WASHINGTON -- The League of Arab States is convening an emergency meeting this Sunday to coordinate a consensus position for upcoming talks about eliminating weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East.
The urgent gathering comes amid reports that modest progress was achieved last month during multilateral consultations in Switzerland that included representatives from Israel, Iran and other regional nations.
Going into the weekend meeting, it is uncertain whether the Arab League will harden on a position -- held by some in the region -- that would further isolate Israel for its view that talks about establishing a WMD-free zone could come only in the context of broader regional engagement and peace initiatives. By contrast, some issue experts are saying that as Iran appears to moderate its stance on its own nuclear-energy efforts, Arab League member nations may push to build on nascent areas of common ground with Israel.
The recent multinational forum near Montreaux was led by Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava, whose United Nations-sponsored mandate would facilitate the voluntary participation of Mideast countries in a major conference to discuss the creation of a WMD-free zone in the region. The Helsinki conference was to be held by the end of last year, but was postponed when Israel held back on agreeing to participate.
At the same time, the Israeli government continues to attend conference-planning sessions with Laajava and others, and has not ruled out its attendance if a Helsinki forum is ultimately scheduled.
Egypt, which has long spearheaded the concept of creating the special zone, requested that the Arab League hold this Sunday's meeting in advance of a second round of consultations that Laajava is said to be scheduling for Nov. 25 and 26.
Dates for the forthcoming region-wide session have not been officially announced, but a diplomat informed on the discussions confirmed an intent to meet again "soon," and told Global Security Newswire that the venue might again be Glion, where the parties met on Oct. 21 and 22.
Before then, the upcoming meeting of Arab League permanent representatives will address "the Egyptian initiative to [clear] the Middle East of all weapons of mass destruction and take a unified Arab stance on how to deal with it and put it into practice," according to a Google translation of a Thursday announcement on the Mideast organization's website.
The Arab League delegates are to consider a process proposed by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy for eliminating the most-dangerous regional arsenals in which outliers to key treaties would move simultaneously to join the agreements. These would include the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention.
Israel is believed to have the lone nuclear arsenal in the Middle East and is not an NPT member nation. It neither acknowledges nor denies its estimated stockpile of 80 or more nuclear arms. Iran is a signatory of the Nonproliferation Treaty, but is widely perceived to be interested in developing an atomic-arms capability -- the focus of ongoing talks with Washington and its partners.
Syria recently joined the Chemical Weapons Convention amid allegations that its government used sarin nerve gas in an Aug. 21 attack near Damascus that Washington alleges killed more than 1,400 civilians. Several other countries in the region also are known or believed to have produced chemical weapons, including Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Libya.
In a September speech before the U.N. General Assembly, Fahmy said the major Helsinki conference should be held by the end of this year, or certainly by next spring “at the latest.”
At the Arab League deliberations, "the Arabs need to take a stern position and soon before Nov. 25," said Mahmoud Karem, a former Egyptian ambassador and disarmament expert.
He characterized Israel as engaging in "classic filibustering" in an attempt to hold off the Helsinki conference, constituting a "waste of time to give the impression that there is an ongoing 'process' and continuity." To counter Israel's stance, "a meeting of the high officials is necessary in Cairo" and at the Arab League, Karem said.
By contrast, Chen Kane, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said it is not entirely clear that the Arab League meeting will scuttle efforts toward including Israel in a Helsinki conference. She has characterized the Israeli position as largely reasonable in a region where its right to exist as a nation is not uniformly recognized.
The Arab League "needs to meet to get a unified position before the [second multilateral] consultation in November, so I would not necessarily take it as [a] negative [development]," she told GSN on Friday.
The organization's "senior officials would like to line up their ducks behind a common position to press for the [Helsinki] conference to be held this year and on the terms" of 1995 and 2010 resolutions embraced by Nonproliferation Treaty member states in favor of creating the special zone, said Tariq Rauf, a former Canadian diplomat who has previously held posts at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Arab nations also may be inclined to "overrule the Israeli preference for discussion on regional security and CBMs," Rauf told GSN, referring to confidence-building measures aimed at increasing Middle East transparency and understanding.