Arab League to Convene Emergency Meeting on Mideast WMD-Free Zone

Arab League foreign ministers at a Nov. 3 meeting in Cairo to discuss Syria. The organization's member nations are to convene again on Sunday in a short-notice session to coordinate their positions on talks about a proposed ban weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
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Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
Nov. 8, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

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.

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