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U.S. support for Israel's nuclear ambitions will come at a price

Nuclear disarmament in the Middle East is making a comeback. American backing for Israel on the nuclear issue hinges on steps being taken toward peace.

By Shemuel Meir

Secretary of State John Kerry with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, September 15, 2013 (State Dept. Photo)

Secretary of State John Kerry with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, September 15, 2013 (State Dept. Photo)

Israel is investing great efforts in declaring victory over Egypt on the nuclear issue. As if it were a kind of ritual, reports keep coming out lauding Israel’s victory in the diplomatic arena, and how it foiled the Egyptian demand made at the annual International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference, which called for the Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona to be subject to an inspection regime.

The facts, however, tell a different story. In September 2016 the Arab states proceeded, as they do every year, to put the issue of Israel’s nuclear capabilities on the IAEA’s agenda. This time they did not require a vote. As it does every year Egypt motioned to vote on a similar proposal (without naming Israel) to subject all Mideast countries to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to establish a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ). The Egyptian proposal was carried by a large majority of 122 countries in favor, with six abstentions.

In their statements at the IAEA conference, the Arab countries and Iran emphasized the need to create a nuclear weapon free Middle East. The U.S. delegation gave its strong support for an initiative to convene a regional conference on nuclear free zones in the Middle East. As it turns out, Egypt, the rest of the Arab states, and Iran have not come to terms with the nuclear potential attributed to Israel, and have not relented in their diplomatic pressure to promote a denuclearized Middle East.

Nuclear demilitarization in the Middle East also featured prominently in the discussions of the UN General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament, which took place in October 2016, and which Egypt declared to be “a top priority of its foreign policy.” Iran emphasized that in the absence of progress toward creating a nuclear weapon free Mideast, “the Israeli regime must be compelled to accede, as a non-nuclear weapon party and without any condition or further delay, to the NPT.”

The nuclear heat might already be felt as early as March 2017. In terms of diplomatic time, this is right around the corner. A round of conferences will kick off next spring in preparation for the big NPT Review Conference in 2020, marking the treaty’s fiftieth anniversary. Spokespeople from Arab countries have referred to the spring of 2017 as a launching pad for a new push on the Israeli nuclear issue.

Egypt and Iran are not the only ones getting ready for the big NPT Review Conference and the return to the ring of the NWFZ initiative. A joint statement (September 2016) from the five Nuclear-Weapons States (U.S., Russia, the UK, France, and China) has indicated the urgent need to cooperate in order to ensure positive outcomes at the 2020 NPT Conference and the preparatory meetings leading up to it.

The need for the five nuclear powers to work together has only grown, given the failure of the previous NPT Review Conference in May 2015 and the new momentum gained by the initiative for a complete ban on nuclear weapons in the UN’s First Committee on Disarmament. A resolution calling for the launch of negotiations in the coming spring over a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons was carried by a large majority at the end of October (123 in favor, 38 opposed, and 16 abstentions). Israel voted against, joining the opposition comprised of the official nuclear powers (excepting China, which abstained). India and Pakistan abstained, while Iran voted in favor. The global debate around the newly proposed nuclear ban treaty is reinforcing the norm against the use of nuclear weapons and producing some degree of diplomatic pressure on the official nuclear powers to dismantle their own nuclear arsenals. This is a new situation.

Seeking to buttress the existing NPT — and in light of their objection to the new nuclear disarmament initiative — the nuclear powers have announced their renewed commitment to the action plan adopted by the unanimous consent of all states at the May 2010 NPT Review Conference. This is a remarkable move. The official nuclear powers are taking one step back and reinstating the binding Final Document of the 2010 Conference — which culminated in success and yielded a final document.

As part of an urgent need, from their perspective, to solidify the NPT and breathe new life into the 2010 action plan, the nuclear powers have expressly announced (in paragraph 15 of their statement) a renewal of the initiative to convene a regional conference for creating a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, otherwise known as the “Helsinki process.” This is not necessarily good news for Israel.

The latest NPT Review Conference in May 2015 came to a dead end and failed to reach a joint action plan due to America’s inability to bridge the gap between Egypt and Israel on denuclearization in the Mideast (despite a secret mediation mission to Israel by Thomas Countryman, who at the time served as assistant secretary for international security and non-proliferation). Ever since the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, the chapter on a Mideast nuclear free zone has become a de facto fourth pillar of the treaty, alongside nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful use of atomic energy.

The failure of the spring 2015 NPT Review Conference brought about the end of the Helsinki process to convene a regional NFWZ conference. The American administration’s top priority back then was to finalize the nuclear agreement with Iran (JCPOA), which was signed in July 2015. In the spring of 2015, the Obama administration was loath to embark on yet another collision course with Israel — and with Congress, AIPAC, and conservative circles — on the nuclear issue.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ali Akhbar Salehi at the signing of a roadmap for the clarification of past and present issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program in Vienna. Coburg Palace, Vienna, Austria, 14 July 2015. (Photo: Dean Calma / IAEA)

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ali Akhbar Salehi at the signing of a roadmap for the clarification of past and present issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program in Vienna. Coburg Palace, Vienna, Austria, 14 July 2015. (Photo: Dean Calma / IAEA)

Now the joint statement by the five official nuclear powers would seem to suggest that the U.S. intends on renewing the Helsinki process for a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East. A Mideast NWFZ is becoming a key ingredient in the efforts deployed by the U.S. and the other members of the official nuclear club to thwart the demand to replace the NPT with a new treaty banning nuclear weapons altogether. It is no wonder that the U.S. is seizing every opportunity to underscore the utmost importance of the NPT, the treaty that lends legitimacy to its nuclear weapons. The Middle East nuclear issue is moving up from the regional context to the big leagues — the more intense global playing field.

It is important to point out that America’s support for the Middle East nuclear weapon free zone initiative in the spring of 2010 caught Israel off guard. This was the first initiative to leave the realm of abstract declaratory discussions and move into the real world of international relations. It also included the nomination of senior Finnish diplomat, Ambassador Jaakko Laajava, to coordinate a conference on nuclear disarmament in the Middle East. To allay Israeli fears over this surprise move, President Obama attached two comments qualifying America’s support for denuclearization, clarifying that he would not allow to single out Israel on the nuclear issue. These reservations remain the basis of America’s position to this day, constituting prerequisites for a nuclear weapon free Middle East as the U.S. sees it.

The first American condition links nuclear disarmament to a comprehensive, durable peace agreement. The second requires “full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and non-proliferation obligations.”

As of autumn 2016, and in light of the upcoming events leading up to the big NPT Review Conference, we now face a new nuclear reality. With the Iran deal now concluded, Obama’s second condition is de facto off the agenda. This agreement has blocked Iran’s access to nuclear weapons and reconfirmed its status as a non-nuclear-weapon state (NNWS) within the NPT. This leaves us with only the first American condition for nuclear demilitarization in the Mideast — namely a linkage between the nuclear issue and peace.

The various U.S. administrations since the 1960s have taken Israel’s declaratory doctrine seriously regarding its willingness to accept a verifiable Middle East NWFZ conditioned on mutual recognition and peace treaties with its neighbors. The U.S. expects the same serious approach from Israel. In American eyes, progress toward peace and the nuclear issue are interrelated. America’s recognition of Israel’s unique status and its support for Israel in international forums is closely linked to the achievement of peace between Israel and the Arab states and the Palestinians. The main idea is “peace first and than NWFZ.”

With Israel turning its back on the peace component in the American equation, its counterpart on the other side of the equation – a NWFZ – might consequently be affected, making it hard for the U.S. to support Israel on the world stage. America’s backing of Israel in these forums is crucial. In this context, the long-suspended talks with the Palestinians and America’s displeasure with this situation might prove a detrimental burden on Israel going into the preparatory rounds for the NPT’s fiftieth anniversary review conference, which begin in spring 2017. This holds even truer considering that the U.S. is expected to woo the bloc of non-aligned countries (led largely by a post-deal Iran and Egypt, respectively) in its efforts to reach an agreed formula at the big NPT 2020 Conference, where the agenda includes a renewed initiative for a NWFZ in the Middle East. Meanwhile in the background, Iran is signaling to the U.S. that it has kept to its part in the nuclear deal, and now it is America’s turn.

The unusual recent escalation in official communications from the Obama administration denouncing settlements in the West Bank could also be seen as a signal to Israel on nuclear proliferation; a kind of underlying message to decision makers in Israel in anticipation of the greater international engagement expected on the nuclear issue. American support in international forums will depend on progress toward peace. The peace process and the nuclear issue are tightly bound — and not only on a metaphorical level.

Expansion and building of new settlement units of Beit Arye continues on the lands of the West Bank village of Abud, near Ramallah, September 13, 2013. (photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org) All Israeli settlements built in occupied Palestinian territory are illegal under international law.

Expansion and building of new settlement units of Beit Arye continues on the lands of the West Bank village of Abud, near Ramallah, September 13, 2013. (photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org) All Israeli settlements built in occupied Palestinian territory are illegal under international law.

On the nuclear issue, as on the issue of the fate of the West Bank and Jerusalem, Israel seems to be pursuing a doctrine of “accustomization,” i.e. the belief that the global system will eventually grow accustomed to the existing state of affairs and simply let it be. However, for Israel to believe that this convenient status quo can be made permanent is to believe in miracles. On these three key issues, Israel finds itself in a state of disequilibrium within the international relations arena and faces global unwillingness (including America’s) to lend recognition and legitimacy to the current situation. As long as equilibrium and legitimacy are not achieved, diplomatic pressure can be expected to continue.

Shemuel Meir is a former IDF analyst and associate researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Today he is an independent researcher on nuclear and strategic issues and author of the “Strategic Discourse” blog, which appears in Haaretz.

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    1. Bus189

      Obama will be out of office on Friday, January 20th, 2017. At which point this analysis will be obsolete. Kind of a waste to write an article with a shelf life of 74 days.

      Reply to Comment
      • Average American

        Do you feel the new President, either Trump or Clinton, will act differently about this issue? Do you feel Israel should or should not join the NPT? Allow or not allow inspections? How do you think this issue affects Israel’s objectives?

        Reply to Comment
        • Bus189

          Yes. Clinton or Trump would pursue a different policy. Obama believes we are moving towards a world which is governed by international law, multilateral joint action and global humanitarian norms. That is quite clearly not the case at the moment. Because of US inaction we are actually moving towards a world of multilateral competition which gives an advantage to countries that do not follow international law and discard global humanitarian norms. There is no one to enforce international law or humanitarian norms and so we are very much in ‘every country for itself’ territory. Obama has been burning the candle from both ends – both weakening the US as a global power through self-imposed restrictions (or through abiding by international conventions ignored by competitors) and by granting freedom of action to competitors by compromising on previous US positions (or by letting violations by competitors of global norms to go unchecked). Neither Clinton nor Trump would pursue such a foolish policy, though they would definitely have very different approaches. Clinton would use more muscle to force competitors into accepting limitations on their freedom of action and thus respect for and compliance with international norms. Trump would reject placing restrictions on US action and would not pursue grand international conventions. He would likely be a firm believer in the “every country for itself” school of policy. With regard to Israel, Clinton would focus more on non-compliance by US competitors rather than US allies. Trump would gut international conventions.

          I see nothing to be gained for Israel from joining the NPT as a non-nuclear state since Israel isn’t going to unilaterally disarm itself of weapons that ensure its existence. And it is unlikely that it would be allowed to join as a nuclear state. So, it is better to just stay out and deal with the pressure applied on it to join rather than join and undertake commitments that it would not be able to meet.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Professor Bus’s oh so confident and far reaching pronouncements about international affairs, complete with the inside scoop on Obama’s beliefs and terrible failings, had they been subject to peer review, might have received a review that pointed out that the Professor’s latent definition of United States foreign policy interests is “whatever is good for the Israeli Right Wing.” And the Professor would have had to explain why his deep, deep concern for international law and global humanitarian norms and compliance with same curiously leaves out Israel’s glaring defiance of such. The reviewer would also wonder if Professor Bus ever would ask himself if Obama has simply spent eight years cleaning up the mess of his utterly idiotic predecessor and did an amazingly smart and disciplined job with the cards dealt him, and that Obama cannot be manipulated, and if this is really why the Israeli right loathes him so; and if it ever dawned on the learned Professor that his disagreements with how Obama is “weak” has anything at all to do with the fact that Obama actually cares about avoiding sending thousands more American boys to die needlessly in idiotic middle eastern adventures while Professor Bus simply does not care very much about such deaths.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      Organized criminals always push the boundaries of what the larger world and its law enforcement will tolerate, always pursuing the doctrine of “accustomization” in regards to their operations. “What can we get away with?” One imagines a scene in ‘The Godfather,’ with the Corleones sitting around their dinner table calculating what they think they can get the Chicago Police and the Feds to get “accustomed” to. The right wing settler establishment and the elements of the government working for them remind me in some ways of La familia Corleone.

      And pay attention in this regard to what Uri Weltmann wrote today: “The goal is to distract the public, but also to divert the attention and resources of all those activists and organizations trying to effect real change. The more the government wants to rob us, the more anti-democratic legislation it proposes, and the more it tries to scare us with external threats near and far (the Palestinians and Iran, respectively).

      Reply to Comment