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 andU.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.”