Arabs & Israelis meet again – good news or bad news?

On June 24-25, representatives from Middle Eastern states, including Israel and Egypt, will meet in Geneva for the second time in the past two months to discuss the modalities and possible outcomes of the postponed 2012 Helsinki conference on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD).The goal will be to build upon the fragile foundations of three previous meetings, held in Glion, Switzerland, and finally agree on a date and agenda for the proposed conference.

Bad news. Previous signs that negotiators are experiencing frustration and lack of confidence could continue into this week’s meeting. Finnish facilitator of the Helsinki conference, Ambassador Jaakko Laajava, expressed discontent with the low level of engagement in last month’s Geneva meeting, referencing that some country envoys were not “fully empowered” by capitals to negotiate. Additionally, the Egyptian government had replaced its negotiating leadership with a senior envoy unfamiliar with the process, while the United States, in spite of its role as a depositary state to the conference (alongside Russia and the UK), did not send its top diplomat, Thomas Countryman, who had previously dealt with the issues in the earlier Glion gatherings.

Low-level diplomatic engagement might be symptomatic of deeper issues that contribute to the stalemate of the Helsinki process and make agreeing on a conference date seem so difficult. The apparent lack of progress has in turn translated into frustration for the Arab states, evidenced by Egypt’s walkout of the 2013 Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

More recently, the Arab Group statement, delivered by the Iraqi delegation at the 2014 NPT PrepCom, included a warning shot that Arab states would “reconsider their position” toward the indefinite extension of the nuclear treaty, if the now-postponed Helsinki conference was not convened prior to the 2015 NPT Review Conference. Their statement was in reference to the established connection between convening the conference and implementing the 1995 Middle East resolution. The resolution, which bound all NPT signatories to work toward the establishment of a Middle East WMD-free zone, was paramount in achieving the treaty’s indefinite extension, and might now be at the center of contention. Though the Arab statement did not explicitly mention what it meant by “reconsider” (possibly meaning the threat of treaty withdrawal, abrogation of the treaty’s indefinite extension clause, or an empty threat), it does not bode well for the health of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, which requires states to cooperate in closing loopholes and strengthening international procedures to prevent further proliferation.

Good news. Though it seems unlikely that this week’s meeting will generate any breakthrough agreements, the gathering alone might be a positive development for the embattled Middle East, and the health of the non-proliferation regime. After all, how frequently do Arabs and Israelis meet to talk about regional security?

Prior to the start of the Glion-Geneva consultations, Arabs and Israelis had not met to discuss regional security issues since 1995 with the end of the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) process. Even then, the process did not include Iranians, who have, in recent years, shown support for the Helsinki conference and attended the first Glion confab to discuss the conference’s modalities. Though they have failed to attend the subsequent consultations – partly due to ongoing negotiations with the P5+1  (E3+3) over their nuclear program, which might have stretched their diplomatic team too thinly – the Iranians have indicated that they are inclined to attend the Helsinki conference if it were convened.

Additionally, though high emphasis has been placed on achieving a conference date, the Glion-Geneva meetings might, in real terms, have their own value independently of their success in convening the conference. Issue experts suggest that the outcomes of the conference, and not simply its agenda, will be “largely agreed upon by all parties in advance.” Thus, though the Helsinki conference might play a significant symbolic role in committing the parties to the long and arduous process of establishing the WMD-free zone, the Glion-Geneva meetings might represent the painstaking and much-needed negotiation battlegrounds to achieve a compromise on the outcomes of the process. Modest progress in this regard has already been achieved, as Finnish facilitator Jaakko Laajava circulated two documents or “non-papers” in the last Geneva meeting, outlining suggestions for the modalities and the outcomes of the Helsinki conference. None of the delegates, including representatives from Israel and Egypt, objected to the stipulations of either document.

Also, this week, the political directors of the P5+1 (E3+3) will meet in Brussels on June 26, to continue discussions toward a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiations with the Iranians are scheduled to resume next week, on July 2, in Vienna.


 -The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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