The Middle East was always going to be a focus of any international gathering on nuclear security.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-minute decision to skip President Obama’s nuclear security summit in Washington next week has served to highlight instabilities in the Middle East – and the reasons the prospect of a “nuclear race” in the region is so worrisome to US officials.
Mr. Netanyahu reversed his decision to appear at the summit, to be attended by 50 world leaders Monday and Tuesday, on concerns that Muslim countries at the gathering would publicly call for Israel to give up its assumed nuclear arsenal and thus make way for a truly nuclear-free Middle East. Netanyahu decided to send a deputy and several senior officials in his place “after learning that some countries including Egypt and Turkey plan to say Israel must sign the NPT,” an Israeli official said Friday, referring to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that Israel has never signed.
International nuclear experts believe Israel to have about 200 nuclear warheads, but no Israeli leader has ever acknowledged the arsenal’s existence. Signing the NPT would require Israel to open up to international nuclear energy inspectors – and thus to a presumed loss of the country's “nuclear ambiguity.”
The Obama administration persuaded Netanyahu to attend the summit after assuring him that Israel’s nuclear status would not arise at a gathering where the focus was on “loose nukes” and keeping nuclear materials out of extremists’ hands, officials say. The administration saw positive aspects of a high-level Israeli presence at an international gathering on issues that Israel has been criticized for steering clear of in the past, they add.
But the new brouhaha is highlighting some of the longstanding points of contention that have stymied progress on Mideast security in the past.
Middle East countries are again questioning Israel’s special treatment by the US – Obama emphasizes the NPT's importance and advocates isolating countries that remain outside of it, but does not apply that policy to Israel. Even Middle East countries that don’t want Iran to have a nuclear bomb are again citing what they call the “hypocrisy” of an international effort to stop a Muslim country like Iran from pursuing a nuclear program when no pressure is applied to Israel to declare its arsenal.
Egypt on Friday denied knowledge of a coordinated effort by Muslim countries to call out Israel at the summit, saying Netanyahu was looking for an “excuse” not to return to Washington, where he recently had a rocky visit.
But the Turkish foreign ministry said Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has become increasingly critical of Israel, planned to raise his perspective that a nuclear-armed Israel is an impediment to a nuclear-free Middle East, according to a Reuters report. Mr. Erdogan was quoted saying in Paris last week that “Israel is the principal threat to peace in the region today.”
Administration officials may be relieved that the Middle East dustup got out of the way the week before the summit, which Obama intends as a focused, results-oriented gathering stripped of controversial topics.
“We’ve avoided some of the more contentious issues where there’s a lot of disagreement within the international community,” said Gary Samore, Obama’s senior director for nonproliferation and senior planner for the summit, on a conference call with reporters Friday.
Still, the Middle East row underscores the smoldering mistrusts and resentments that are likely to continue to make cooperation on nuclear issues in the region problematic.