Toward a WMD-Free Middle East: The Israel Hurdle

Mordechai Vanunu.Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli former nuclear technician who revealed details of Israel’s nuclear weapons program to the British press in 1986. (Photo: Eileen Fleming / Wikimedia)Since first proposed by Egypt in 1990, the vision of a WMD-free Middle East has attracted various proponents, including most recently Finland, which had offered to host a conference on the subject in 2012. That initiative, like the ones before it, failed – largely because of Israel’s refusal (backed by the United States) to participate.

Why is the elimination of nuclear (and chemical and biological) weapons important, and what can be done to secure Israel’s participation in a conference to create a WMD-free zone for the Middle East?

Eliminating all weapons of mass destruction would benefit every country in the region. It would reduce tensions caused by the mere presence of doomsday devices and substances. It would defuse pressures for a regional arms race and encourage greater reliance on international diplomacy to resolve conflicts.

Why is the WMD topic urgent?

Suddenly we have a chance to eliminate nuclear, chemical and biological weapons from the highly volatile Middle East. Syria’s undertaking to decommission its chemical weapons and Iran’s new willingness to negotiate limits on its nuclear program present an unprecedented opportunity to create a WMD-free zone. For a region beset by continuing confrontation and violent conflict, such an opportunity is too important and too urgent to dismiss out of hand.

Notwithstanding the ongoing civil war, Syria has begun to implement its Russia-brokered agreement to eliminate its chemical weapons. UN inspectors confirm that the dismantling of chemical weapons is on schedule. Already a signatory of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, Syria has now signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Iran’s new president, Hassan Ruhani, has abandoned the bellicose tone of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2013, Ruhani said his country is “prepared to engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks to build mutual confidence and removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency.” Negotiations already have begun. A spokesman for Iran’s chief negotiator believes it can conclude an agreement over its disputed nuclear program within a year. Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (under which there are implementation issues) and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

While Israel has never acknowledged its WMD assets, Western intelligence assessments have cited active programs for nuclear and biochemical weapons. As early as 1960, the CIA learned of Israel’s ambitious nuclear project underway at Dimona, in the Nagev desert. On December 7, 1960, the State Department asked Israel for an explanation. Yet the US government never breached Israel’s veil of secrecy. It was an Israeli nuclear technician (Mordechai Vanunu), who, like today’s Edward Snowden, blew the whistle. In 1986, he furnished the media with detailed information and photos of the Dimona facilities, although it cost him 18 years of imprisonment, including 11 years in solitary confinement. The intelligence reports and the Vanunu disclosure failed to stop successive Israeli governments from maintaining a curtain of ambiguous silence regarding its WMDs.

Israel is one of only four UN member states that have not joined the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (the others are India, Pakistan and South Sudan). Although Israel signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, it has never ratified it.

Israel may regard nuclear deterrence as central to its long-term security strategy – a necessary addition to its well-equipped but outnumbered armed forces. However, in a post-Arab Spring Middle East, the elimination of weapons of mass destruction would enhance peace prospects by reducing arms race tendencies.

In the wake of developments in Iran and Syria, Israel is facing increasing pressure to disclose its WMD assets and to participate in an international conference to eliminate such weapons throughout the region. That pressure will only increase if Israel continues to maintain its secret reliance on a WMD arsenal. Syria and Iran have taken the initial steps forward. Now its Israel’s turn to reciprocate.

What if Israel were to agree to decommission its WMDs in line with similar actions by Syria and Iran? Such an offer would go far to defuse regional hostilities and move the peace process beyond just Israel and Palestine.

If Israel insists on maintaining the Netanyahu government’s secret reliance on its doomsday weapons, the United States should use its influence to persuade Israel to participate in an international conference on banning WMDs.