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.

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

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.

Third, Iran has good reason not to spoil regional talks. Joining a regional process would present Iran with a clear chance to break free of its growing isolation and demonstrate its peaceful intentions if they are genuine. A negotiation involving Israel would also put Iran’s rhetoric to a more rigorous test. And if Iran fails this test, it will face a more united regional coalition of states as a consequence.

Finally, outside powers have bigger stakes in Middle Eastern stability than they did in the recent past.

China and Russia have vital and growing energy and economic interests. France recently opened a military base in the Persian Gulf. The US has troops deployed in the heart of the region. Proliferation and war in the Middle East will affect every region of the world. The major powers understand the need for agreed-upon security rules to promote Middle East stability.

Getting the parties to the negotiating table won’t mean they’ll see eye to eye.

To prevent yet another failure of Middle East diplomacy, the US has a crucial role to play in the organization of the proposed 2012 conference. It must steer the parties of the region toward a process that is incremental and continuous, encouraging initially modest and reversible commitments to build confidence and security along the way. A conference to discuss a WMD-free zone is only the first step in a long process. Israel will need particular reassurance from the US to move forward.

The scope of negotiations must be broad and include not only regional arms control and disarmament, but also nonproliferation and peace-process issues. The goal should be no less than a settlement of territorial disputes involving Israel, diplomatic relations between Israel and the rest of the region, and the creation of a zone free of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The results of negotiations must include a verification regime for monitoring compliance with disarmament commitments, and region-wide acceptance of the strongest possible safeguards to ensure that nuclear energy development in the Middle East remains peaceful.

Israeli leaders might prefer not to talk about their country’s nuclear arsenal. But when pressed, they say regional peace must precede disarmament. Arab states and Iran want to see the sequence moving in the reverse order. The only way forward is to deal with both issues beneath a single negotiating framework.

Martin B. Malin is the executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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