How will we achieve progress on the long and tortuous road of eliminating WMD from the whole of the Middle East and formalizing that in verified treaties? We clearly need to address the underlying obstacles that hinder further progress on the establishment of the WMD-free zone in the Middle East, and this was the subject of a side event at the 2014 NPT PrepCom on May 7th, co-hosted by BASIC with PAX and the Israeli Disarmament Movement.
This event was related to a unique process conducted in Israel in November 2013, involving international and Israeli civil society, think tanks and government representatives, under a joint project developed by the three organisations.
Lianet Vazquez – Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at BASIC: Proposing an analytical regional perspective on the state of the WMD Free Zone process in the Middle East – remaining needs and requirements for the establishment of the zone.
Ward Wilson – Senior Fellow & Director of the Rethinking Nuclear Weapons project at BASIC: Speaking about the Middle East nuclear discourse – political rather than military, the possibility of nuclear exchange and the danger of WMD in the Middle East.
Sharon Dolev – Director of the Israeli Disarmament Movement: Speaking about the roundtable process aimed at paving new paths towards WMD Free Zone in the Middle East, obstacles and opportunities.
Chair: Wilbert van der Zeijden – Senior reasercher at PAX
The event’s discussion was centered on the following themes:
- Diminished value of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
Nuclear weapons are bulky, expensive and messy. Their perceived value as a “deterrent” has not prevented the onset of conventional wars or non-conventional attacks against Israel – the only country in the region with a nuclear weapons arsenal. Furthermore, due to the destructive, non-discriminatory and geographically unrestricted effect of these weapons, nuclear exchange in the Middle East would not be in the interests of any of the states in the region, as an attack on one would have negative repercussions on all. An attack of the like would be damaging to the shared environment; it would likely destroy much-valued religious sites; and it would impact believers and non-believers alike.
- Obstacles to the Helsinki process.
Disbelief in the feasibility of the establishment of the zone is one of the main obstacles. Though support towards the idea of such a zone is indisputably strong, the co-conveners of the postponed conference seem to be grappling with normative versus practical nuances that inevitably decrease the political will behind the Helsinki process. Israel’s objections against participating in the conference are also deemed as unwarranted excuses by many, while the Arab states and Iran are also jointly held at fault for their inflexibility in accommodating Israel’s regional security concerns as part of the Helsinki agenda. The limited discussion inside Israel about the establishment of the zone appears the most significant obstacle. Engaging in the nuclear weapons discourse inside the country is considered taboo, and consequently avoided. Thus, though the disarmament movement within Israel is growing, it has yet to rally widespread support from a society that considerably values its nuclear deterrent. Even if the government agrees to move forward with the negotiations towards the establishment of the zone, the process will fail if the Israeli public is not engaged and informed.
- A model of change to promote the way forward.
At the international level, there may be an opportunity cost in expending energy and resources in convening the Helsinki Conference to start a long-term process, if this takes energy away from the political momentum generated by Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to push forward the establishment of a zone free of chemical weapons in the Middle East. Egypt since its ratification of the NPT in 1981 conditions its signing and ratification of additional arms control conventions upon Israel’s accession to the NPT - it may be time to reassess this strategy. States might need to consider incremental steps (e.g. signing and ratification of the CWC by Egypt and Israel) that would work toward the establishment of the zone, while also functioning as confidence-building measures. CBMs need to go in both directions, and more clearly demonstrate the commitment of all parties to a process that ends up with a WMD-Free Zone and the necessary structures in place to support it, and show their commitment to starting this process at the earliest possible time. The Tel-Aviv roundtable process will serve to challenge Israel’s nuclear weapons taboo and encourage open discussions about global nuclear disarmament along with Israel’s role as part of this movement.