Nuclear Disarmament in the ME: What Happened to the 2010 NPT RevCom Decision to Hold an International Conference on a WMD-Free Zone? — An Israeli View

Israel's declarative policy in support of the idea of nuclear disarmament in the Middle East is a key element in its security policy. This component, however, has not gained prominence in the public discourse. For decades, regional demilitarization remained on the margins, in the forgotten forum of the "Committee for the Denuclearization of the Middle East" led by Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz and his colleagues in the early 1960s. Nevertheless, the only window that would allow for an informed debate on the issue of the nuclear ambiguity doctrine can be found in the framework of Israel's declarative policy. The Israeli perception of regional disarmament contains more than meets the eye. This is not the initial intuitive definition of nuclear disarmament: "Neither you nor I - will have it."

In order to understand what this means, we should try to analyze the significance of nuclear disarmament and what happened to the Helsinki Conference for a nuclear weapons- and WMD-free Middle East through two strategic themes intertwined in the Israeli debate: first, observing the issues of nuclear disarmament through the lens of the "long corridor" paved with conditions and interim measures aimed at not reaching the last door which leads to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); second, the context of the strategic understandings between Israel and the United States.

The Declarative Aspect of the Ambiguity Doctrine

Since the early days of the NPT, Israel has declared that it supports the idea and norm of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But at the same time, Israel has continued to argue that a global regime like the NPT has limited value in the context of the Middle East, and that the solution must be regional. So long as the Arab countries have not recognized Israel and have not signed peace treaties that would put an end to the state of war, there is no point in discussing a nuclear-free Middle East. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was possible to ignore the NPT and to be satisfied with general answers about demilitarization and peace, without the need to go into details. The Cold War and then U.S Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who saw Israel as a forward outpost in the struggle between the two blocs, helped it to keep low profile.

But nothing lasts forever, and the Israeli approach of ignoring the NPT began to run into problems. Israel realized by the late 1970s that it had no chance of receiving nuclear power plants for electricity as long as it did not sign the NPT and place its facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection. The solution proposed by the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (according to the autobiography Eilam's Arc by the dominant CEO, Uzi Eilam): an Israeli diplomatic initiative to bypass the NPT - a public call for a nuclear weapons-free Middle East which would be, in Israel's view, an "interim arrangement" and substitute for signing the NPT. The Atomic Energy Commission estimated that Israel could bypass the NPT and continue the negotiations to acquire nuclear reactors for electricity from the U.S. and France if it declared its support in the United Nations General Assembly for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons following peace agreements between Israel and the Arab states. The Israeli declaration at the UNGA meeting in October 1980, prepared by the Atomic Energy Commission, was the official debut of this declarative aspect of Israel's nuclear doctrine.

The Discreet Charm of the Tlatelolco Model

The internal discussions of the Atomic Energy Commission on a nuclear weapons-free Middle East indicate that the idea was to present it as Tlatelolco-compatible - the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America (1967). From Eilam's argument, it is not clear how the detailed Tlatelolco ban on the development, acquisition and stationing of nuclear weapons and the placing of all nuclear facilities under tight control could be equivalent to a one-page public statement. However, Tlatelolco was to be the Israeli model of choice for many years. Israel's unique, and official, interpretation enabled it to replace the global facet of the NPT and IAEA with an agreement to regional denuclearization. Prof. Yuval Neeman, the most influential thinker in nuclear affairs in Israel during the last 50 years, addressed the issue in his book Jews, Israel and the Nuclear Issue, which brought together his lectures and articles. Neeman called for the replacement of the "legalistic diplomatic niceties" of the NPT regime with the signing of regional agreements like the Tlatelolco model. This model would originate from the region and rely on practical arrangements and mutual verification by the countries of the region alone. To complete the picture, Neeman called on the U.S. "to dilute" (and if possible, remove) the tough conditions of the NPT and general supervision regulations of the IAEA.

Perhaps the Tlatelolco model was attractive to Israel because it took 30 years to be ratified by Brazil and Argentina and enter into force. It served as a model of "gradual" disarmament that derives from the region and is supervised by the region's countries. But Israel ignored the fact that all the regional nuclear weapons-free zone treaties, including that of Latin America, were composed of two levels: the regional ground floor and, above it, the world's most universal treaty, the NPT, which is connected to the tight regulatory mechanisms of the IAEA.

Even today, Israel prefers the "regional" formula to the global NPT. An example could be found in a rare article by an Atomic Energy Commission representative which was published just a month before we were informed of the failure of efforts to convene the international conference in Helsinki. In his October 23, 2012 Haaretz article, "Missing: Conditions of Trust," Yisrael Michaeli re-emphasizes the declarative component and Israel's traditional support for the "principle of regional nuclear free zone" in a state of peaceful relations and mutual recognition between the countries of the region. He argues that it is clear that the NPT "is not an adequate solution in our region" and has proven not to be an obstacle to nuclear weapons. According to Michaeli, the solution is "a comprehensive regional security arrangement backed by effective mutual verification mechanisms"; i.e., without connection to the NPT. This argument ignores the fact that the regional models all rely on the NPT and the comprehensive safeguard mechanisms of the IAEA, together with regional mechanisms agreed upon by the countries of the region.

Confidence-Building Measures: The ACRS Model - Lessons and Comparisons

It is impossible to discuss the nuclear issue in isolation from the rest of the political and security issues in the Middle East. Israel has therefore supported "confidence-building measures" (first stage) that would create the infrastructure for a regional security arrangement (the next step) which would create the basis for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East (in the distant future, after many intermediate stages). For Israeli decision-makers, gradualism and intermediate stages are the heart of the matter. But from our experience with the Middle East peace process, we know that gradualism and interim arrangements can be an effective tool only in the framework of a road map that points to the final destination and the route by which to reach it. In this case, the goal is a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons, all weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.

Until 1990 we were talking only about nuclear disarmament. The "Egyptian Initiative" which added other types of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems" was designed, in part, to satisfy Israel's wishes for a gradual approach that deals with all aspects of nonconventional weapons. Egypt was, and remains, despite all its internal upheavals, a leading actor in the Arab world in terms of disarmament initiatives - and was also an active partner in the multilateral Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) track between Israel and the countries of the Middle East, initiated by the U.S. in the 1990s as part of the Madrid Peace Conference. Those multilateral arms control and regional security talks failed to take off because of, among other reasons, the tension between the Israeli wishes and the Egyptian aspirations. In line with the "long corridor" approach, Israel wanted a long, gradual multi-staged process that focused on confidence-building measures. While agreeing to this for almost two years, Egypt also asked to promote its own ideas. Nevertheless, the multilateral talks on arms control and regional security reached an impasse and came to an end sometime in the summer and autumn of 1995, i.e., before the peace process collapsed after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. The multilateral talks came to an end because the two sides stretched the rope to its limit. Israel did not want the term "NPT" to be included in the agenda, while Egypt insisted on its inclusion.

The Challenges Facing the Americans and the Facilitator

The experience of ACRS and the events that led to the failure of multilateral talks in the 1990s should be taken into account by the sponsors and organizers (mainly the U.S. and the facilitator, Finnish Ambassador Jaakko Laajava) of the conference for a WMD-free Middle East that was originally supposed to have convened in Helsinki in December 2012. This is particularly true if the assessment of the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, Thomas Countryman, who was an active participant in the preparatory talks (in April 2013 for the next NPT Review Conference that will convene in 2015) is correct. According to the assistant secretary and contrary to popular belief (which was expressed by the Egyptian representative when he walked out in protest), it was not Israel's refusal that prevented the convening of the meeting in Helsinki in December 2012. He said that an international conference for a WMD-free zone could not be convened if all the participating countries could not carry out preliminary talks together before the conference to coordinate its agenda. In the traditional bickering between the Arab bloc, led by Egypt, and Israel, it was actually Israel that responded positively to a certain (unspecified) proposal by the Finnish facilitator to have preliminary multilateral consultations in order to prepare the agenda for the Helsinki Conference.

The Americans have, therefore, set a modest goal for the NPT PrepCom meeting in 2014: "To put the parties into the same room and to see them talk." The Helsinki Conference was not canceled, but only postponed. This is an ongoing process and not a one-time event. The neutral Finnish facilitator, who has the trust of all the parties, will continue to promote the contacts for the convening of the conference for the Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone with the traditional tools of quiet diplomacy - which was not the ACRS model.

Moreover, the proposed talks in Helsinki have resolved the issue of the elephant in the room, and the parties cannot ignore the NPT as it did in ACRS. The international conference in Helsinki will not take place within the framework of the NPT, but in a separate international framework which derives from the crucial 1995 NPT Review Conference that extended the NPT indefinitely, thus preventing the total collapse of the NPT regime.

Furthermore, the pre-Helsinki process included new and positive elements that were not present in previous attempts. The mandate for the talks placed an emphasis on "practical steps" rather than abstract principles. By their very invitation to the practical talks in Helsinki, the parties define the "Middle East Area." In the past, maximalist definitions of the "Middle East Area" were stumbling blocks to the beginning of a process. Now it seems that we are talking about the states of the Arab League, Iran and Israel. Pakistan is outside of the definition, as is Turkey, a NATO member which hosts nuclear weapons on its land. Another positive aspect: The mandate applies to specific types of non-conventional weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. Thus, the issue of conventional weapons has been removed from the table. It is worth remembering that it was precisely the issue of conventional weapons that, in Europe during the Cold War, led to a decades-long freeze in disarmament talks.

The main challenge for the Finnish facilitator will be to bridge the "conceptual gap" and to bring Egypt, Iran (which announced at the last minute in November 2012 that it would come to Helsinki) and Israel into one room. Developments that would assist him in his mission would be the stabilization of the regime in Egypt and progress toward a resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis through talks between the major powers (possibly including a direct channel with the U.S.) and the new Iranian president.

The "Strategic Understandings" between Israel and the U.S.

The connection between an American president who invests in the promotion of peace in the Middle East - the "Obama Outline" for a twostate solution based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed-upon swaps - in parallel to global efforts to reduce nuclear weapons and strengthen the NPT (U.S President Barack Obama's speech in Prague; UN Security Council Resolution 1887, personally led by Obama in 2009; the Brandenburg speech, June 2013) creates a strategic dilemma for Israel. When you add to this the active support of the Obama administration for the Arab Peace Initiative which calls for recognition and normal relations with Israel on the part of all the Arab countries - a problem is created. For the first time, the declarative aspect of the ambiguity doctrine is being put to the test.

Obama's global initiatives for nuclear disarmament sparked concern in Israel, particularly in the context of the NPT Review Conference convened in New York in May 2010. This concern was expressed by an official who was involved in talks with the U.S., Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's national security advisor, Uzi Arad, in an unusual interview about the history of strategic understandings with the U.S. (Yedioth Ahronot, March 2, 2012). The Israeli worries proved to be justified in light of U.S. support for the resolution, backed by 189 countries, calling for the convening of an international conference on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. According to Arad, the prime minister demanded a reaffirmation and institutionalization in writing of the strategic understandings between Israel and the U.S. (Nixon-Meir, 1969) which were the basis of the ambiguity doctrine. The national security advisor indicated that the White House announcement at the conclusion of the NPT Review Conference (May 28, 2010), taken together with Obama's announcement after his meeting with Netanyahu (July 6, 2010), were seen as an official U.S. public expression of the "strategic understandings" of Israel's special status on the nuclear issue. The sentence from Obama's statement that is often quoted in this context in Israel is: "The President told the Prime Minister that he recognizes that Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats."

But the Israeli interpretation of an automatic American recognition of Israel's "unique strategic status" ignores the context of peace. Indeed, Middle East peace appears in an extensive paragraph in Obama's announcement. The U.S. takes seriously the declarative policy of the ambiguity doctrine. Until peace agreements are reached, there will be guaranteed U.S. support for Israel's unique status. However, the nuclear issue and the peace agreements are inherently intertwined. The question is: what will happen when the long corridor is shortened, and a strategic peace is reached with all the countries in the region and the Palestinians?

Ambiguity vs. Ambiguity, or Not for Us and Not for Them

One concluding remark: Although Israel does not recognize the NPT as a source of authority, it will find it difficult to argue that, as a non-signatory to the NPT, Israel is not obligated to attend an international conference on a nuclear weapons-free Middle East just because that conference was decided upon at an NPT forum.

The acceptability of this argument has weakened now that the NPT is the most universal convention in the world. Moreover, the decision on a nuclear weapons-free Middle East was a necessary condition for the ratification (in 1995) and indefinite extension of the NPT. Without U.S. consent to the principle of a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone at the decisive 1995 Review Conference, the NPT would have expired and the global non-proliferation regime that it had established would have unraveled. These are clearly different times from the 1960s. The global environment and conditions have changed significantly. Israel, however, remains with the same declarative policy. Meanwhile, in the Middle East Iran is taking on the role that Egypt played in the past. The question that will eventually have to be posed is: ambiguity vs. ambiguity, or "not for us and not for them"?