by Jerrold Kessel
and Pierre Klochendler
JERUSALEM — As the world grapples with controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, it’s a time of complex choices in a Middle East edging between possible confrontation with Iran and possible movement towards Israeli-Palestinian peace.
It’s also a time of troubled relations between the United States and Israel. And yet at this critical moment, against expectations, there was a rare confluence of interests this week between the region’s closest allies.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to skip the world nuclear conference convened by President Barack Obama in Washington. The U.S. leader may well have been quietly pleased by Netanyahu’s decision to stay away and to send a lower level delegation.
He had no wish to meet with Netanyahu while he’s kept waiting for an answer to his demand that Israel changes policy about making peace with the Palestinians.
Nor did he want the conference to be hijacked by the question of Israel’s nuclear capability. Most centrally, he did not want to allow attention to be deflected from what he hoped would be the real focus of the conference, Iran’s alleged quest for nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu’s decision stemmed from Israeli intelligence forewarning that several neighboring states — including some with which it has diplomatic relations like Turkey, Egypt and Jordan — were intending to raise the questions of Israel’s nuclear program so as to push their demand for "a nuclear weapon-free Middle East."
And, Netanyahu (probably Obama as well) was concerned that his presence would have been a lightning rod for the argument advanced by the Arab League that the equivalence between a nuclear Iran and a nuclear Israel is legitimate.
Obama has made plain that at this juncture what worries the U.S. is how to enforce nuclear security on existing nuclear arsenals so that they do not leak to terror groups.
Whether Israel likes it or not, its challenging of Iran’s nuclear ambiguity is more and more being linked in the international community with its own nuclear opacity.
Top-flight nuclear scholars concluded a recent conference in London organized jointly by the School of Oriental and African Studies and the East Jerusalem-based Palestine-Israel Journal with the statement that "the Iranian nuclear program has served as a welcome distraction for the Netanyahu administration.
"(They) have conducted a ‘megaphone war’ in pointing to Iran as the major threat to the state of Israel and as the primary source of regional instability, in the expectation that this will diminish (or at least mask) domestic and international scrutiny of the faltering peace process.
"Using the media and public diplomacy, Netanyahu is ‘fanning the flames of fear’ over an alleged ‘existential threat’ emanating from Iran."
"But why the focus only on Iran? What about Israel’s nuclear option?" asks Ziad AbuZayyad, a participant in the London conference, and a former Palestinian cabinet minister who in the 1990s headed the Palestinian delegation to the Multilateral Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) group in multilateral Arab-Israeli peace talks. "Does a double standard apply, and is Israel not accountable to the international community?"
AbuZayyad writes in the latest issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal devoted to the nuclear question in the region: "Achieving a comprehensive peace will bring peace and security to all the countries in the Middle East, including Israel.
"Such an agreement will put an end to Israel’s claim that it needs such weapons to confront any existential threat and to Iran’s argument that Israeli hegemony should be counterbalanced, and it will give a sense of legitimacy to the international demands made on Iran to refrain from achieving nuclear capability."
When Israel this week remembered the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, the Israeli leader purposefully made another link — between the Holocaust and the repeated references by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about the elimination of Israel.
"If we have learned anything from the Holocaust, it is that we must not be silent or be deterred in the face of evil," Netanyahu said at the central state ceremony on Holocaust Memorial Day.
"The world goes about its business as though it’s a fuss about nothing, while Iran steps up its efforts to arm itself with nuclear weapons and threatens to wipe Israel off the map," Netanyahu declared.
Not all in Israel, however, agree with the legitimacy of drawing an equivalence between the Holocaust and a nuclear Iran.
The former head of military intelligence, reserve general Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, said that such a linkage creates a deterministic mindset, makes Israel feel as if it’s on its own and will have to find its own way to neutralize the Iranian threat. "Instead," he argued on Israel Radio, "we should give every support to the current international effort to apply effective sanctions against Tehran."
Said the leading liberal daily, Haaretz, in an editorial, "The comparison is mistaken and damaging. Independent and sovereign Israel is not weak like the Jewish communities in Europe who could not defend themselves against the Nazis.
"Had Netanyahu wanted to encourage world leaders to act against Iran, he should have taken part in the Washington conference. But, concerned about criticism of Israel’s nuclear capability, he opted to stay home and speak from the safe podium of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. He missed out on a chance to join the international effort against Iran, which only highlights Israel’s growing isolation."