YOSSI MELMAN, YOSSI MELMAN/No miracle in sight for nuclear-free Middle East


No miracle in sight for nuclear-free Middle East

 NEW YORK – One thing is clear. The Middle East will not witness the creation of a miracle: the establishment in the region of a nuclear free zone (MENFZ). It neither will happen after the end of the NPT Review Conference next month nor in many years to come.

 This week in New York an important international gathering is taking place. It is the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is the fourth time such a conference is convened – once every five years. The purpose is to draft a new treaty to replace the current one, which was signed and ratified in 1970 and expired in 1995. It is still legally binding and will continue to be so as long until a new agreement is reached.  Israel – which the international community takes for granted that it possesses nuclear weapons – is not a member of the NPT. Since 1970, when the treaty went into force, Israel (as well as India and Pakistan, which are also nuclear powers, and more recently North Korea) has refused to join it.

 Israel also refused to attend the last three NPT Review Conferences, arguing that it is not a treaty member. But this time the Israeli government caved in to international pressure, mainly from the US, and regional circumstances and agreed to participate as an observer.

 Actually, Israel had changed its heart already after the previous NPT Review Conference in 2010. This happened because – against the wishes of Israel – US President Barack Obama agreed to join Arab and many other nations calling for preliminary talks to establish a nuclear free zone in the Middle East.  Adopting the attitude of “if you can beat ‘em, join ‘m,” Israel demanded that the terms of reference be amended and the formula redefined.  Israel’s demands were accepted and it was agreed that the talks would be unbinding, informal, and discuss not only nuclear weapons – a clear reference to Israel – but also all weapons of mass destructions; nuclear, chemical, and biological.

After many obstacles a few rounds of talks took place between 2011 and 2013 in Switzerland. At the first meetings the attendance was quite impressive and included Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and delegates from other Arab countries. Even an Iranian diplomat attended one of the meetings.  The Israeli delegation, led by Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General Jeremy Issacharof, included officials from the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, the National Security Council, and other agencies. The aim of the talks, moderated by a senior Finish diplomat, was to enhance the notion of convening a regional conference that would negotiate the creation of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
But eventually the talks led to nowhere.

Some Arab countries, like Iraq and Syria, skipped the meetings and Iran showed up for only one round. Israel insisted the talks focus on formalities and technicalities, refusing any indication of UN involvement, on one hand, and hard core issues on the other.  The Israeli officials argued that the talks should include topics such as the geographical definition of the Middle East (for example, does this include Pakistan and India?) and delivery systems – missiles.

 The Israeli position was and has remained reminiscent of the chicken and the egg question.  Israel’s argument is that first all the nations in the Middle East have to recognize it, establish diplomatic relations, and reach security arrangements and only then negotiate the establishment of a zone free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
What also helped slightly to soften Israel’s attitude and bring it to the review conference are the dramatic changes in the region. Syria was forced to dismantle its arsenal of chemical weapons – the biggest in the world. Internal conflicts are tearing apart Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen as sovereign states.

 Unprecedentedly cruel Muslim terrorism is sweeping the Middle East. The schism between Shi’ites and Sunnis is growing wider. Iran aspires to be a nuclear power. All these developments have created a new reality and brought into the surface new alliances.  Arab nations – especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt – are much more concerned about a nuclear Iran and its drive for regional hegemony rather than Israeli nuclear monopoly.

 Egypt, once the most vociferous advocate to deprive Israel of its nuclear weapons, has softened its position.  “Our initiative for a Middle East free of nonconventional weapons is a principle. It will not change,” an Egyptian diplomat said this week, but added, “it will not be this time too hard.”  The worst-case scenario for Israel that may emerge from the review conference would be a decision to continue the informal and noncommittal meetings about future modalities for the creation of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. If this happens, it most probably will once again lead to nowhere. The successful Israeli policy of “nuclear ambiguity” is not under a threat and will not be changed, and the region will continue to be violent and divisive.