JERUSALEM, May 13 (JMCC) - As the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) entered its second week in New York, Jerusalem
played host to its own debate, a conference entitled, “A Nuclear Free Zone in the Middle East - Realistic or Idealistic?”
Organized by the Jerusalem based Palestine-Israel Journal (www.pij.org) and funded by the German-run Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the event compared the Israeli and Iranian nuclear programs, and examined the possibility of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East.
Speaking at the conference on Monday, Avner Cohen, author of “Israel and the Bomb” and a leading authority on Israel’s nuclear program, emphasized that Israel’s policy of opacity was one of the biggest obstacles to any agreement on nuclear disarmament in the region.
“I think a Nuclear Free Zone will remain an ideal in our lifetime, but perhaps elements can be opened,” Cohen continued. “I do not believe any elements will ever be able to happen while Israel clings on to its opacity policy.”Israel
is widely believed to have somewhere between 100-200 nuclear warheads. It has never officially declared them, however, and repeatedly refuses calls to come out into the open as a nuclear weapons state.
Although its nuclear program was begun before the NPT existed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
has made it clear, most recently in an interview with ABC last month, that Israel will not be signing up to the NPT anytime soon, despite international calls for it to do so. He also chose not to attend the NPT Review Conference in New York.
“We need to be clear that Israel joining the NPT means complete disarmament. There is no other way to join the NPT,” said Emily Landau, director of arms control and regional security at a think-tank at Tel Aviv University.
“The idea of a WMD free zone is different,” Landau went on. “That involves everyone in the region sitting round and opening a dialogue together rather than Israel being forced to do something it is not going to do.” This was the kind of dialogue needed if the higher levels of the Israeli government were to be engaged on the nuclear issue, she said, arguing that talk of Israel joining the NPT should be dropped.
US POLICY: YES OR NO?
This week, Gary Samore, White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction told Reuters, For a long time the US has said that ... we would like to see Israel eventually join the NPT, we would like to see [the] establishment of a zone in the Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
Previously, however, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated the US and Israeli official position, “Given the lack of a comprehensive regional peace and concerns about some countries’ compliance with NPT safeguards, the conditions for such a [nuclear free] zone do not yet exist.”
“But we are prepared to support practical measures for moving toward that objective,” she added.
The Obama administration's recent renewed emphasis on disarmament has caused a shift on US policy on the nuclear issue, providing an opening for Egypt, the most vocal proponent of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, to bring the issue back to the table.
Mentioned in UN resolutions as early as 1981, and officially discussed and proposed at the 1991 Madrid Conference
, the idea of such a zone has since stalled. Israel's long-held policy of opacity surrounding its nuclear capabilities is often cited as a main reason for this. At the NPT Review Conference of 1995, Israel flatly refused to discuss the nuclear issue.