Do we really believe that a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is possible? This is a legitimate question when observing the negotiators. In addition to the lack of good will, it is not evident that they themselves believe that the cause they gather together for is achievable.
Lack of Faith
Lack of faith is one of the obstacles confronting the vision for a Middle East free of WMD. Sometimes it seems that the long hours spent discussing the topic in different bodies such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly - have not really moved things forward.
The current initiative for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East started as an enforced agreement by countries that wanted to maintain the NPT and needed the agreement of the Arab countries. It continued, again virtually by coercion, when the Arab states, with the aid of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), insisted on raising the issue with no real solution in sight and without the genuine support of other countries, especially the five nuclear states - the permanent members of the UN Security Council, who set the tone.
The demonstrative exit by Egypt from the discussions of the NPT PrepCom in Geneva in April 2013 reflects the ongoing frustration and sense of futility, not only of Egypt but of all the Arab states, regarding a process that began with the decision of the NPT Review Conference in 1995 and continued in 2010 with the decision to hold a regional conference in Helsinki by the end of 2012.
Banning All WMD Rather Than Only Nuclear Weapons
That decision, which called for an international conference with all of the parties in the region to promote a Middle East free of WMD, is the beginning of a solution, not only because it calls for such a meeting but because it provides a solution to two additional obstacles. Until the resolution was passed in May 2010, the call was for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons only. Such a call, which singled out Israel as the only country in the region with a presumed nuclear arsenal, did not allow Israel to even consider being a partner to the process. Israel refuses to be pushed into a corner and denounced by the other countries in the region. The call for a Middle East free of WMD - chemical and biological weapons alongside nuclear ones - also has the potential to make the discussion more regional and inclusive, rather than singling out one state.
The second part of the decision - which calls for a conference that would take place outside the NPT framework, takes the discussion out of the body in which Israel is not a party and is not bound to. While Israel still considers the decision a result of the NPT and participating in the conference a form of surrender to the decision of the treaty parties, this is an excellent argument for the proponents of the talks. Now Israel may participate. The question remains, of course, whether it would like to attend.
What Does Israel "Want"?
Without public debate, it is hard to know what Israel really wants. It is also difficult to use the phrase "Israel wants" when there is no discussion. Not only is there no public debate, there is no discussion at the level of Knesset members, the media or the government. The decisions are made by a very small number of people, who frequently know only one part of the picture and, without public discussion or criticism, do not have to refer to different positions or receive information that could be vital to the decision-making process.
Without public debate, decision-makers face no pressure and no questions when the decisions are made about the repercussions of those decisions. No one will have to suffer the consequences and be liable before the law, at least not at the public level, because the public - through the media - will not hold anyone accountable.
A possible scenario of failure is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East: involving not only Iran, but also other countries in the Middle East that have already announced that if a conference for a Middle East free of WMD does not take place, they would re-examine their own nuclear policies. Because the current policy is membership in the NPT, it is understandable that such a re-examination encompasses exiting the treaty and perhaps even a nuclear arms race as a response to Israel and Iran going nuclear.
It is to be hoped that, if Israeli citizens knew about this, and if journalists felt comfortable enough to talk about it, there would be growing pressure on decision-makers, not necessarily pressure to go to the conference, but pressure at least to have a discussion and to provide answers. Such pressure would create an extremely important public discourse, because the lack of discussion enables the repetition of fixed and habitual behavior - nonparticipation and the burying of heads in the sand until the danger passes. Only in this case - in the eyes of the decision-makers - the danger is actually holding conversations, not running an arms race.
Nuclear Ambiguity as an Obstacle
Israel's policy of ambiguity was designed only to meet the question of whether or not Israel has nuclear weapons (a policy that exists only in Israel), and it is therefore one of the main obstacles to such a conference. This is an obstacle that an effective campaign can overcome. Such a campaign is being carried out by the Israeli Disarmament Movement. It is still in its infancy and yet, a discussion has begun at some level, although there is no public discourse yet. One example is the recent discussion at the Knesset, initiated by the movement, a transcript of which appears in this issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal.
Meetings with journalists have resulted in a larger number of them following the subject and writing about it occasionally. However, without an audience that understands the subject or Knesset members and opinion leaders who feel they have something to say on the subject or even the right to discuss it, the debate remains within the framework of sporadic op-ed articles and academic forums.
The "No Peace" Excuse
One would think that the lack of peace would be the first major obstacle to be mentioned in this article. After all, every year in October, at the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, the Israeli speaker pulls out a dusty paper and repeats the worn-out sentence which states that Israel supports in principle the vision of the Middle East free of WMD, which of course can only happen when there is peace in the Middle East, good neighborly relations and normalization. This is exactly what the Arab Peace Initiative offers - to which Israel does not respond.
The lack of peace is not really a serious obstacle to the realization of the vision for a Middle East free of WMD. It is an excuse used by the small group of decision-makers to continue to stall the process, in the belief, or hope, that this is a process that can be frozen only by non-participation.
Talks taking place with all the countries sitting around the table in good faith can promote peace. It is clear that in a conflict area like the Middle East, it is better to take WMD out of the equation, or at least to limit significantly the possibility of their use. And peace and disarmament are not dependent on each other; they can take place on parallel tracks, with guarantees from the international community that can provide valuable support. But Israel's lack of commitment to the process is an obstacle in itself.
The Iranian Threat - Crisis or Opportunity?
Iran's nuclear program could be perceived as an obstacle but also as an opportunity. Iran's nuclear program was much more effective than any campaign in breaking through Israel's nuclear ambiguity. True, Israeli society did not begin to talk about the nuclear arsenal and the need for talks, but the obsessive discourse around the threat of the Iranian nuclear bomb led to a nuclear discourse, which also included the question: What are the options for action? This discourse enabled the Israeli Disarmament Movement to initiate a series of actions and dialogue with members of the media around the campaign "Don't Bomb. Talk!" - which calls on Israel to join the talks as a preventive measure against the Iranian bomb.
The campaign did not make the conference for a Middle East free of WMD the talk of the day, but many journalists learned about the talks and a public discourse began through a permanent presence on the social networks. Surveys have shown that Israelis prefer a situation where no one has a bomb to a nuclear Iran. It's a shame that the public does not know that Iran agreed to participate in the talks for its own reasons, but Israel did not.
Distrust and suspicion are another major obstacle, not only to the talks but more importantly, to the success of the talks if they are held. Israeli demands (another type of obstacle) for direct preliminary talks without an agenda, as well as calls for decisions based on consensus, confirm the concerns of the Arab states that Israel wants to endlessly stretch out the discussions or try to achieve gains without giving anything in return. When Israel speaks of confidence-building measures (CBMs), Arab countries speak of concrete steps and see Israeli demands for security as a blow to their interests without adequate compensation.
This obstacle also has a solution that can be found with a little good will and, of course, a meeting of countries. Confidence-building measures can also be concrete steps. An example might be a decision calling on all the states in the region to sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and set a schedule for the next steps - when it is clear that by the end of the process, all the countries in the region will sign and ratify all conventions and treaties related to WMD along with an additional protocol to allow close supervision of existing arsenals and/or other suspicious facilities. This is, of course, a long and difficult process, but once the process has begun and the first steps are taken, it will form the basis for further joint work, which will not be hard at all, since most of the countries in the region have already signed the conventions and are committed to them in any event at some level.
It is possible to approach the discussions and the question of confidencebuilding with curiosity and creativity, since we are talking about seeking a new path. A number of nuclear weapons-free zones have been established, but so far there has never been the declaration of an area free of WMD by multiple countries. This obstacle of precedent-setting will require the creation of working groups operating in a different manner from the usual way, carving out new paths alongside familiar patterns of activity. This need for innovation might actually help the negotiators, because alongside the need to represent their respective sides, they will have a common challenge to create something new, build together new concepts, verifications, the integration of various conventions, institutions, supervision and more.
Losers and Winners
There is a well-known saying that if everyone feels that they have lost something, then the agreement is a just one. A just agreement is important, of course, but it is vitally important that the parties don't feel they are the losers. When inviting the parties to the negotiating table, the desired outcome must be attractive. A safer world, or a more secure Middle East, is of course very attractive for us in civil society. But it is not certain that leaders facing elections under internal and external pressure can afford such a vision. Israel will not be the only one to feel that it is the loser. Iran must also give up its aspiration to be a Shi'ite Muslim nuclear power (even if only a threshold state) against Sunni nuclear Pakistan. The Arab states will sit at the same table as Israel and will practice a kind of normalization before a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has been reached, and perhaps feel that they are losing something when Israel partially abandons its ambiguity and "reveals" that the talks are between a nuclear power and its neighbors who are armed with conventional weapons.
Navigating the Middle East Minefield
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is the first international campaign that has begun to act in the Middle East, with campaigners and organizations from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain, Turkey, Iran and Israel. While the Middle East campaign is relatively new, one of the notable things that have emerged in the work on this issue in the Middle East is that it is like walking through a minefield without a map. For people who are committed to a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and all other WMD, it was clear that we needed to begin by finding our North Star to guide us, a point on which everyone, governments and individuals, can agree. One can say with certainty at this point that our North Star is influenced by two important facts: first, that the clear and present danger to the continued existence of mankind as long as there is a nuclear arsenal in the world; and second, that the Middle East, which is looked upon as though it exists in a bubble disconnected from the rest of the world, must not remain closed in that imaginary bubble, especially when talking about nuclear weapons. Therefore, the North Star for a Middle East campaign, something we can and must work on in addition to regional work, is a global ban on nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons states and nuclear threshold states do not want to be the first to disarm, and they undoubtedly feel threatened when there is a possibility that other countries may obtain such weapons upsetting the balance they are clinging to for dear life.
While Israel looks with horror at Iran, Iran defends its position against Pakistan, an Islamic superpower, which in turn looks toward India. Thus, the elimination of the Israeli nuclear weapons arsenal becomes dependent on India and Pakistan, which are developing their own arsenals while not being committed to the NPT, just like Israel.
Neither India nor Pakistan will give up their nuclear weapons, while China, which holds an impressive arsenal, will not give it up as long as it is surrounded by American weapons. The president of the United States speaks of a world without nuclear weapons while Congress tries to delay the reduction in the number of nuclear warheads because of Russia, Iran, North Korea and China - and Russia will not give up any, either, for the same reasons. For England and France there is no real excuse, but this does not prevent them from spending tens of billions of pounds and Euros to improve their nuclear arsenals.
While pressure grows from the Arab states to de-nuclearize the Middle East, it becomes increasingly clear that you can start the discussions and start confidence-building measures such as signing and ratifying conventions, the construction of new regulations and more, but the real solution will have to be international, in the form of a nuclear ban or a nuclear weapons convention in our lifetime.
Needed: A Truly International Intervention
Today, we are at an important junction: on the one hand, the possibility for honest talks and a real desire to try to build a Middle East free of WMD and a world without nuclear weapons; on the other, a lingering sense of failure, along with disgust from the Arab countries having kept their end of the bargain by joining the NPT and signing an indefinite extension for the sake of a Middle East free of WMD and receiving very little in return.
To let everyone feel that they are the winners, a truly international intervention is needed - an international demand that includes the five nuclear states that are permanent members of the Security Council, because promises have to be kept (or so we civil society members believe) and because the Arab states have already announced that if such a conference does not take place, they would reconsider their nuclear policy, and a nuclear arms race in the Middle East will not stop at the undefined borders of the Middle East.