The head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission last month offered a bleak assessment of the prospects for holding a long-planned conference on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, citing the “somber realities” in the region.
The Sept. 19 statement by Shaul Chorev to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference in Vienna was seen by some observers as indicating an increasing likelihood that Israel would not attend the meeting on establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. The conference is supposed to take place this year.
The commitment to hold the 2012 conference was a critical piece of the negotiations that produced the final document of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. (See ACT, June 2010.) In that document, the parties reaffirmed their commitment to “a full implementation” of the resolution on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East that, in turn, was central to the agreement at the 1995 review conference to make the NPT permanent.
The participation of Iran and Israel is considered crucial to the planned conference. Iran is an NPT party, but is suspected of using its nuclear program to pursue a weapons capability. Israel is not a party to the treaty and has an undeclared nuclear weapons program.
In his remarks, Chorev said one of the Middle East’s long-standing features has been “the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction by despotic regimes, in violation of [all] legally binding international commitments and obligations.”
A WMD-free zone has not been established anywhere in the world, “even in the most peaceful regions,” he said. As he noted, there are nuclear-weapon-free zones, but he said one of the lessons of the world’s experience from those areas is that the process for creating a zone “can only be launched when peaceful relations exist for a reasonable period of time in the region, and the neighboring states have established sufficient confidence among themselves.” Also, he said, the impetus for creation of a zone must come from within the region and “cannot be imposed from outside.”
Chorev argued that “any initiative to promote the 2012 conference on the Middle East under the banner of the NPT review conference, or the General Conference of the IAEA in complete disregard to the present regional, somber realities, is futile.”
After Chorev made his remarks, there were conflicting reports of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s response to questions about the country’s official position on whether it would attend the conference. In a Sept. 24 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a spokesman at the Israeli embassy in Washington said, “The only position that has been stated is the [one in Chorev’s] speech.”
In an interview the same day, a former Israeli diplomat said he interpreted the speech as stopping just “short of spelling out ‘no.’”
Advocates of the conference have said on several occasions that no potential participant has said “no” to attending. A member of the team that is organizing the conference used that formulation at a meeting in early September.
The head of that team, Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava, said in June that there has been “substantial progress” on organizing the conference but that “further and intensified efforts are needed.” (See ACT, June 2012.)