Israel's media has been filled of late with dramatic headlines and stories about Tehran's nuclear program, and the question of whether military measures might prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. An editorial in Haaretz called it "a welcome debate" (November 4, 2011). I agree, especially given that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is describing the issue as existential for Israel. Since the Yom Kippur War, I have believed that we the public have a responsibility and a right to discuss and debate all major questions concerning the country's future, as long as no security secrets are revealed.

Thus a public discussion is very welcome. It's unfortunate, though, that it remains largely limited to whether Israel should, can or will attack Iranian nuclear facilities, with or without American approval.

Entirely missing from the discussion are alternatives to either a military option or increased international political and economic sanctions. Specifically, Israelis seem not to want to consider the "radical" idea of denuclearizing the Middle East as a strategy for preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.

How many Israelis know that at the last NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ) Review Conference, held in New York in May 2010, the UN secretary-general and the American, British and Russian governments were charged with convening a conference in 2012 with "all states of the Middle East," to discuss an agreement to turn the region into a "zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction"?

How many Israelis know that, after a year and a half of negotiations, a host government for the 2012 conference, Finland, was decided upon three weeks ago, and accepted by all of the governments in the region, including both Israel and Iran?

The official position of all recent Israeli governments, including the current one, is that Israel favors a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, but only after comprehensive peace is achieved with all of its neighbors. And the truth is that most Israelis were probably not even aware that their country is willing to contemplate the idea of a nuclear-free zone in the region.

Most Israelis seem to be happy to leave the nuclear question alone, regarding it as either taboo or perhaps just too complicated. I would argue that it is Israelis' civic responsibility to become more knowledgeable about the subject and its implications for our lives.

Concerning the Israeli-Iranian equation, although direct talks between officials of the two counries are not possible due to the demagogic posturing of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu's apparent unwillingness to even consider diplomatic channels, members of Israeli and Iranian civil society can meet, in third-party countries on neutral territory, to begin to develop grounds for mutual understanding between the two peoples. After all, Israel and Iran were not always enemies, and there are good geopolitical reasons for two of the major non-Arab states in the region to end their hostile relationship.

Such a meeting took place just a few weeks ago in London, under the auspices of a civil society initiative to establish a Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East. This initiative is based upon the European Conference on Security and Cooperation, which contributed to the end of the Cold War. Participants included civil society representatives from Israel, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Europe and America. The discussions were a first step toward laying the foundations for security and cooperation in the entire region, based upon comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace, including a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

Because Israeli nuclear policy is based upon "ambiguity," the assumption here seems to be that the world around us will ignore Israel's nuclear program, and focus only on Iran's.

This won't work. The entire international nuclear non-proliferation regime, which is based on the terms originally signed in March 1970, has to be reaffirmed every five years at a review conference. Our neighbors, led by Egypt, insisted at the 2010 conference that the Middle East be included on the international agenda, which led to the plans for the 2012 conference in Finland.

If there is no progress on potential denuclearization of the Middle East, the non-proliferation treaty may collapse, creating international nuclear chaos. And in our interdependent world, Israel will not be allowed to simply stand aside.

Although Israel has not signed the NPT agreement, the co-sponsors of the 2012 conference - the U.S., the U.K. and Russia - will not allow it to ignore this process. This also holds true for Iran, which though it is an NPT signatory, is increasingly being held accountable by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and finds itself increasingly isolated in the region and internationally.

Instead of just looking the other way, shouldn't we explore the opportunity created by the 2012 conference to begin developing a creative diplomatic alternative to stopping the Iranian nuclear program, particularly given that so many Israeli security authorities question whether a military solution exists?

 

Hillel Schenker is co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal (www.pij.org ) and coordinator of the CSCME Security Group.