Conventional wisdom holds that the normalization agreements between Israel and the Gulf states strengthen the coalition against Iran. And that thanks to his wonderful relationship with Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu has also mustered Arab consent for Israel’s nuclear advantage. But not necessarily.
Between the lines of Thomas Friedman’s column last week in The New York Times, based on an interview with President-elect Joe Biden, lies the possibility that expanding the circle of peace in the region actually threatens Israel’s policy of nuclear exclusivity and opacity.
Biden’s incoming team, Friedman wrote, is aiming for renewed negotiations with Iran that will include not just the original signatories to the deal with Tehran – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union – but also Iran’s Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This approach could put to the test Israel’s traditional stance regarding the denuclearization of the Middle East, a position that has the support of the outgoing American administration.
At forums of the International Atomic Energy Agency, when there is discussion about Israel’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to open its own nuclear facilities to agency’s inspectors, Israel always says that in principle it supports the demilitarization of the region from weapons of mass destruction – but only after peaceful relations are established between the Middle Eastern countries, accompanied by confidence-building measures.
When Israel’s representatives were invited to present their position, representatives from the Gulf states and Sudan would demonstratively leave the hall – showing that the conditions were not ripe for discussions about denuclearization or about Israel signing the treaty. Presumably, at the agency’s next conventions, the representatives of those countries will remain in their seats and maybe even take coffee breaks afterward with their counterparts from Jerusalem.
Thus, we are left with the violent conflict between Israel and Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. This is the time and place for a reminder that at the five-year Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, held in New York in May 2010, the Obama-Biden administration supported convening a United Nations summit to declare the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone.
A summary of the conference says that “making the Middle East a nuclear weapon-free zone is a rare point of agreement between the United States and Russia.” The summit was supposed to take place in Helsinki in 2012. Finnish Deputy Foreign Minister Jaakko Laajava, special facilitator of the summit, visited the region several times and met with officials from Israel’s Foreign Ministry. But because of a dispute between Israel and Iran concerning the agenda of the confab, it was repeatedly postponed.
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In March 2015, then-Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry Jeremy Issacharoff (currently the Israeli ambassador in Berlin), attended a preparatory meeting for the Helsinki summit that was held in Berlin under the auspices of the German Frankfurt Peace Academy NGO’s Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East.
Sitting with the Israeli representatives was Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki bin Faisal, who expressed astonishment at Israel’s refusal to discuss the Arab peace initiative, endorsed by the Arab League in 2002. The concluding statement of the session in Berlin noted that representatives from Israel and Arab countries had participated in five rounds of consultations to discuss aspects of the Helsinki summit. (Full disclosure: This writer participated in the talks.)
What wasn’t said in the statement was that two representatives from Tehran also actively participated in those consultations.
Under pressure from Netanyahu, the Obama administration ultimately pulled out of the Arab initiative, earning public thanks from the Israeli premier. Trump’s election in 2016 put the initiative in the deep freeze. Ironically, the outgoing president’s contribution to the thawing of relations between Israel and the Gulf states weakens Israel’s position regarding nuclear proliferation and opens up the path to Helsinki. Perhaps the path back to Oslo, too.