The Security Council’s permanent members this week reiterated an old call to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. The Arab states have no nuclear weapons – and when Iraq and Syria started developing them, the Israel Defense Forces attacked them. Therefore, this call is clearly directed at Israel, which is believed to possess such weapons, though its official position is that it only has a "nuclear option.
The call was issued at a five-year Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, on the 40th anniversary of the treaty’s inauguration. It’s a sad celebration. North Korea has been making a mockery of the treaty for a decade and a half. Another member of the club, Iran, is developing nuclear weapons and challenging the council. Three states – India, Pakistan and Israel – are still refusing to join the NPT, which affords few privileges (such as using foreign nuclear material for domestic needs ) and numerous obligations (refraining from nuclear weapons, agreeing to supervision ).
India and Pakistan have even conducted nuclear tests and make no secret of possessing nuclear weapons. It may be for mutual deterrence, but there is no guarantee that the safety catch will remain on forever.
Egypt, which has always spearheaded demands for the region’s total nuclear disarmament, decided in the 1970s that it was incapable of taking Israel on in the nuclear arena. Anwar Sadat, who indicated when he came to Jerusalem that he chose peace with Israel in part because of the nuclear issue, took the "if we don’t have it, neither shall you" approach.
The peace agreement with Israel has not stopped Egypt from consistently demanding, for more than 30 years now, that Israel be disarmed of its alleged nuclear weapons. This demand is raised every autumn at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s annual conference in Vienna, and frequently in other international forums.
The Arab demand, and the world’s support for it, are nothing new. Nor is Israel’s response. Ever since the days of foreign minister Yigal Allon’s appearances at the UN General Assembly on behalf of Yitzhak Rabin’s first government, Israel has preferred saying "yes, but" to outright rejection. Yes, certainly, Israel would be pleased if a nuclear-free zone were established, but on condition that the region’s borders be defined so that it includes Iran (and Libya, and what about the nuclear weapons that may creep in from Pakistan? ), and that the region no longer be hostile.
In brief, if the Egyptians say that without disarmament there will be no peace, Israel says peace now, disarmament later. What Israel is prepared to give for peace is already a different issue.
However, the periodic demand for regional disarmament is different this time, on two counts: Israel describes the nuclear weapons Iran is expected to acquire as a threat to its survival, and U.S. President Barack Obama is passionately striving for a nuclear-free world, not merely region. In this situation, Israel must adopt a new policy – one that does not go as far as total and immediate disarmament, but does agree to freeze new nuclear activities.
The expanse between excessive weaponry and disarmament is not a slippery slope. Israel should enter it.