The quest for a nuclear weapons free zone

Security is a dynamic concept that is developed on the basis of states’ threat perceptions and defense requirements. The Middle East, for more than half a century, has been confronted by an irresolvable security dilemma. These security concerns, of course, are not limited to the nuclear threat, as is highlighted by the fact that the Middle East is the largest recipient of conventional weapons.

But for the last decade, Iraq, North Korea and Iran have been under immense international pressure to prove that they do not possess nuclear weapons programs. We all witnessed what happened to Iraq, and the latest squabble in the International Atomic Energy Agency demonstrates the demands on Iran. Despite Iran agreeing to sign the required additional protocol and submit to unrestricted monitoring, powers such as the United States still wanted to pursue punitive measures.

On the other hand, no one is seriously considering the dangers posed by the advanced arsenals of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons maintained by Israel. No one is pressuring Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), or to subject its facilities to international monitoring. This silence has always drawn cries of "double standards" from the rest of the region–but to no avail. The urgent issue of nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East has been taken up in many disarmament forums since 1974 and Arab states have repeatedly called for the establishment of a nuclear free weapons zone (NFWZ) in the region. Over the last three decades, tens of United Nations resolutions have been adopted, with no concrete action taken.

Israel joined this consensus in the United Nations General Assembly in the 1980s, but insisted that the issue be addressed through direct negotiations. In 1981, Israel submitted to the UN Secretary General a proposal suggesting that an international multilateral conference negotiate the establishment of a nuclear-free zone. But when the peace process started and time was ripe to accept this proposal, it was Israel that backed down. The ideal forum for negotiating the proposed zone was the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) working group established at the 1991 Madrid Conference, but Israel refused to put the nuclear file on the working group’s agenda.

By the time the 2000 NPT review conference was held, all Arab states were party to the NPT. The only state that still declined to accede to the NPT was Israel, and the review conference stressed the importance of Israel’s accession. It was the first time that Israel’s non-adherence had been singled out in accepted NPT review conference language.

In every expert opinion, Israel remains the only nuclear capable state in the region. This has led the Arab states to attempt to draw the international community’s attention to the dangers of this situation. They have called for regional approaches to the proliferation of WMDs, instead of the state-by-state approach, which is evidently selective and intensifies the existing imbalances. Twenty-nine years after their initiative to create a NWFZ with no progress whatsoever, the concept remains the only way out of the present predicament.

Israeli conventional and unconventional arms superiority in the Middle East will trigger a new phase in the regional arms race. Many Arab states will feel forced to pursue non-conventional mass destruction capabilities, such as chemical and biological weapons, to try to adjust the imbalance of power in the region. The logical way out of this dilemma is to gradually lay the ground for the NWFZ through a series of confidence-building measures that will conclude as part of the final settlement of the Arab-Israel conflict.

This will necessitate a revision of the entrenched positions of the parties involved, using fresh thinking. To create momentum, we need to examine the position of each side.

The Arab position

Israel has not overtly demonstrated nuclear capability, preferring instead a policy of "nuclear ambiguity." The Arab states thus perceive Israel’s nuclear capability not only as a means of deterrence, but also as a means of potential preemption. Even worse, the majority of the Arab states perceive Israeli nuclear capability as a force for coercion rather than deterrence. It is considered a destabilizing factor in the region, triggering an arms race and WMD proliferation.

These perceptions are both political and military. The right wing has dominated Israeli politics, and military superiority and the use of force are the right wing’s preferred means of achieving its political objectives, including holding on to occupied territory. Militarily, Israel enjoys a position of superiority in both conventional and non-conventional weapons. Its nuclear arsenal and expanding space-based surveillance system have profoundly impacted not only the strategic balance between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries, but also between Israel and other countries in the Mediterranean region. Israel has sophisticated nuclear military capability, active chemical weapons programs and biological warfare activities, and its missile capabilities range from theater ballistic missiles to orbital delivery systems.

From an Arab security standpoint, this imbalanced status-quo makes the region totally dependent on Israeli good intentions rather than systematic guarantees for military stability. Hence, the Israeli argument that its nuclear weapons capability is for absolute deterrence and a "last resort" is not convincing.

It is estimated that Israel needs approximately 40 nuclear bombs to destroy all imaginable targets in most Arab countries, while intelligence estimates conclude that Israel has between 100 to 200 nuclear warheads. This discrepancy between capabilities and needs raises serious doubts about Israeli-declared intentions. Reports indicate that Israel has developed tactical nuclear weapons, artillery shells and perhaps nuclear mines. As low-yield tactical weapons do not endanger Israel if used against neighboring states, the decision to use them might be easier than with more powerful strategic weapons. Further, possessing overwhelming nuclear superiority allows Israel to act with impunity despite worldwide opposition. Under these conditions, it is only logical that other countries in the region will be tempted to clandestinely seek a balance of power.

The Israeli perspective

From the Israeli perspective, the State of Israel has sought nuclear capability not for hegemonic aspirations or national prestige, but to develop an independent nuclear deterrent that balances fundamental geopolitical asymmetries in conventional military power between Israel and the Arab states. Israel sees its nuclear capability as the ultimate insurance policy in preventing another Holocaust. While Israel acquired the nuclear option in the late 1960s, it has not declared, tested, or made any other visible use of this option, resulting in an "opaque" nuclear policy. Israel’s strategic thinking has led its governments to follow a vigorous nuclear denial strategy based on coordination with other friendly states.

There is no issue more controversial in Israel than its nuclear deterrent and this policy of ambiguity. Until recently, it has been taboo by public consensus. Even after the dramatic 1986 revelations of Mordechai Vanunu, Israel’s nuclear status is still regarded as inaccessible. Many analysts believe that the culture of opacity is rooted in the fundamental Israeli perceptions that developed over decades of the Arab-Israel conflict. This culture is based on the following beliefs:

Nuclear weapons are vital to Israel’s security and should be allowed in order to maintain nuclear monopoly. Arab states should not be allowed to obtain these weapons. The subject itself must be kept out of normal discourse and left to nuclear professionals. Internationally, Israel has no alternative but opacity.

There is always the danger, however, that because decisions are made in secrecy a hawkish Israeli leadership might be tempted to use nuclear weapons under no existential threat. Israel’s defense and security establishment has shied from global arms control initiatives and regimes, viewing them as unreliable and contrary to vital national interests. This opinion is reflected in the low priority and minimal resources assigned to arms control issues in Israel’s foreign and defense ministries.

In any region, efforts to develop a cooperative security framework must confront and overcome basic structural asymmetries in geography, demography, resources and political systems. Such asymmetries played a major role in the shaping of the regional security system in Europe. For Israel, each of these asymmetries is of major importance. Israel is a very small state, with no strategic depth to absorb a first strike, whether conventional, missile or WMD. The extreme violence and warfare of the Middle East, as well as existential threats from some nearby states, compound these asymmetries in Israeli eyes.

Coming to agreement

What this discussion highlights is that Arab and Israeli security perceptions remain at opposing ends. Security is dealt with as a zero-sum game. The supremacy of the military threat between states in the region is the core of the problem and has to be dealt with objectively. The policy of deliberate ambiguity has served Israel’s security concerns in the past, but cannot continue if regional peace and security are to be achieved. Further, the US strategic alliance with Israel and its security guarantees are a matter of public record. The Arab side therefore believes it misleading to link Israel’s security to its nuclear capabilities.

In high-conflict environments, it is necessary to lay the foundation for regional security and the gradual transition from zero-sum attitudes (in which one state’s limitations are seen as another’s opportunity to gain advantage) to cooperative non-zero-sum conceptions (where cooperation and mutual self-restraint are understood to serve shared interests in stability and survival). In this process, the development and implementation of a wide range of confidence-building measures play important roles.