While Israel is busy wringing its hands over a nuclear deal over which it has no control, it should instead be looking at processes it can influence.
By Sharon Dolev
People in Israel tend to see the nuclear agreement with Iran as an isolated, historical event, one that will either save Israel or place it under an existential threat. While we’re discussing and dissecting an agreement over which we have absolutely no influence, however, passing by right under our nose are other processes and developments — ones we haven’t thought of, spoken of, or even contemplated. That is, despite the fact that they affect us all, and despite the fact that we have a lot to say on the matter. We are talking about the risk of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and the chance that the Arab states — and others — might drop out of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The NPT, which was written in 1968 and came into effect in 1970, is based on three basic principles: not using nuclear weapons, dismantling nuclear weapons, and the right to nuclear energy. Most countries in the world are parties to the treaty, save for Pakistan, India and Israel, which never joined, and North Korea, which left.
Although the treaty has three legs, it only walks on two of them because the member states have never managed to agree on a timetable for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Therefore, the Convention’s main drawback is that it focuses on non-proliferation, as opposed to other conventions on weapons of mass destruction, which focus on absolute prohibitions.
The importance of the Convention lies mainly in its ban on nuclear proliferation. At the end of the 1960s we may have feared a world-wide nuclear arms race, but today there are only nine countries that have nuclear weapons. Five of them are the permanent members of the UN Security Council (U.S., Russia, China, the UK). The other four are India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, which are not members of the NPT, and are therefore not bound by it.
So why is it important to talk about the NPT now? Because NPT Review Conference, which acts as a type of follow-up body that gathers every five years, will take place at the end of April, and there is a chance that the Arab states will leave the treaty or sabotage the conference. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is worried. The risk is based on the lack of progress in talks that were supposed to begin in 2012 in Helsinki as part of an international framework to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Thus far, the Arab States and Iran have committed to the talks. Israel has not. In the interest of fairness we should mention that Israel has participated in secret talks in Sweden, some five meetings so far; in order to make perfectly clear that the talks were not official, the Israel representative refused to even enter the room until all of the UN logos were removed.
The decision to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East was already made in 1995 and adopted a second time by the Review Conference in 2010, with some small changes. When the conference didn’t meet by its deadline, the member states gave it another deadline. When that deadline was also missed, Egypt temporarily dropped out of the NPT at a preparatory session for the Review Conference in 2013. In a meeting in May 2014, Egypt and the Arab states warned that if no significant progress is made ahead of the April 2015 conference — there will be consequences. They didn’t say what those consequences would be, and it’s likely that they themselves never decided what they would be, but from private conversations behind closed doors, we understand that they mean non-cooperation and possibly even leaving the NPT.
Such a breakdown isn’t so worrying in and of itself, but a glance at the region at the moment raises the fear of a nuclear arms race, or the beginning of one — the first time since the NPT came into force.
Saudi Arabia, which fears Iranian hegemony in the Persian Gulf, has invested large sums of money in the Pakistani nuclear weapons program and has developed advanced missile launching capabilities. Stubborn rumors hint at a Saudi-Pakistani deal to buy ready made nuclear weapons. Those rumors have been growing for the past three years, and they’re not coming from the region’s usual scare monger — Netanyahu — but from the various Arab states. Egypt has already declared its desire to renew its nuclear program, Jordan is developing nuclear reactors with Russia, and the Gulf states aren’t far behind. It is true that at the moment, Saudi Arabia aside, we’re talking about nuclear energy facilities. But the technology is the same technology, and a working nuclear reactor, even if it is civilian in nature, is already seven out of 10 steps toward a nuclear weapon.
So while we are busy talking about Iran, the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty is facing danger of collapse. There is something we can do, however. Israel won’t join the treaty this year, but it can join the talks. At the end of the day, it is a process that Israel has already agreed to in principle in various forums, but conditioned it on various preconditions. The Arab countries admit that the process will be complicated and take years. But even if Israel has no interest in entering the talks now, there are other steps it can take, ones designed to increase the sense that Israel is ready, under certain circumstances, to join the regional and global processes. For instance, it could ratify the two treaties it has already signed: the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.
Those are two steps that Israel could at least declare right now, act on them in the next year, and thereby ensure the NPT survives another year — in order to ensure until we accomplish a nuclear-free world, that we don’t annihilate one another.
So what can we do? First of all, we can stop staying silent. Only then can we demand that the prime minister ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. A small but important step. Sending a letter to Netanyahu about it is as simple as one click and typing your name.
But a few words about the Iran deal. The exact number of centrifuges isn’t really important. The American document details agreements that are neither good nor bad. The most important part of the agreement is the diplomatic process itself, which wasn’t even on the table three or four years ago. At the time, when people spoke about options being on the table they usually were talking about sanctions and military strikes. The idea that diplomacy must also be on the table was considered fantastical at the time. So there.
Sharon Dolev is director and founder of the Israeli Disarmament Movement. This post was first published on our Hebrew site, Local Call. Read it here.