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Is Israel’s call for a Middle East nuke-free zone a dream?

The nuclear issue has been the most secretive and sensitive in Israel’s history since the 1950s

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Every five years, though attracting very little international attention, the Review Conference of the parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), meets in the U.N. headquarters in New York. Since the Review Conference first met in 1995, the aim has been to ensure that the objective of the 1970 NPT of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, while at the same time promoting cooperation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy are applied and upheld. In this year’s Review Conference, one of the novelties is the participation of an Israeli delegation as an observer. Israel, similarly to India and Pakistan, has never signed the NPT, and as a non-signatory can only observe proceedings and not fully participate. However, for a country which for more than half a century continues to deny the possession of nuclear military capability, despite common knowledge in the international community to the contrary, Israel’s engagement with such talks is of great interest and raises some significant queries. Is it the beginning of the end of Israel’s ‘opacity’ strategy towards her nuclear programme? Have Israeli strategists reached a conclusion that nuclear military capability, as everyone assumes it has, does not serve the country’s long-term security needs anymore? Or, is it a tactical effort to deflect attention from its intractable position on the nuclear negotiations with Iran?

The nuclear issue has been the most secretive and sensitive in Israel’s history since the 1950s. Hence, it was rather surprisingly that the Israeli delegation to the NPT conference released a statement bluntly blaming its Arab neighbors for the failure in progressing towards the realisation of a Middle East nuclear free zone (MENWFZ). In the statement Israel asserts that "if a serious regional effort has not emerged in the Middle East during the last five years, it is not because of Israel." Israeli decision makers must have known that any comment by country’s officials about nuclear would attract intense attention to the state’s own nuclear capabilities, but they seem less concerned than in the past. Israel’s secret developing and handling of its nuclear affairs have become legendary. According to various international sources Israel possesses between 80 and 10 nuclear warheads, with fissile material for up to 200, ready for ‘…delivery by two dozen missiles, a couple of squadrons of aircraft, and perhaps a small number of sea-launched cruise missiles.’

In order to avoid international scrutiny of its nuclear capabilities and at the same time gain credibility of a nuclear military power, Israel adopted a strategy of ‘opacity’ or ‘ambiguity’. It is a policy which maintains never admitting the possession of nuclear military capability, but at the same time leaves enough trail of evidence of the existence of nuclear deterrence. Originally, Israel’s nuclear doctrine was aimed to compensate for what Israeli strategists perceived as a military conventional inferiority in the case of a combined attack by Arab armies on all fronts. The nuclear option has been maintained as a ‘last resort’ or ‘doomsday’ weapon in case the conventional forces fail to halt an attack and the country is faced with defeat or even destruction. Since this doctrine was first adopted, Israeli armed forces have reached military conventional superiority against any regional combination of alliances against it. Moreover, other countries in the region, such as Libya, Iraq and Syria, abandoned their WMD programmes. Nevertheless, Israel’s nuclear doctrine, and also its conventional one, shifted to deter future Iranian nuclear military threat, if such capability emerges. In truth, Israeli military threats are closer to home, and derive more from non-state actors’ militancy and terrorism, which to a large extent mainly requires a transformation in Israeli diplomacy rather than its military doctrine.

What seemed to be an imminent agreement with Iran on abandoning its military nuclear programme, however, shuffles Israeli cards and leaves it vulnerable to accusations of being an obstacle in reaching an agreement on a Middle East nuclear (and even WMD) free zone. Israel entered negotiations on a Middle East nuclear-free zone with neighbouring Arab countries in Switzerland back in 2013, but a few rounds of talks ended in a stalemate, until they were abandoned all together a year later. By publicly blaming its Arab neighbours for the failure of the negotiations Israel is taking a risk, which may prove detrimental to its own interests. Considering that most of the Arab world, implicitly or tacitly, supports Israel’s sceptical views of the viability of an agreement between Iran and the P5+1, blaming these countries at this juncture might be counterproductive.

Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif was quick to capitalize, one would argue prematurely and not entirely accurately, on Iran’s new foreign policy position of pragmatism, which opposes the proliferation of WMDs. In a speech on behalf of the 120 nation Non-Aligned Movement to the NPT signatories last week, Zarif asserted that Israel is "a serious and continuing threat to the security of neighbouring and other states, and condemned Israel for continuing to develop and stockpile nuclear arsenals." He went as far as mocking Prime Minister Netanyahu for attempting to present himself as a ‘non-proliferation guru’. To a large extent Israel’s call for a MENWFZ should be seen as part of the war of words with Tehran. Both sides continue to portray each other as a warmonger bent on developing WMDs, risking regional stability through further proliferation.

Nuclear disarmament

Israel in its sudden public support of regional nuclear disarmament is also motivated by the opportunity to set a condition of full recognition by the Arab world before any such nuclear disarmament takes place. The state claims that it is ready to make progress on eliminating its presumed nuclear weapons only when the entire Arab world is ready to publicly recognise it. This is far from being feasible even without extending it beyond the Arab world to Iran. A large part of the Arab world is unlikely to establish diplomatic relations with Israel until it reaches a peaceful settlement to its conflict with the Palestinians. Right now this seems to be an extremely remote possibility. Bridging differences with Iran is not in the cards either. In principle it is not unreasonable for Israel to expect acceptance by the region, but it cannot realistically anticipate being integrated into the region without a genuine attempt to end the occupation and oppression of Palestinians’ rights.

A Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction is a dream well worth pursuing. Unfortunately, under the current circumstances it is not a realistic one, at least in the short term. Israel’s attempts to place all the blame on the Arab world is just another demonstration of the gap in perceptions between the decision makers in Jerusalem and the rest of the region. The demand for a sequential process which would start with public acceptance of Israel by all countries in the region and only then be followed by disarmament might have its own logic, but it ignores the greater danger to the region, including Israel, of WMD proliferation. Without an agreement on MENWFZ the most plausible outcome would be an arms race, and considering the volatility of the region, this is not a favourable outcome for Israel’s security. In order to prevent this from happening, the new government in Israel, which is on the verge of forming, should take a more holistic and realistic approach to its policies in the region.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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