In Bid to Break Mideast Impasse, WMD Confab Set at Swiss Venue This Month

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, speaks during the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly October 1, 2013 at UN headquarters in New York.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
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Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
Oct. 1, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

BRUS­SELS — A United Na­tions-ap­poin­ted dip­lo­mat on Tues­day said he will con­vene mul­tina­tion­al con­sulta­tions in Switzer­land later this month as a po­ten­tially key step to­ward dis­cuss­ing an even­tu­al ban on weapons of mass de­struc­tion in the Middle East.

If na­tions in the re­gion can agree on the terms and ob­ject­ives of re­gion­al dis­cus­sions, a form­al con­fer­ence on cre­at­ing a Mideast WMD-free zone could oc­cur in Hel­sinki, Fin­land, as early as mid-Decem­ber, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­na­tion­al dip­lo­mats and ex­pert ob­serv­ers.

Jaakko Laa­java, a Finnish en­voy who serves as fa­cil­it­at­or for the pro­spect­ive talks, played down con­tin­ued dif­fer­ences between Is­rael and its Ar­ab neigh­bors over the ne­ces­sity of this month’s mul­ti­lat­er­al plan­ning ses­sion, which is to take place in Gli­on, a lakeside re­treat roughly 60 miles north­east of Geneva.

Speak­ing at a European Uni­on-sponsored event here in the Bel­gian cap­it­al, he said the Oct. 21-22 meet­ing near Montr­eaux would at min­im­um be a dis­cus­sion between him­self as fa­cil­it­at­or and the na­tion­al con­veners of the pos­sible con­fer­ence — Rus­sia, the United King­dom and United States.

This would be “to con­tin­ue dis­cus­sions on the agenda and mod­al­it­ies of the Hel­sinki con­fer­ence,” Laa­java said. “We’d like to say that we would [also] wel­come the par­ti­cip­a­tion of all re­gion­al states, all re­gion­al parties, in or­der to fa­cil­it­ate con­sensus” among the pro­spect­ive Mideast part­ners in es­tab­lish­ing a WMD ban.

Some Egyp­tian and Ar­ab League en­voys have cri­ti­cized the idea of a pre-con­fer­ence plan­ning ses­sion among the re­gion­al states, though, say­ing it ap­peared to be an Is­raeli bid to stall or even per­haps even re­place the form­al Hel­sinki con­fer­ence with end­less con­sulta­tions. The man­date for the WMD-free zone con­fer­ence grew out of the 2010 Nuc­le­ar Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty Re­view Con­fer­ence, which as a non-mem­ber na­tion Is­rael did not at­tend.

Egyp­tian Am­bas­sad­or Hisham Badr has called on Is­rael to com­mit to par­ti­cip­at­ing in the Hel­sinki con­fer­ence be­fore meet­ing in a mul­ti­lat­er­al plan­ning for­um to dis­cuss de­tails. He re­cently told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire that some Ar­ab na­tions sus­pect “that a few parties want to rene­go­ti­ate the man­date at­tained with dif­fi­culty in 2010 and this we should avoid.”

However, Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu’s gov­ern­ment thus far has not said wheth­er it would take part in the ma­jor for­um, in­sist­ing first on re­ceiv­ing as­sur­ances that it would not be singled out at the event as the re­gion’s sole nuc­le­ar arms power when it sees more press­ing chem­ic­al, bio­lo­gic­al and po­ten­tially nuc­le­ar threats af­fect­ing the Middle East.

European dip­lo­mats on Tues­day char­ac­ter­ized the Finnish en­voy’s low-pres­sure bid to gath­er re­gion­al rep­res­ent­at­ives in Switzer­land in three weeks as a means of al­low­ing dir­ect con­tact to take place in a polit­ic­ally neut­ral en­vir­on­ment, without re­quir­ing pub­lic con­ces­sions by any of the parties.

Still, that for­mula may have little chance of suc­ceeded in bring­ing about talks, giv­en that all key parties seem to re­main firmly dug in on their po­s­i­tions, said Ca­m­ille Grand, chair of the EU Non-Pro­lif­er­a­tion Con­sor­ti­um, which sponsored this week’s Brus­sels con­fer­ence.

“Ba­sic­ally I think [Laa­java’s] tac­tic is the right tac­tic,” he told GSN in a brief in­ter­view. “But does it change something with the key play­ers? Are they ready to join in a com­mon meet­ing that would pre­cede a con­fer­ence, or not?”

Grand said that re­cent dip­lo­mat­ic over­tures from Syr­ia and Ir­an — on chem­ic­al and nuc­le­ar arms is­sues, re­spect­ively — could help lay the ground­work for pos­sible en­gage­ment on a WMD-free zone. The chal­lenge now, though, is to “seize the mo­ment” in a bid to soften con­tin­ued in­transigence on the Hel­sinki con­fer­ence by Egypt, Ir­an and Is­rael.

Egyp­tian For­eign Min­is­ter Nab­il Fahmy late last week laid out at the U.N. Gen­er­al As­sembly a pro­posed struc­ture for im­ple­ment­ing a WMD ban in the re­gion — one that would have Mideast na­tions that re­main out­liers to key treat­ies move sim­ul­tan­eously to join the Nuc­le­ar Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty, the Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion and the Bio­lo­gic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion.

Fahmy said the ma­jor Hel­sinki con­fer­ence should be held by the end of the year but cer­tainly by next spring “at the latest.” Laa­java is said to be privately dis­cuss­ing a date of Dec.

Speak­ing at the sym­posi­um here, Mah­moud Kar­em — a board mem­ber of the Egyp­tian Coun­cil for For­eign Af­fairs — said Fahmy was sig­nal­ing Egypt’s in­tent to re­main en­gaged, to demon­strate pre­pared­ness it­self to sign anti-chem­ic­al and ““bio­lo­gic­al arms treat­ies and to of­fer “breath­ing space” for dip­lomacy, if needed, un­til the next ma­jor pre­par­at­ory meet­ing on the Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty in New York.

Speak­ing from the audi­ence, Nobuyasu Abe of the Ja­pan In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tion­al Af­fairs re­com­men­ded that Middle East na­tions also be asked to ad­opt an ad­di­tion­al safe­guards pro­tocol on their nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies and the Com­pre­hens­ive Nuc­le­ar Test Ban Treaty.

Some en­voys in Brus­sels this week ad­di­tion­ally pro­posed that all five of the nuc­le­ar-armed per­man­ent mem­bers of the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil be brought in­to the pro­cess as en­for­cers of the spe­cial Mideast WMD-free zone, build­ing on their role in jointly con­demning Syr­ia’s re­cent chem­ic­al at­tack. This role might even fea­ture pos­it­ive se­cur­ity as­sur­ances to de­fend non-nuc­le­ar states against any nuc­le­ar at­tack, ac­cord­ing to this line of think­ing.

Is­rael neither ac­know­ledges nor denies its es­tim­ated ar­sen­al of 80 or more nuc­le­ar arms.

For its part, Ir­an is a mem­ber na­tion of the Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty but is widely be­lieved in­ter­ested in de­vel­op­ing a nuc­le­ar-arms cap­ab­il­ity. However, its new pres­id­ent, Has­san Rouh­ani, has be­gun first steps to­ward talks with P-5 na­tions and Ger­many about cap­ping its atom­ic ca­pa­city in ex­change for nor­mal­ized re­la­tions and re­mov­al of eco­nom­ic sanc­tions.

Syr­ia re­cently joined the Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion fol­low­ing al­leg­a­tions that its mil­it­ary used chem­ic­al weapons in an Aug. 21 pois­on-gas at­tack just out­side of Dam­as­cus that Wash­ing­ton al­leges killed more than 1,400 ci­vil­ians.

Sev­er­al oth­er na­tions in the re­gion are also known or be­lieved to have pro­duced chem­ic­al weapons: Egypt, Ir­an, Ir­aq, Is­rael and Libya.

Is­raeli Pres­id­ent Shi­mon Peres this week re­newed sig­nals that his na­tion is pre­pared to use rat­i­fic­a­tion of the Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion as a bar­gain­ing chip in the re­gion­al peace pro­cess, fol­low­ing Syr­ia’s ac­ces­sion to the 188-na­tion agree­ment. Egypt has not yet signed the pact, which calls for the elim­in­a­tion of all weapons that carry chem­ic­al ma­ter­i­als such as mus­tard blister agent or sar­in nerve gas.

Egypt and Syr­ia have signed but not rat­i­fied the Bio­lo­gic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion, which pro­hib­its mak­ing or stock­pil­ing dis­ease-based arms. Is­rael is one of 23 coun­tries that have not agreed to the bio­lo­gic­al arms ban.

Speak­ing on a pan­el dis­cus­sion along­side Kar­em on Tues­day, re­tired Is­raeli Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom re­jec­ted Fahmy’s call for a treaty-based pro­cess for in­sti­tut­ing a WMD ban in their re­gion, say­ing his own na­tion’s views must be taken in­to ac­count if a gath­er­ing of all Middle East coun­tries is to suc­ceed.

He called the Middle East a re­gion “that ex­cels in non­com­pli­ance with signed agree­ments.”

“Why should we think that sign­ing on an­oth­er agree­ment — [one] on a WMD-free zone — will lead to bet­ter com­pli­ance with this agree­ment?” said Brom, now seni­or re­search fel­low and dir­ect­or of the In­sti­tute for Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Stud­ies’ Is­rael-Palestini­an Re­la­tions pro­gram. “And there­fore, Is­rael does not think that the es­tab­lish­ment of a WMD-free zone can simply be achieved by all states sign­ing on the NPT and oth­er things.”

The Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty “has proven too weak” to pre­vent pro­lif­er­a­tion in the Middle East and else­where, he said.

Ar­ab na­tions last month lost a vote con­demning Is­raeli nuc­le­ar cap­ab­il­it­ies at the U.N. nuc­le­ar watch­dog agency’s Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence.

En­voys from spon­sor­ing na­tions said the meas­ure was meant to re­flect im­pa­tience with what they see as a glob­al double-stand­ard whereby Ir­an’s sus­pec­ted nuc­le­ar arms de­vel­op­ment ef­fort has been con­demned, while Is­rael’s dec­ades-old atom­ic ar­sen­al is routinely ig­nored. Oth­ers, however, cri­ti­cized the re­jec­ted IAEA res­ol­u­tion on Is­rael as a mis­placed ef­fort to politi­cize the pro­spect­ive Hel­sinki con­fer­ence at a del­ic­ate time when dip­lomacy might have a chance to suc­ceed.

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