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Opinion

Four reasons the US could get Israel to talk about a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction

It won’t be easy, but without Israel, there can be no meaningful talks on creating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

By Martin B. Malin / June 8, 2010



Cambridge, Mass.

The furor over Israel’s attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla has overshadowed a more hopeful recent development.

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Two days before the flotilla fiasco, a UN conference aimed at strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty endorsed a plan for ridding the Middle East of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Eliminating all such weapons in the Middle East would seem to be an impossibly ambitious goal. In fact, it is not ambitious enough.

As planning for a 2012 region-wide conference to discuss a WMD-free zone begins, the United States must insist on linking it to a regional peace process.
Why? Because Israel, which is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, will not abandon its most powerful deterrent while some of its neighbors refuse to establish diplomatic relations. And without Israel’s participation, there can be no meaningful talks on creating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

Arab States and Israel have tried – and failed – to address these issues in tandem before.

In the 1990s, following the Madrid peace conference, regional arms control and security talks collapsed when Egypt insisted that Israel’s nuclear weapons be placed on the agenda. Israel refused, unwilling to let go of its policy of nuclear ambiguity.

Why should we expect a different outcome this time?

First, Israel – though still reluctant to engage in any discussion of its nuclear weapons – faces a looming strategic choice. Iran’s advancing nuclear capabilities are threatening Israel’s nuclear monopoly. Military action against Iran may forestall Iran’s nuclear development, but is not likely to prevent it.

A nuclear-capable Iran will require Israel to adopt an active, unambiguous nuclear posture – a dangerous and costly prospect that Israel would rather avoid. Israel has strong incentives to use regional security discussions to constrain Iran’s nuclear development.

Second, Arab states are nervous about Israeli-Iranian tension, fearing both the rise of a nuclear Iran and the consequences of US or Israeli military action against Iran. They will support the convening of regional talks that place limits on Iran, address long-standing territorial issues with Israel, and reduce the chances of another debilitating war in the region.

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