Israel, Arab States Talking — But Still Deadlocked on Mideast WMD Ban

A Palestinian man sits waiting to cross into Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip. Egypt, Israel and other Middle Eastern nations took part in a second round of consultations on the idea of banning weapons of mass destruction from the region.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
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Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
Dec. 5, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — Is­raeli and Ar­ab en­voys met for the second time at a Swiss re­sort late last month to con­fer on the agenda for re­gion­al talks about a pos­sible ban on weapons of mass de­struc­tion, but some key dif­fer­ences re­main, ac­cord­ing to sources fa­mil­i­ar with the dis­cus­sions.

One cent­ral stum­bling block: De­term­in­ing which arms could be dis­cussed, in­siders tell Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. While Ar­ab states in­sist that the fo­cus must re­main on nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al and con­ven­tion­al weapons and de­liv­ery sys­tems, Is­rael says the role of un­con­ven­tion­al sys­tems can­not be dis­cussed out­side of the broad­er con­text of threats to na­tion­al se­cur­ity in the Middle East.

“With sup­port from West­ern co-con­veners,” Is­rael “pressed for in­clu­sion” of con­ven­tion­al weaponry and con­fid­ence- and se­cur­ity-build­ing meas­ures “as part of the over­all dis­cus­sion on a WMD- [and] de­liv­ery vehicles-free zone,” said one in­formed ob­serv­er who spoke on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity, cit­ing the sens­it­iv­ity of the be­hind-closed-doors con­sulta­tions.

The Ar­ab side’s po­s­i­tion was “to fo­cus only on [a] WMD- [and re­lated] de­liv­ery-vehicles-free zone,” this source said.

Mul­tiple in­siders de­scribed the tone of the meet­ings last month as cor­di­al and con­struct­ive, though.

There were “no ab­so­lute noes, no ab­so­lute yeses” to any top­ic un­der dis­cus­sion, said one dip­lo­mat close to the pro­cess, sug­gest­ing that the in­ter­na­tion­al dia­logue has the po­ten­tial to con­tin­ue.

The Nov. 25-26 gath­er­ing was pre­ceded by an Oc­to­ber con­fab at the same Gli­on loc­a­tion at which Is­raeli, Ar­ab and Ir­a­ni­an of­fi­cials met for the first time with the aim of sort­ing out an agenda for a ma­jor con­fer­ence to be held in Fin­land.

Dip­lo­mats from Ir­an did not take part in the most re­cent Gli­on meet­ings. Key of­fi­cials were said to be busy work­ing on in­ter­na­tion­al talks over their coun­try’s con­tested nuc­le­ar pro­gram, though it was un­clear wheth­er any ad­di­tion­al is­sues also were factors in the ab­sence. Source said that Tehran had not ruled out re­join­ing any fur­ther WMD-free zone con­sulta­tions.

The ma­jor Hel­sinki con­fer­ence to ex­plore the concept of a Mideast WMD ban was to have taken place last year. However, it was post­poned in­def­in­itely when the re­gion­al states — along with con­ven­ing na­tions Rus­sia, the United King­dom and United States — were un­able to agree on terms for par­ti­cip­a­tion.

Finnish dip­lo­mat Jaakko Laa­java, the U.N.-sponsored fa­cil­it­at­or for the pro­cess, is now eye­ing a third ses­sion at Gli­on, pos­sibly early next year, GSN has learned.

This meet­ing would be “to seek agree­ment on the mod­al­it­ies of the or­gan­iz­a­tion of the [Middle East] con­fer­ence to be held in Hel­sinki in the first half of 2014,” one source said this week. Oth­ers also close to the pro­cess con­firmed dis­cus­sion of that pos­sible time frame for the Hel­sinki event.

However, the po­ten­tial tim­ing might be overly op­tim­ist­ic for the pro­posed talks, be­cause mod­al­it­ies — that’s dip­lo-speak for agenda and ground rules — “will be dif­fi­cult to agree upon ab­sent agree­ment on the scope and man­date of the [Middle East] con­fer­ence,” the in­sider said.

If plaus­ible, though, an early- to mid-year Hel­sinki gath­er­ing could suit WMD-free-zone ad­voc­ates. Egyp­tian For­eign Min­is­ter Nab­il Fahmy in Septem­ber called for the ma­jor talks to be held “by spring 2014, at the latest.”

He and oth­er Ar­ab lead­ers con­tin­ue to press Laa­java and the con­ven­ing na­tions to set a date for the Hel­sinki con­fer­ence, with or without Is­raeli as­sent to par­ti­cip­ate.

However, a key in­ter­na­tion­al res­ol­u­tion on the mat­ter said the con­fer­ence must in­clude the vol­un­tary par­ti­cip­a­tion of all states in the re­gion. That word­ing has ef­fect­ively giv­en veto power to Is­rael or any oth­er Mideast na­tion re­gard­ing wheth­er the con­fer­ence is held, sev­er­al ex­pert sources say.

Egypt has led the ef­fort to con­vene the Middle East WMD dis­cus­sions and has sought pro­gress on the mat­ter pri­or to the next pre­par­at­ory com­mit­tee meet­ing on the Nuc­le­ar Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty. That gath­er­ing is slated to be­gin in late April in New York.

To protest the 2012 post­pone­ment of the Hel­sinki talks, the Egyp­tian del­eg­a­tion walked out on the pre­vi­ous NPT pre­par­at­ory meet­ing — held last April in Geneva — at which treaty mem­ber na­tions con­tin­ued plan­ning for a 2015 re­view con­fer­ence.

This art­icle was pub­lished in Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, which is pro­duced in­de­pend­ently by Na­tion­al Journ­al Group un­der con­tract with the Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive. NTI is a non­profit, non­par­tis­an group work­ing to re­duce glob­al threats from nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al, and chem­ic­al weapons.

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