2012 MEWMDFZ Conference: To Participate Or Not To Participate, Why Is It Even A Question?

By Chen Kane – One of the main questions the organizers of the 2012 conference on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction (MEWMDFZ) are struggling with is whether two major players, Israel and Iran, will attend the meeting in December (if it takes place). The Iranian position on the conference is somewhat of a mystery (I invite my Iranian friends and colleagues who specialize in Iranian affairs to give us their take on Tehran’s stance on the conference); Israel’s, on the other hand, is arguably clearer. Below, I elaborate on Israel’s position on the conference and offer my own perspective on how to move things forward.

A good starting point for understanding Israel’s position is the statement last month by Dr. Shaul Chorev, the Head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, to the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Shimon Stein and Emily Landau’s recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is another useful source.

Despite various claims to the contrary, Israel has not officially announced whether it will participate in the conference in Helsinki. That said, Israel has serious issues with the mandate of the conference, as agreed to during the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon).

Let me make this clear: Israel is not opposed to participating in a regional process that has the ultimate objective of ridding the Middle East of all WMD. In fact, Israel participated in such talks from 1991 to 1995 under the framework of the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) working group. However, according to Israel: (1) such a process needs to be regional, rather than international; (2) it should reflect both the current regional realities and threat perceptions of regional states; and (3) it should be neither part of nor tied to the overall NPT process.

The first two concerns were addressed in the 2010 NPT RevCon decision to convene in 2012 a Middle East conference for the establishment of a “Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction”. The third issue remains unresolved.

Some believe that the conference is not an NPT gathering and that it is outside the scope of the NPT. But Israel points out that since the decision to convene the meeting took place during the NPT RevCon, it was agreed to as part of the implementation of the NPT 1995 Middle East resolution, the conveners of the conference are the three depositories of the 1995 Middle East Resolution (the UN Secretary General was added to mitigate this direct linkage), and the facilitator of the Middle East conference, the Finnish Ambassador Laayava, will report to the 2015 NPT RevCon on the progress in implementing the 1995 resolution, thereby making the connection between the regional process and the NPT very clear.

Why does Israel view this as a problem? First, an international body, in which Israel has no say (Israel is not a signatory to the treaty and as such does not participate in any meetings associated with its implementation), makes decisions that have direct implications for its national security. This arrangement also ties the regional process to the NPT PrepComs and RevCons timetables (the RevCon takes place every five years, while their preparatory meetings take place the three years prior to the RevCon). That means that an international body that meets almost every year will have decision-making authority and influence on the regional process. It conflates extraneous, NPT-related issues with the regional security process, which also stands in marked contrast to the creation of the other existing nuclear weapons-free zones around the world. Traditionally, such nuclear weapons-free zones are negotiated by the states in each region, at their own initiative and without outside supervision, pressure, or intervention.

Israel doubts that tying the regional process to the NPT fit the historic and current nature of relations between peoples and states in the Middle East given the fact that four out of the five states that have ever violated the NPT are in the Middle East. Given that subscribing to and compliance with international legal commitments is not seen as a strong suit of most Middle East states, Israel would contend, perhaps a different kind of agreement is needed to be workable and ensure adherence in the region.

Second, Israel has issues with the mandate, objectives, and modalities of the conference as envisioned by the 2010 NPT RevCon. As a country that is not party to the NPT, Israel did not attend the NPT RevCon nor was it party to the negotiation of these terms (there was a junior Israeli diplomat outside of the 2010 NPT RevCon negotiation room who was informed about the decisions, but ultimately was not part of the negotiations). Israeli concerns were addressed the day after the conference closed, through statements made by then U.S. national security advisor, General James L. Jones, and President Barack Obama.

The expressed U.S. position on the conference states the following: (1) in order to be effective, such a gathering must include all countries of the Middle East and other relevant countries; (2) the meeting mandate should come from the countries in the region; (3) the conference is aimed at exchanging views on a broad agenda, to include regional security issues, verification and compliance, and all categories of weapons of mass destruction and systems for their delivery; (4) the conference should operate only by consensus of the regional countries, including the condition that any further discussions or follow-up actions would only take place with the consent of all the regional countries; (5) the conference cannot jeopardize Israel’s national security, or single out Israel; and, finally (6) a comprehensive and durable peace in the region and full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and nonproliferation obligations were identified as essential precursors for the establishment of such a zone, which in itself is a long-term goal.

The U.S. statements crystallize Israel’s main concerns. Namely, that Israel might be subjected to isolation, singled out, or dragged into a process that it has no influence over if majority rule will apply; as a lone Jewish state among many Arab states, it is outnumbered. Moreover, while Iran’s nuclear program is Israel’s top concern, given the behavior of Arab states in other international and regional forums, Israel does not believe regional states will be willing to use the conference (or the follow-up process) to address this immediate threat, or the risk of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war.

Third, while Israel respects the priority the United States places on consensus decision-making at the NPT RevCon, it is also wary and concerned about the role Washington played during the 2010 NPT RevCon. Promises made to Israel by U.S. officials about the nature and character of the conference were not fulfilled. Israel feels that its American ally was actually motivated to try and buy Egyptian and Iranian support at Israel’s expense in order to secure consensus for the 2010 NPT Final Document. Moreover, Israel has no doubt that regardless of its participation in the conference Egypt will come to the 2015 NPT RevCon with additional demands to create mechanisms to implement the NPT 1995 and 2010 resolutions. Why does this matter? In Israel’s view, the way in which the 2010 NPT RevCon final document singled out Israel while failing to mention Iran, and the decision to hold a regional conference without the consent of all regional states were just the dress rehearsal before the real show. That Egypt and other Arab states want to isolate Israel.

Israel fears the United States may do the same in 2015. For the United States, reassuring or pressuring Israel about the Middle East conference and the 2015 RevCon has been difficult, given the 2010 experience, the personal animosity and mistrust between the leaders of the two countries, and the fact that Washington is busy with a presidential election.

In conclusion, Egypt is the driving force for convening the WMDFZ conference set for December 2012. If indeed Egypt wants to start a regional process, Cairo should make a phone call to Jerusalem to discuss and negotiate directly on how such a gathering could benefit all sides concerned. Without dialogue and pre-agreement, it seems countries in the Middle East are not truly committed to direct negotiations with each other just yet.