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Israel and the Arab States’ positions in international discussions concerning disarmament

Israel has reiterated time and again on the international scene that it supports the idea of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East (WMDFZME). It has not, however, acceded to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT), like all other countries in the region have, and is often criticised as responsible for blocking negotiation of a WMDFZME. It, in turn, sees its neighbouring Arab states as willfully failing to propose solutions that recognise its rights to security.

In the UN General Assembly (UNGA) First Committee meeting of 2016, the Israeli representative stated that “Israel supports a vision of the Middle East free from… Weapons of Mass Destruction” but that it also “believes that arms control and disarmament processes are inseparable from the context in which they exist and must be formulated in a way which addresses the prevailing circumstances, challenges and threats.” In other words, no discussions on disarmament without addressing regional security.

Israeli representatives have repeated these points almost every year:

  • that Israel supports the eventual establishment of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East;
  • that arms control and disarmament processes cannot be separated from the regional context in which they exist; and
  • that the establishment of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East is conditional on dialogue, regional peace, and the surrounding states’ recognition of  the state of Israel (among the states that do not recognise Israel, there are 18 members of the Arab League, and 10 members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation).

It is commonly recognised that Israel possesses nuclear weapons but does not declare this. Instead, it has a policy of opacity (amimut), and denies that it would introduce nuclear weapons to the region. While other neighbouring states do not possess nuclear weapons, concerns exist around Iran’s nuclear programme (currently restrained by the terms of the JCPoA) and by long term intentions in Saudi Arabia.

Israel’s policies are the subject of frequent attacks from Arab representatives in the UNGA First Committee meetings. The Libyan representative’s 2010 declaration is typical:

“the issue of establishing a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons remains a dead letter and without any concrete measures for its implementation due to the Israel’s intransigence and the lack of strict action in this regard; which causes serious concerns for the states and peoples of the Middle East… Since the resolution, adopted by the 1995 Extension and Review Conference, was one of the major foundations for the indefinite extension for the treaty that was adopted 15 years ago, however, the international community failed to implement it, and that encourages Israel to continue to possess military nuclear capabilities in the absence of any international control whatsoever.”

In the 2016 UNGA First Committee the Lebanese representative claimed that, as Israel is not party to the NPT and possesses nuclear weapons it threatens the security of the region. Kuwait declared:

“…however, the Middle East is far from achieving this goal (of a WMD Free Zone in the region) as a result of Israel possessing these (nuclear) weapons.”

Saudi Arabia accused Israel of being responsible for a situation where the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone in the region is hindered. According to the Saudi representative, “…Israel…prevents the desire of the peoples of the region to live in a zone free of nuclear terror”.

Israel itself puts the blame for a lack of progress on a WMDFZME full square on a number of the Arab States. In its 2017 UNGA First Committee Statement, Israel claimed that a peaceful Middle East could only be achieved if there was mutual state recognition, an end to all forms of terrorism and aggression, and said that “states sitting in this very room” were also engaged in such acts. Israel also accuses its Arab neighbours of hypocrisy as they possess WMD themselves.

So where to go from here?  Israel’s demand for peace, recognition and solidarity before the achievement of a WMD Free Zone is a tall bar to progress and fails to appreciate how further steps towards disarmament would contribute to improving the current security context of the Middle East.

An essential precondition to disarmament or strengthened regional security is, of course, dialogue between states. To establish a WMDFZ, states will need to meet regularly to discuss progress.

The Israel-Palestine conflict, and Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza strip, are major sticking points in relations between Israel and Arab nations. While Israel continues to emphasise the importance of other countries’ recognition of Israel, it also continues to engage in activities that strain the possibility of relations being developed or improved. This not only undermines the possibility of achieving a WMDFZ, but continues to  leads to the deterioration and destruction of Palestinian lives, and harms the security situation of Israelis.

Arms control policies have never been enacted in political vacuums and agreements are always coloured between existing relations between states. A WMDFZ would help ensure that weapons of mass destruction are never used in situations where conflict might take place in the region.

Leaders of all states in the region need to address their own contributions to the barriers to a zone and to regional security, including their own WMD capacities.  

2019 may show some promise. The 2018 UNGA First Committee saw the passing of a resolution, submitted by most states in the Arab League, for the convening of a conference on the “establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction” in 2019, for a duration of one week at the UN Headquarters.

It was decided that, in addition to the three co-sponsors of the resolution on the Middle East adopted by the 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “all states of the Middle East, the other two nuclear weapon states and the relevant International organizations, shall be invited,” signalling the possibility for Israel to also attend and be involved in the discussions.

The meeting is expected to be held in late 2019. The majority of states in the First Committee voted in its favour, with 103 voting in favour, 3 voting against and 71 states abstaining. We have yet to see whether or not the three depository states will take part, or if Israel decides to join. If Israel does attend the meeting, it will signal an overt willingness to take the establishment of a WMD Free Zone in the region more seriously.

However, Israel did vote against the resolution to have the conference, along with the US and Micronesia in the UNGA First Committee meeting of 2018. Israel would still feel uncomfortable about the emphasis on nuclear disarmament, and considering its overt emphasis on recognition and regional peace as conditions for a WMD/NW Free Zone, it is probable that Israel will not participate in the event.  As such, it is unlikely that the meeting will result in progress on a WMD/NW Free Zone in the Middle East if circumstances remain the way they are.

Image: Emily Sherwood

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