Arab States Revive Anti-Israeli Nukes Measure, as Tensions Simmer Over WMD Ban

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Hisham Badr, Permanent Representative of Egypt to the United Nations in Geneva, speaking on behalf of New Agenda, addresses the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) conference at United Nations headquarters, May 4, 2010.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
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Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
Sept. 17, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — Ar­ab na­tions at a meet­ing of a key U.N. body this week have re­in­tro­duced a meas­ure op­pos­ing Is­raeli nuc­le­ar weapons, a move fueled by grow­ing ac­ri­mony over the fail­ure thus far to con­vene talks over a pro­posed ban on weapons of mass de­struc­tion in the Middle East.

The draft res­ol­u­tion is the latest salvo in a war of words over who in the re­gion is most com­mit­ted to WMD dis­arm­a­ment and who might be to blame if on­go­ing ef­forts to achieve that long-term goal fall apart.

The “Is­raeli Nuc­le­ar Cap­ab­il­it­ies” meas­ure is an off-and-on per­en­ni­al at the In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency’s an­nu­al Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence, which re­con­vened in Vi­enna, Aus­tria, on Monday. When the U.N. nuc­le­ar watch­dog agency last ad­op­ted the res­ol­u­tion, in 2009, the doc­u­ment cited con­cern about the Mideast state’s atom­ic stock­pile and called on Is­rael to join the Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty as a non-nuc­le­ar na­tion.

The text of the newly pro­posed state­ment has been cir­cu­lated to del­eg­a­tions in Vi­enna, ac­cord­ing to is­sue ex­perts, but had not been made pub­lic by press time.

However, the 2009 ver­sion — as well as sim­il­ar U.N. res­ol­u­tions over the years — are es­sen­tially “call­ing upon Is­rael to im­ple­ment meas­ures such as ur­gently pla­cing its nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies un­der IAEA com­pre­hens­ive safe­guards, join­ing the NPT as a non-nuc­le­ar weapon state and ful­filling its due part in the es­tab­lish­ment of the Middle East zone,” Am­bas­sad­or Hisham Badr, Egypt’s as­sist­ant min­is­ter for mul­ti­lat­er­al af­fairs, told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire last month in a writ­ten re­sponse to ques­tions.

“There is an ob­lig­a­tion on Is­rael in this re­gard and Is­rael has so far been in non-com­pli­ance with these ob­lig­a­tions,” he said.

Badr’s Is­raeli coun­ter­part, though, re­jec­ted any such as­ser­tions of non­com­pli­ance.

In­stead con­ten­tions of this kind should be ad­dressed “to the four coun­tries in the Middle East that have a proven track re­cord in this re­gard, namely Ir­an, Syr­ia, Libya un­der Qadhafi, and Ir­aq un­der Sad­dam,” said Am­bas­sad­or Jeremy Is­sachar­off, the deputy dir­ect­or gen­er­al for stra­tegic af­fairs at Is­rael’s For­eign Af­fairs Min­istry.

A sense that Is­rael is be­ing un­fairly singled out for cri­ti­cism by Egypt and its oth­er Ar­ab neigh­bors threatens to squelch tent­at­ive steps that Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu’s gov­ern­ment has taken to­ward par­ti­cip­at­ing in a con­fer­ence on mak­ing the re­gion a zone free of all nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al and chem­ic­al weapons, ac­cord­ing to Is­raeli and U.S. gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

Des­pite as­sur­ances that the con­fer­ence to dis­cuss the pro­posed WMD-free zone “would not be an Is­rael-bash­ing ex­er­cise try­ing to dir­ect all of the re­gion­al prob­lems at Is­rael’s door,” there are some in­dic­a­tions are that “the Ar­ab po­s­i­tion is to solely ad­dress” what Egypt and its al­lies de­scribe as Is­rael’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram, said Is­sachar­off. This is “why Is­rael has ad­op­ted a cau­tious ap­proach to Ar­ab in­ten­tions,” he said in a writ­ten reply to ques­tions last month.

Is­rael is es­tim­ated to re­tain up­wards of 80 nuc­le­ar arms, but neither Is­sachar­off nor oth­er Is­raeli of­fi­cials have ever con­firmed the stock­pile. While it is the only state in the re­gion that re­portedly has an atom­ic ar­sen­al, Ir­an is widely be­lieved in­ter­ested in de­vel­op­ing a nuc­le­ar-arms cap­ab­il­ity, as well.

Dis­cus­sion of a WMD-free zone comes amid glob­al con­sterna­tion over what the United Na­tions this week an­nounced it had de­term­ined was the ac­tu­al use of chem­ic­al arms in Syr­ia. Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies al­lege the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment is re­spons­ible for the Aug. 21 chem­ic­al at­tack that killed more than 1,400 ci­vil­ians just out­side of Dam­as­cus, while Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar As­sad and his Rus­si­an back­ers blame rebel forces for the in­cid­ent.

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

Egypt and Syr­ia have nev­er signed the Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion, a 188-na­tion agree­ment call­ing for the elim­in­a­tion of all weapons that carry ma­ter­i­als in­clud­ing mus­tard blister agent or sar­in nerve gas. Un­der a new U.S.-Rus­si­an agree­ment, Syr­ia is to join the anti-chem­ic­al con­ven­tion and elim­in­ate its stocks. Is­rael has signed but not rat­i­fied the CWC pact.

Sev­er­al Middle East­ern coun­tries also have de­veloped bio­lo­gic­al de­fenses, but there is little pub­lic evid­ence of na­tions de­vel­op­ing bio­lo­gic­al weapons, ac­cord­ing to a European Uni­on-sponsored ana­lys­is. 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 gov­ern­ments not party to the ac­cord.

Ar­ab states this year re­ques­ted that the Is­raeli Nuc­le­ar Cap­ab­il­it­ies res­ol­u­tion be placed on the cal­en­dar for the IAEA Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence, which runs through Fri­day. It re­mains un­clear this time around, though, wheth­er they will re­quest a vote on the meas­ure; the an­swer may rest on wheth­er the spon­sors are con­fid­ent of win­ning ma­jor­ity back­ing.

The an­nu­al meet­ing of the U.N. agency’s 159 mem­ber na­tions is tak­ing place just pri­or to a tent­at­ively planned mul­ti­lat­er­al con­sulta­tion in Switzer­land on a pro­posed agenda and ob­ject­ives for the ma­jor con­fer­ence on the idea of cre­at­ing the Mideast WMD-free zone.

The U.N.-sponsored con­fer­ence was to take place in Fin­land by the end of 2012. But a date has yet to be set, with Is­rael and its West­ern back­ers res­ist­ing a de­mand by Ar­ab na­tions and Rus­sia that Net­an­yahu’s gov­ern­ment com­mit to at­tend­ing the con­fer­ence be­fore the pre­lim­in­ary plan­ning meet­ing is held in Geneva later this month.

Rus­sia has pro­posed that the ma­jor Hel­sinki sum­mit be held Decem­ber 18-19 of this year, though no U.N. an­nounce­ment has been made to so­lid­i­fy those dates.

Were Ar­ab coun­tries to push for an IAEA vote this week on what many see as a res­ol­u­tion laden with polit­ic­al mo­tiv­a­tions, they might be blamed for spoil­ing the pro­spects for the Geneva con­sulta­tions and the sub­sequent Hel­sinki sum­mit, which has been years in the mak­ing, ac­cord­ing to is­sue ex­perts. The same body re­jec­ted a sim­il­ar Is­rael Nuc­le­ar Cap­ab­il­it­ies in 2010, and Ar­ab na­tions op­ted not to de­mand a vote over the en­su­ing two years.

“It would be coun­ter­pro­duct­ive for the Ar­ab group to bring the con­tro­ver­sial res­ol­u­tion to a vote ahead of such con­sulta­tions,” Chen Kane and Gaukhar Mukhatzhan­ova, both seni­or re­search as­so­ci­ates at the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies, said in a new is­sue pa­per. “An­oth­er in­flu­en­cing factor might be the re­star­ted peace talks between the Is­rael­is and Palestini­ans.”

Still, some Egyp­tian of­fi­cials and their Ar­ab League col­leagues are angry over the im­pli­cit abil­ity of Is­rael to fore­stall the now-missed “2012 con­fer­ence” by re­fus­ing to com­mit its par­ti­cip­a­tion un­til it is clear the event would be con­struct­ive. In protest, the league earli­er this year threatened to boy­cott a series of NPT-re­lated meet­ings, and Badr led the Egyp­tian del­eg­a­tion in a uni­lat­er­al walk-out at one such gath­er­ing in April.

“NPT de­cisions should not be held host­age by a non-mem­ber state,” Badr told GSN last month.

The United States agreed with con­fer­ence fa­cil­it­at­or Jaakko Laa­java of Fin­land late last year to post­pone set­ting a date for the event un­til all na­tions in the re­gion com­mit to at­tend­ing, based on a 2010 con­sensus state­ment en­dorsed by Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty mem­bers that seeks the vol­un­tary par­ti­cip­a­tion in WMD-free-zone talks by all Middle East­ern states.

“This uni­lat­er­al post­pone­ment [of the 2012 con­fer­ence] was the meta­phor­ic­al straw that broke the camel’s back,” Badr said. “Are we ex­pec­ted to con­tin­ue to at­tend meet­ings and agree on out­comes that do not get im­ple­men­ted, yet be ex­pec­ted to abide by the con­ces­sions we gave for those out­comes?”

“Is­rael, not be­ing part of the NPT, has no leg­al ob­lig­a­tion to at­tend a con­fer­ence in Hel­sinki,” Is­sachar­off said.

Over the past year and a half, though, Is­rael has taken part in sev­er­al con­sulta­tions with Laa­java about its po­ten­tial par­ti­cip­a­tion in the ma­jor re­gion­al con­fer­ence, the Is­raeli am­bas­sad­or said.

“These meet­ings have in­volved in­tense and com­pre­hens­ive dis­cus­sions re­gard­ing Is­rael’s ap­proach to re­gion­al se­cur­ity and the ef­forts by Am­bas­sad­or Laa­java to fa­cil­it­ate and ini­ti­ate dir­ect Is­raeli-Ar­ab en­gage­ment on these is­sues,” Is­sachar­off said.

“We have con­duc­ted these dis­cus­sions be­cause we be­lieve that the se­cur­ity chal­lenges fa­cing all the states of the re­gion ne­ces­sit­ate a re­gion­al mech­an­ism that can ul­ti­mately have a role in eas­ing ten­sions [and] en­han­cing con­fid­ence between states,” he said. “The chal­lenges are ser­i­ous, al­most over­whelm­ing, and they need ser­i­ous an­swers agree­able to all the parties, not just dip­lo­mat­ic phrases that ig­nore this com­plex re­gion­al real­ity.”

From Badr’s per­spect­ive, however, talk of the broad­er pic­ture is an ef­fort to dis­tract from Is­rael’s spe­cif­ic WMD cap­ab­il­it­ies.

“The real prob­lem is that Is­rael wants to dis­cuss everything in the re­gion ex­cept how to cre­ate the zone or how to im­ple­ment the ob­ject­ives of this con­fer­ence,” the Egyp­tian en­voy said.

Badr sug­ges­ted it is “the epi­tome of double stand­ards” that oth­er WMD pro­grams in the re­gion — those of Ir­an, Ir­aq and Libya — are “be­ing ad­dressed very ser­i­ously” but “when it comes to Is­rael’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram, we are giv­en the round­about and then asked not to protest.”

Egypt and its Ar­ab al­lies to date have re­fused to say they would at­tend the mul­ti­lat­er­al ad­vance-plan­ning meet­ing in Geneva be­fore month’s end, though Is­rael has said it would do so.

Ar­ab na­tions have sought Laa­java’s sup­port in break­ing the im­passe, but have been dis­ap­poin­ted, Mah­moud Kar­em, a former Cairo dip­lo­mat who now sits on the board of the Egyp­tian Coun­cil for For­eign Af­fairs, said in a re­cent com­ment­ary.

A June vis­it by Laa­java to Cairo raised “hopes that the dam­age could be re­paired and pro­gress made on this is­sue,” Kar­em wrote. “In­stead, he threw the onus onto the Ar­abs — and Egypt in par­tic­u­lar — to solve the prob­lems, in­clud­ing the re­fus­al of Is­rael to par­ti­cip­ate in the planned con­fer­ence in Hel­sinki.”

Oth­er is­sue ex­perts and of­fi­cials say Is­rael has not ruled out its par­ti­cip­a­tion in such a con­fer­ence, but as yet has with­held a com­mit­ment to at­tend, pending the sought-after dir­ect con­sulta­tions on agenda and ob­ject­ives.

Face-to-face con­tact between Is­rael and its pro­spect­ive Ar­ab part­ners in a WMD-free-zone con­fer­ence is “why a meet­ing in Geneva is cru­cial,” Is­sachar­off said. “The Ar­ab side has stead­fastly re­fused to talk dir­ectly to Is­rael throughout this pro­cess.”

The Is­raeli dip­lo­mat de­scribed an Au­gust meet­ing that he and oth­ers had with Laa­java in Vi­enna at which “the Ar­ab side had still not ad­op­ted a po­s­i­tion on Geneva and the [con­sultat­ive] meet­ing was once again delayed.”

“The whole pro­cess has been held up over the last year more by Ar­ab in­de­cision than be­cause of Is­rael,” he said.

Badr in­sisted that Egypt has “an­nounced its read­i­ness to take part in such a meet­ing with Is­rael and oth­er rel­ev­ant parties” in Geneva, but wants to be as­sured that this would not be a for­um to re­vis­it the goals laid out for the 2012 con­fer­ence. Ar­ab en­voys say the in­tent of the 2010 NPT state­ment was not only to hold a con­fer­ence but also to launch a con­struct­ive pro­cess that ul­ti­mately leads to the cre­ation of the spe­cial Mideast zone.

“We want to make sure that these talks are on how to best im­ple­ment the 2010 ac­tion plan,” Badr said. “There has been a feel­ing amongst Ar­ab coun­tries that a few parties want to rene­go­ti­ate the man­date at­tained with dif­fi­culty in 2010 and this we should avoid,” he said, without nam­ing the parties.

Laa­java’s re­luct­ance thus far to set a spe­cif­ic date for the ma­jor Hel­sinki con­fab “raises sus­pi­cions about the com­mit­ments,” Badr said.

“Egypt has en­gaged with all con­cerned parties, but there is a dif­fer­ence between talk­ing and ser­i­ous dis­cus­sion,” the Cairo dip­lo­mat said. “The time for ac­tion has come. What we need is a ser­i­ous ne­go­ti­ation.”

Is­rael sees the mat­ter dif­fer­ently, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials there.

Re­peated delays since early this year in con­ven­ing the Geneva plan­ning meet­ing do “not demon­strate a genu­ine Ar­ab in­tent to en­gage,” Is­sachar­off said. “In­stead we will have this con­ten­tious INC anti-Is­raeli res­ol­u­tion in the IAEA “¦ and this would ap­pear to re­main a more ac­cur­ate ex­pres­sion of the in­ten­tion of the Ar­ab side.”

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