Amid Turmoil, a Nuke-Free Middle East May Be in Jeopardy

A proposed international conference on a nuclear weapons-free Middle East, tentatively scheduled for 2012, may be in jeopardy amid the growing political turmoil sweeping across the Arab world – and Israel’s fears of negative fallout on its own security.

The proposal for the long-outstanding meeting was endorsed by 189 member states at the Review Conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) held at the United Nations in May last year. 

The Israeli government, while criticizing the outcome document of that Review Conference, left the door open for participation in the 2012 conference. 

But the political uprisings in the Arab world, including the ouster of the Israeli-friendly Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, have triggered expressions of Israeli concern – specifically its own security in an increasingly hostile environment.

Israel has privately expressed the view that its undeclared nuclear weapons are the best guarantee of its security. 

The changing political environment, including a strongly pro- Palestinian government in Cairo, may justify its refusal even to participate in the conference aimed at making the region nuclear weapons-free. 

Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Jerusalem-based Palestine-Israel Journal, told IPS it is clear the conference cannot succeed unless both Israeli and Iranian representatives participate, "and this requires a careful, sophisticated approach."

While Israel is an undeclared nuclear power in the Middle East, Iran is being dubbed as a would-be nuclear power, according to experts in the region. 

Asked about the impact of the ongoing Arab social revolutions, Schenker said the sense of uncertainty and the apparent end of the status quo only serve to reinforce the need to move forward towards a Middle Eastern regime for security and cooperation. 

He said the movement towards the proposed conference now depends on the appointment of a U.N. envoy, who will then meet with the relevant governments and representatives of concerned civil society in the region, to set the format and shape of the conference, and to determine its location. 

A skeptical Peter Weiss, president of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and a member of the executive committee of Americans for Peace Now, told IPS, "My own view, as of now, is that little of consequence is likely to come from it, because Israel will be the last country in the world to give up its nukes." 

"The Israeli government will probably not attend or, if it does, will pose conditions for getting rid of its nukes which they know the other countries can’t accept," he added. 

Weiss, who contributed an article to a special issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal – "A Nuclear-Free Zone in the Middle East: Realistic or Idealistic?" – said the fact that the issue was published at all – besides public conferences in Jerusalem and London – shows there is some movement in Israel on the topic. 

He said four or five years ago, the subject of Israel’s nuclear weapons was completely taboo. 

Meanwhile, the United States, which traditionally throws a protective arm around Israel, has already laid down a condition in advance of the pre-conference preparations. 

Last July, when Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu met with U.S. President Barack Obama, he was assured that the 2012 conference would not single out Israel. 

A White House statement also insisted the conference would only take place "if all countries feel confident they can attend, and that any efforts to single out Israel will make the prospects of convening such a conference unlikely." 

Schenker told IPS it is clear that while asking Israel to sign the NPT and open its nuclear facilities for inspection may be one of the end goals of the process, it is a non-starter at this stage if people want to convene an inclusive conference with any chance of success in 2012. 

The basis for a successful conference in 2012 is a two-track process, based upon the Arab Peace Initiative, which was adopted at the Arab League Summit conference in Beirut in 2002, and has until now been reaffirmed every successive meeting, he said. 

He said one track should discuss ways to advance towards Israeli- Palestinian and Israeli-Arab comprehensive peace, and the other track should discuss ways to advance towards a Middle Eastern regional security and cooperation regime, which will include a nuclear and mass destruction weapons free zone. 

Asked whether the nuclear meltdown in Japan would have an impact on the upcoming conference, Schenker said it only serves to heighten awareness about the need for creating a Middle Eastern regional security regime which deals with nuclear questions. 

While the Israeli print and electronic media is usually focused primarily on internal issues, or issues which relate directly to the country, the drama in Japan, and particularly at the Fukushima reactor, has been in the headlines for weeks. 

Even Netanyahu declared that he was less enthusiastic about nuclear energy than he was before, Schenker added. 

Schenker said he has personally participated in a number of relevant initiatives linked to the topic, including a meeting of concerned Israelis, mainly academics and security people, convened by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (close to the German Social Democratic Party), which discussed possible formulas that could enable Israel to participate in the 2012 conference. 

Secondly, a civil society CSCME (Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East) initiative in Germany in January 2011, which took place parallel to the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia, with the participation of representatives from Israel, Iran, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Kuwait. 

And thirdly, the Horizon 2012 conference project on the Japanese Peace Boat in the Mediterranean Sea, in March 2011, with civil society participants from Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, the United Nations and European representatives of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). 

He said an Iranian accepted the invitation but was unable to participate because he did not obtain the necessary visa from the Greek embassy in Tehran. 

The goal of all of these meetings was to discuss formulas to enable a successful conference in 2012.

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Author: Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen writes for Inter Press Service.