed Conference it will be difficult for States within the region to realize any tangible benefits from the meeting. Consequently, it is integral that countries and stakeholders involved with the agenda now make significant efforts to engage Jerusalem in a proactive and egalitarian manner. Simultaneously, states across the region must, at the very least, learn to develop a base level of mutual respect for one another that, with careful cultivation, can ultimately lead to full diplomatic recognition and a comprehensive peace between all.
After the NPT Review Conference agreed to its final outcome document in May, the U.S. quickly made clear that it was vehemently opposed to the singling out of Israel in relation to nuclear non-proliferation in the Middle East. However, in the 2000 NPT Review Conference final outcome document, the U.S agreed to exactly that. And although there was no consensus document agreed in 2005, many may wonder why just ten years later the U.S was so opposed to including the very same wording on Israel. The answer: it is most likely a result of the 2002 revelations surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and its continued development, in defiance of numerous UN Security Council Resolutions and sanctions.
Although Israel was cited in the 2010 final document for its suspected nuclear arsenal, there was no mention of Iran – despite President Obama deeming “the greatest threat to proliferation in the Middle East, and to the NPT, [to be] Iran’s failure to live up to its NPT obligations.” But regardless of the fact that Tehrans’s nuclear program is a real concern for the international community, it was always clear that Iran was never going to be called out in the same way as Israel – because Iran is a member of the NPT and therefore able to veto language in the final outcome document that it finds objectionable. And although Washington could have vetoed the language specific to Israel on Jerusalem’s behalf, given the positive momentum generated as a result of the recent ‘nuclear spring,’ it is unlikely that the Obama administration would have wanted to thwart the chances of securing a much-needed consensus document at the end of the 2010 NPT RevCon.
Another reason the U.S would have found the singling out of Israel as objectionable in the contemporary context is that the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East, often simplified in the mainstream press to merely represent a “Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (MENWFZ),”, actually calls for a lot more. Indeed, it calls
“upon all States in the Middle East to take practical steps in appropriate forums aimed at making progress towards, inter alia, the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems, and to refrain from taking any measures that preclude the achievement of this objective.”
Given the WMD and missile development programs located in several countries of the Middle East, it is reasonable to think that policy-makers in Jerusalem could plausibly perceive a systemic bias in the way the call for the 2012 Middle East Conference follows language uniquely singling out Israel. This perceived bias could theoretically justify not participating in such a conference.
Taken together, it would seem that the U.S administration is fielding some legitimate concerns regarding the singling out of Israel in documents such as the 2010 NPT Revcon final document and in forthcoming forums such as the IAEA General Conference. Spotlighting Israel alone implies that its suspected nuclear arsenal ought to represent the only substantive item for discussion at the 2012 Middle East Conference, potentially allowing for problems associated with other WMD arsenals located in the region to be willfully ignored. Indeed, Iran has already used Israel as an excuse to divert attention from its contentious program until action is seen on the Israeli front. By framing the Conference in such singular terms, there is even the risk then that Middle Eastern States could potentially one day excuse leaving the NPT on the basis that Israel was reluctant to engage with or make progress toward what is actually designed to be a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction and systems for their delivery. This is especially so given that during the 2010 RevCon State Parties:
“expressed their concern regarding the lack of progress [toward] … the implementation of the resolution on the Middle East adopted at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference, which seriously undermines the Treaty and represents a threat to regional and international peace and security.”
In short, the prospects for the 2012 Conference could be seriously jeopardized if States within the region do not make it clear that it will operate in an unbiased and constructive way. While the dynamics of the NPT final document and IAEA Board meetings might facilitate communiqués that criticize Israel as an outlier of the NPT and prevent language highlighting other regional WMD programs, it seems that Middle Eastern States genuinely interested in realizing the goals of the proposed 2012 Conference should refrain from using language that appears discriminatory.
President Obama’s comment that he would “ensure that arms control initiatives and policies do not detract from Israel’s security” implies a second area that needs to be addressed in advance of a substantive outcome to the 2012 conference – the improvement of not just Israel’s security, but that of the entire Middle East. Indeed, while countries in the Middle East with WMD likely developed their programs for several reasons, many will cite security as a primary justification for their existence. In the absence of a major effort to improve the security situation in the region, there will be reluctance (rightly or wrongly) for many countries to even talk about forgoing WMD, whether nuclear or otherwise. Consequently, for the 2012 Conference to have any chance of bearing fruit it will be essential that inter-state relations within the Middle East improve.
Most of the countries within the Middle East still fail to recognize Israel diplomatically as a result of the Palestinian issue and related lack of progress in implementing a two state solution. Israel fears Hezbollah- and Hamas-led terrorism, conflict with its neighbors, and the possible threat of a nuclear Iran, a country that is tacitly supporting the two aforementioned groups. But it is also important to acknowledge that regional tensions are not purely Israel-focused. Indeed, there are several other issues and possible flashpoints that need to be addressed to reduce the motivation for some states to acquire or maintain stocks of WMD. These include the possible emergence of a nuclear Iran; the ongoing struggle for influence in Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt; ongoing Shi’ite – Sunni tensions; and the tensions related to the lack of natural resources (such as water) in the region – an issue that has historically sparked conflict. With such a wide range of potential problems, it will be important that States within the region find at least one common thread to work from at the Conference – something that can bring them all together, despite the continual flux of national security interests and, at times, opposing interests.
Even if arms reductions cannot begin to be negotiated at the 2012 Conference, an initial point of mutual interest for all States could coalesce around their interest in reducing the dangers of both miscalculation and possible accidental use of WMD and associated launch systems. It is precisely because tensions in the region have fluctuated so rapidly, and on such a regular basis, that this confidence building measure should be in the interest of all States in the region. It is an issue that could potentially narrow the many diverging interests of States within the region – just as it did in initial Cold War arms control negotiations. This would have the subsequent advantage of facilitating both the development of more stable inter-state relations while improving the dynamic for future disarmament talks.
In conjunction with this step, Israel should be encouraged to end its opposition to any WMD negotiations in advance of full peace and normalization. Even if Israel’s neighbors heed Obama’s advice and refrain from calling it out by name in the coming months, such an attitude will block the chances for any progress at the 2012 Conference. Israel needs to appreciate that, if it is genuinely interested in improving its security, then it must approach both issues simultaneously. Indeed, WMD negotiations in 2012 and beyond can help pave the way for negative security assurances, inter-State confidence building, and, ultimately, disarmament – all issues that will help improve Israel’s security in the long-term.
It is evident that without Israel’s participation at the 2012 Conference, it will be unlikely that much progress will be realized towards the creation of a Middle East free of WMD. Efforts must be made to ensure all parties remember that the Conference is not just about nuclear weapons, while for its part, Israel must accept the necessity of engaging in the Conference simultaneous to peace building and regional diplomacy. Finally, it is critical that all parties involved are realistic about what such a Conference can achieve and prepare themselves for what can only be a long-term effort.