A Good Move

WHITE HOUSE proposals this week on Middle East arms control, and a complementary proposal to eliminate all US stockpiles of chemical weapons, are both bold and commendable. By agreeing to destroy all chemical weapons rather than sticking with the decision last spring to save 2 percent of stockpiles until a treaty was signed, the US shows itself an honest partner (and broker) in the effort to ban chemical weapons and reduce weapons of mass destruction worldwide.

The US agreement last spring to stop all chemical weapons production was itself a bold step. By not letting go of its former ``2 percent'' proposal, however, the White House has removed a main obstacle to a 39-nation treaty being negotiated in Geneva. The treaty would require signatories to destroy all chemical weapons in 10 years. The Geneva Chemical Weapons Convention would also set a standard for all countries - and include scrupulous policies on sales of materials used to make chemical weapons to no n-signatory nations.

What's best about the new White House plan is that it effectively rules out chemical weapons as a US strategic option.

While the chemical weapons proposal is the result of a decade of steady diplomacy, the White House idea to reduce weapons of destruction in the Middle East comes out of the blue, like a diplomatic sonic boom. The proposal would have Israel cap its nuclear weapons production in exchange for the elimination of chemical weapons and long-range missiles in Arab countries. This is a contructive proposal. The assumption is that it will face stiff opposition in Israel. But the idea is serious, fair, and flexibl e, and must be dealt with as such by the Israelis.

Moreover, the timing on the Middle East plan is right. The US-led coalition has just demilitarized Saddam Hussein. The UN has just agreed that member nations may oversee the elimination of chemical weapons in sovereign Iraq. And, contrary to initial hopes, Secretary of State James Baker has been shuttling around the Middle East with an olive branch for weeks now without much to show on the Arab-Israeli peace talks front.

For either the Israelis or the Arab countries to now reject what is an utterly rationale White House nonproliferation proposal - which gets at the heart of the military-strategic problem in the region - would send the world exactly the wrong message. Both parties should think twice about sending such a message.

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