Last week Israel’s Prime Minister announced his decision to cancel abruptly his appearance at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. Israeli officials suggested that Netanyahu scuttled the trip due to fears that a group of Arab states might have used the conference to demand Israel sign up to the Non Proliferation Treaty. At a time when Israel continues to lobby allies to punish Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program, such focus on its own program would have made it a target for criticism. And in the context of nuclear terrorism, this criticism seems increasingly valid.
Netanyahu’s attendance at the summit would have been unprecedented. He would have been the first Israeli premier ever to participate in discussions on nuclear issues. It’s also a subject he is knowledgeable about, having written specifically about it in his book, ‘Fighting Terrorism’. And it’s a subject that is particularly relevant for Israel, since historically it has been a frequent victim of terrorist attacks.
That Israeli adversaries such as Iraq, Iran, Libya and possibly Syria have all at one stage or another pursued nuclear weapons illustrates two things. First, it suggests that the deterrence Israel supposedly gains from its opaque nuclear posture has done little to stop its adversaries from pursuing nuclear weapons. Secondly, it’s possible that Israel’s nuclear program may have actually motivated some of these programs, or at least served as a convenient excuse for programs which may have gone ahead regardless of Israel’s nuclear status. The more nuclear programs there are in the region, particularly if they are pursued clandestinely, the greater the risk that materials could be diverted – with or without permission – to radical groups..
Egypt’s 1990 call for a Middle Eastern Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction ought now to be reviewed again. The proposals would prohibit the 22 nations that make up the Arab League plus Israel and Iran from possessing all forms of WMD – whether nuclear, biological or chemical. They would also oblige intrusive procedures to guarantee full compliance, allowing for no exception to the agreement.
This idea was endorsed in the Resolution on the Middle East at the 1995 NPT Review Conference as a way of getting Middle Eastern states to support the indefinite extension of the Treaty at a time when they were becoming increasingly frustrated by Israel’s nuclear posture. If established, not only would it reduce the potential for catastrophic war in the region, but the proposal would also have the added benefit of minimizing the risk that terrorists might one day acquire fissile materials that could be used in an attack.
As Zeev Maoz suggested in his 2003 study questioning the security value of Israel’s nuclear program, ‘in return for greater regional security, Israel must give up its nuclear weapons’. Indeed, if it’s serious about reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism, the pursuit of a Middle Eastern Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction should become a priority goal for Israel. In light of its vast conventional superiority and strong ties with the U.S, Israel is in a position to denuclearize as part of this policy, so long as every other state in the region is not allowed to possess nuclear weapons.
In contrast, attempting to escape criticism wherever possible, while reprimanding others for IAEA non-compliance, seems an unlikely way to reduce the potential for nuclear proliferation in the region – and thus the threat of nuclear terrorism.