Towards a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East

A little over a month ago, the average Israeli was suffering from tremendous anxiety. The headlines screamed - tomorrow, in a few hours, the Americans will attack the Syrian chemical weapons program and the Syrians might retaliate against Israel. There were long lines at the gas mask distribution stations.

Just a few months ago, Israeli-Palestinian relations were frozen, with no signs of progress on horizon. And in June, Morsi was still President of Egypt, and Ahmadinejad who was denying the Holocaust and threatening Israel in public, was President of Iran.

A new regional reality

Today, thanks to the persistence of Secretary of State Kerry we have Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, with a 9 month framework, General Sisi is head of the Egyptian government and Rouhani is President of Iran. Instead of an American attack on Syria, we have a Russian-American agreement, backed by a UN Security Council Resolution, to remove the chemical weapons from Syria. And we have an Iranian and an American President talking to each other on the phone for the first time since 1979, a first step towards serious negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program.

Instead of impasse, threats or armed conflict (except for the tragic civil war in Syria), we have diplomacy on the march. This is good for everyone, Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Iranians, people in general.

A challenge to Netanyahu and the Israeli government

This also creates a problem for Prime Minister Netanyahu. He has built his career on seeing dangers rather than opportunities at every crossroads. He believes that the world is a dangerous place, history has taught Jews and Israelis that, and that we have to be strong and uncompromising in order to survive.

The new situation creates both a challenge and opportunities for those of us who want to promote the idea of a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zone in the Middle East and a regime of security and cooperation in the region.

With diplomacy on the march, the Israeli government cannot be seen as rejectionist, swimming against the stream. Even Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid Party criticized Netanyahu for ordering the Israeli delegation to walk out on President Rouhani's speech at the UN. The Israeli government will feel that it must also make positive contributions to the current climate. President Peres has already suggested that Israel will seriously consider ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention.

New opportunities

The current situation creates opportunities also for the convening of the Helsinki international conference and moving towards a WMD Free Zone, mandated by the 2010 NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) Review Conference.

For any progress to be made, it is absolutely essential that Israel be sitting around the table.

Two things that won't help are the following:

    a) To ask Israel to sign the NPT at the beginning of the process;
    b) To suggest that Israel should unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons program as a confidence building measure towards the creation of a WMD Free Zone and comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace.

There are some very good ideas in the draft paper on “Steps towards a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East” prepared by Prof. Frank von Hippel, Iranian Ambassador Mousavian and their colleagues at Princeton presented at this panel. From an Israeli perspective, perhaps the most important phrase in the paper is the following:

“Any effort to make progress towards a Middle East nuclear weapons free zone must reckon with Israel’s long standing security concerns about its neighbors, the history of covert proliferation efforts in the Middle East and the ongoing dispute over Iran’s nuclear program...”

Important regional civil society initiatives

One of the most important outcomes of the NPT Review Conference resolution in May, 2010 to convene an international conference on a WMDFZ in the ME has been the proliferation of regional civil society initiatives, such as the Conference on Security & Cooperation in the Middle East, the Academic Peace Orchestra, the Horizon 2012 Japanese Peace Boat, and the Athens Dialogue, with the participation of all the parties involved.

At the Palestine-Israel Journal we prepared a special issue devoted to A Middle East Without Weapon of Mass Destruction (, that contains valuable contributions from many of the people involved in these initiatives. It includes the transcript of an unprecedented discussion held in the Knesset's Science and Technology Committee room, featuring a presentation by IPPNW (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War) Co-President Dr. Ira Helfand on “The Danger of Nuclear Weapons today and the Implications of a Limited Nuclear War”. The discussion was held under the auspices of two Members of Knesset, Tamar Zandberg and Dov Henin.

Israel must be at the table

The main thing is to get Israel to the table. This has to be done with sensitivity and creativity.

One of the potential building blocks for this is the Arab Peace Initiative, launched in 2002 and reconfirmed once again in 2013. What we need is a parallel process, moving towards a WMD Free Zone and moving towards comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace and a new regional regime of peace, security and cooperation.

Once Israel is at the table, a process can begin. As someone once said, “Yes we can”.

Here is a link to the entire panel discussion:


This article is based on a presentation given in October at a UN panel in New York with Egyptian, Iranian and American panelists. It was published earlier at The Daily Beast/Open Zion.