Devaluing Arab WMDs

The Bush and Blair administrations have made enormous strides in either forcing or persuading these major Middle Eastern states to step toward abandoning nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. Whether or not Iraq actually possessed these weapons, Washington and London’s determination to remove doubts made other regional leaders question the cost-benefit trade-off in their own weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.

To thwart the WMD programs of all three countries is already an impressive achievement. Other Arab power centers in the region — Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — are all carefully watching this dramatic reversal. It has the potential to trigger new regional dynamics that would devalue WMD. These dynamics are not the result of a fruitful process of multilateral arms control, like the one that started and stalled in the 1990s, but are largely a reaction to American hegemony.

But implementing Libya’s disarmament decision and persuading Iran’s factious government to permanently abandon nuclear weapon production capabilities requires more than coercion. Both countries will want a phased process of reciprocal inducements, leading to a removal of U.S. and international economic sanctions. No less important, Iran, along with Libya and other Arab states, also wants fairness. These states and their populations have repeatedly invoked with disdain the double standard by which Israel’s possession of nuclear, chemical and perhaps biological weapons is tolerated.

Israel’s leadership and media have recognized this, to their credit, even if Washington officials and think tanks still shy from acknowledging it. Since Libya and the United States and Britain announced the agreement to roll back Libya’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons capabilities, Israelis have begun to debate how their government can contribute to the process. The Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, in what some noted as veiled rebuke of governmental silence, referred publicly to the Libyan move as “serious, very serious.” He noted that this could be part of a “domino effect” following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and that combined with Iran’s agreement last month to accept additional nuclear inspections, it had created the beginnings of a changed regional landscape and lowered the strategic threats facing Israel.

Indeed, over the New Year, the Israeli inner cabinet was convened by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to review these developments and to consider whether and how Israel should contribute to the dynamics. While there is a national consensus in Israel that the nuclear issue is non-negotiable at the present time — prior to comprehensive regional peace — there are voices in Israel, in and out of government, saying that the nation should join the process of banning WMD in a meaningful way.

Israel possesses nuclear weapons, not for prestige or offensive purposes, but solely to deter against threats to its existence. Yet, over the long-term, Israel’s arsenal of taboo weapons will prompt its adversaries to seek countervailing capabilities that could test the durability of deterrence. Strategically, Israel would be better off in a region where no one possessed any weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, Israeli leaders have acknowledged this by endorsing annually at the United Nations, for the last two decades, the idea of making the Middle East a zone free of all WMD. Israel insists, however, that peace should precede disarmament.

The surprise Libyan disarmament announcement, following the removal of Saddam Hussein and the cornering of Iran’s nuclear program, creates a unique opportunity to augment momentum toward the distant goal of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Elimination of Syria’s large arsenal of chemical and biological weapons should be the next target of the Bush administration. Syria is actively seeking better relations with the United States, but unlike Libya, Syria would not do it unilaterally. Israel would have to be part of the deal.

Israel signed, but has not ratified, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Israel has never signed the largely symbolic 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, nor did it ever explain the reasons behind its abstinence. It is time for Israel to show its good will by explicitly joining the ban over these two categories of WMD. On the nuclear issue, not to be forgotten, Israel should also find a way to engage more actively with the nonproliferation regime, even though it is clear that it cannot sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty itself.

Much more remains to be done in a campaign that ultimately will be measured in decades rather than years. But each of the steps along the process will be eased if Arab and Iranian societies see that Israel too acknowledges that its own arsenal is part of the problem.

The United States, as chief cop on the block and Israel’s main protector, also must demonstrate fairness. The Iranian and Arab polities crave fairness as they perceive it has been denied to them. Their perceptions may be debatable, and Israel’s existential security cannot be traded away, but some Israeli contribution to regional disarmament is imperative.

George Perkovich is author of “India’s Nuclear Bomb” and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Avner Cohen is author of “Israel and the Bomb” and senior research fellow at the University of Maryland.

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