Overcoming the “trust deficit” to achieve the Zone

Noor Hammad*

The primary obstacle facing the establishment of the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (hence forth, “the Zone”) is political and diplomatic, including what has been referred to as a “trust deficit” between nations.[i] While many have focused on the importance of diplomatic recognition and normal relations between the relevant states, the key difficulty is not solely the product of the political differences in ideology of the governments of this region, but rather, the lack of political awareness and engagement across the region. It is this internal facet which presents the key barrier to the establishment of the Zone to the extent that government policies are designed to give effect to the wills of the electorate.[ii] While weapons of mass destruction are held by a number of states across the region, this essay will focus on nuclear programmes, and in particular on the Israeli weapons arsenal given that it is not subject to the same international scrutiny as the Iranian nuclear programme.

Despite a longstanding reputation for “robust authoritarianism” which disregards the public opinion pervading the region, the Arab Spring of 2010 demonstrated that despite the irrelevance of an electorate, international and internal reputations were of paramount importance to national governments.[iii] As a result, some governments’ policymaking can be understood in relation to reputational damage control. The Bahraini government, for example, took the novel step to establish an international commission, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), setting precedent in terms of openness to external evaluation and transparency, with the government “[hoping] to utilize the report as a catalyst for implementing political reforms”.[iv]

While the Arab street may not be what it was at the height of Nasserism, it is problematic to assume that its youth are apolitical as resistance is ever present and polls demonstrate a politically aware youth, committed to causes such as the Palestinian cause.[v] This is evidenced in the case of the recent normalisation deals between the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel via the Abraham Accords.[vi] While international coverage presents the image of a muted public, a quote of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia expressing his support for the Palestinian cause was trending in social media of the region.[vii] Protests also took place in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar.[viii] This indicates that the lack of engagement concerning the proposed Zone may be a product of public ignorance and limited coverage, not apathy. Indeed, the 2019/20 Arab Opinion Index does not include the threat of nuclear warfare as a category among those threats facing the Arab public at large.[ix] In fact, no weapons of mass destruction are listed as a threat despite their historical use and existing regional stockpiles.[x]

Rather than contributing to their general sense of malaise as seen in the Arab Youth Survey, the international community should be taking action to amplify youth voices and support the operations of local civil society organisations without subsuming their local character.[xi] In other words, expertise and training may be provided to such societies, but the aim and implementation methods chosen must remain strictly tailored to the local community as defined by local civil society organisations.

While promoting the cause of denuclearisation among Arab youth is key to the progress of the Zone, competence building is particularly necessary in Israel given its official policy of calculated “strategic ambiguity”.[xii] The Israeli government stonewalls topical discourse, from the existence of the Israeli arsenal, to public health and safety concerns such as the age of the Dimona reactor, the humanitarian impact on those in the Negev who are exposed to the toxic radiation, and the risks posed to both Israeli and Palestinian society at large.[xiii] The current approach taken towards the Israeli reluctance to make progress on the denuclearisation campaign, as with that undertaken in response to its violations of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), has largely been one of appeasement. For example, the Arab states compromised at the IAEA by agreeing not to put forth a motion concerning the Israeli arsenal in exchange for Israel maintaining the consensus.[xiv] Despite these compromises, the official Israeli policy remains unchanged, and while Israel has made headway in terms of normalisation, and thus its security concerns, broader regional concerns are not being addressed. Tellingly, despite promising to temporarily halt settlements in the OPT in line with the Abraham Accords, no such halt has materialised.[xv] This undermines the argument that peace must precede disarmament.

Furthermore, the military asymmetry produced by the very fact of Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons is itself an obstacle to peace in a region which has seen Israel exercise force beyond its borders: in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran to name a few. For the purposes of the Zone, this situation is untenable. While the Gulf Arab states, Morocco, and Sudan may be willing to normalise, key regional players such as Iran are much less likely to do so. In particular, it should be noted that none of the states which newly normalised ties with Israel are on Israel’s borders, and they all seek to improve their relationship with the USA in return for economic or political incentives. Other states, such as Syria, whose Golan Heights remain under Israeli occupation, have prioritised their relationship with Russia and do not feel the same need to normalise as a result. Conceivably, tying disarmament to normalisation will simply produce yet another regional stalemate on the matter.

Changing this situation will therefore require internal pressure rather than external pressure. Given the nature of the Israeli collective psyche, traumatised by the experiences of the Holocaust and the creation of a nation through war and colonisation, removing what is perceived as a safeguard will be difficult to enforce, particularly given the Israeli policy of calculated ambiguity.[xvi] However, there have been some positive indications of future change, from the first admission in the Knesset that Israel possesses nuclear weapons to its first ever-public debate on nuclear weapons and the work of the Israeli Disarmament Movement in breaking the Israeli taboo.[xvii] Thus, interrogating the notion of nuclear power as a safeguard is critical to changing Israeli public opinion and would allow for the eventual mobilisation of the electorate in favour of dismantling nuclear facilities. This includes the recognition that it was Israeli nuclearisation which prompted today’s nuclear threats in Iran, and the developing threats in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and that despite having possessed an arsenal for a substantial period of time, the Israeli state is not any safer than it was at its inception.

On the contrary, the proliferation of nuclear programmes increases the risk of catastrophe, such as by the attack of an armed group or a technical malfunction. Moreover, in dismantling its programme, Israel could set off a domino effect leading to Iran curtailing its civil nuclear programme, reducing both Tehran’s perceived threat to Israel, and Israel’s perceived threat to many Arab states.[xviii] Combined internal and external pressure to change and establish a WMD-free zone is necessary in order to ensure long-term safety and security within the wider region.

In conclusion, there is much work to be done across the Middle East to raise awareness of the threat of nuclear weapons and the need for compromise by all parties involved. Israeli society must come to realise that peace and safety comes not from military occupation or the policing of neighbourhoods, but rather from a just peace deal with the Palestinians, recognising their historical and legal rights to the land. Such a deal would finally allow Middle Eastern countries to normalise their relationship with Israel. To this end, progress on the establishment of the Zone presents an avenue that demonstrates to untrusting neighbours that Israel is serious in its attempts to secure regional peace for all. As for Arab societies, they must educate themselves about peacebuilding and understand that the humanitarian impacts of an Israeli or Iranian nuclear disaster would be catastrophic and cannot be confined to political borders.

* King’s College, London, United Kingdom

[i] Kelsey Davenport, 2013. “A WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East: Regional Perspectives.” Arms Control Today

[ii] Abraham Shanedling. 2014. “Removing Weapons of Mass Destruction from the World’s Most Volatile Region: How to Achieve a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East.” Georgetown Journal of International Law 46(1): 315-361.

[iii] Eva Bellin. 2004. “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective.” Comparative Politics 36 (2): 139–57. https://doi.org/10.2307/4150140.

[iv] Mohamed S. Helal, 2019. “Two Seas Apart: An Account of the Establishment, Operation and Impact of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI).” European Journal of International Law 30 (3): 903–27. https://doi.org/10.1093/ejil/chz045.

[v] Fatima El Issawi, and Francesco Cavatorta. 2020. The Unfinished Arab Spring: Micro-Dynamics of Revolts between Change and Continuity. Chicago: The Gingko Library.

[vi] Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. 2020. “The 2019-20 Arab Opinion Index” Accessed: Sept 13, 2021. https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/Lists/ACRPS-PDFDocumentLibrary/Arab-Opinion-Index-2019-2020-Inbreef-English-Version.pdf.

[vii] Given the censorship of pro-Palestinian activism online, measuring online support can be difficult to present as hashtags and content are banned and removed by international technology companies – social media channel providers, such as ByteDance, owner of Tiktok. An example of one such post includes: Al Tamimi, Abdulla (@iAbudT). “علموا اولادكم ان فلسطين محتلة ، وان المسجد الأقصى أسير ، وان الكيان الصهيوني عدو ، وان المقاومة شرف ، وانهُ لا يوجد دولة اسمها اسرائيل -الملك فيصل رحمه الله ”, Twitter, May 10, 2021. Accessed: Sept 8, 2021 https://twitter.com/iAbudT/status/1391796116660887552.

[viii] These protests were mostly documented informally in social media, rather than on mainstream media outlets. See: @al_mhnds, “علمو اولادكم ان فلسطين عربيه اروحنا جميعا فداء القدس# الكويت_مصر_السعودية_سوريا # فلسطين🇵🇸 # القدس_لنا🇵🇸🕌 # الاردن # العراق # انقذوا_حي_الشيخ_جراح” , Tiktok, May 15, 2021, Accessed: Sept 12, 2021. https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSJEUXyNB/

[ix] Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. 2020. “The 2019-20 Arab Opinion Index” Accessed: Sept 13, 2021. https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/Lists/ACRPS-PDFDocumentLibrary/Arab-Opinion-Index-2019-2020-Inbreef-English-Version.pdf.

[x] ibid.

[xi] Jumana Al Tamimi. “Why Palestine Still Matters to Arab Youth.” Mena – Gulf News. Gulf News, May 2, 2019. Accessed: Sept 12, 2021. https://gulfnews.com/world/mena/why-palestine-still-matters-to-arab-youth-1.63694282.

[xii] Sandeep Baliga, and Tomas Sjöström. 2008. “Strategic Ambiguity and Arms Proliferation.” The Journal of Political Economy 116 (6): 1023–57. https://doi.org/10.1086/595016.

[xiii] Wisam Sedawi, Orit Ben Zvi Assaraf, and Julie Cwikel. 2014. “Conceptualizations of Waste-Related Implications on Health and Welfare among Elementary School Students in the Negev’s Bedouin Arab Community.” Cultural Studies of Science Education 9 (4): 935–76. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11422-014-9569-0.

[xiv] International Atomic Energy Agency (2007) “Record of the Ninth Meeting” GC(51)/OR.9.

[xv] Abdulkhaleq Abdulla. “The Two Pillars of the Abraham Accords.” Middle East Institute, August 12, 2021. Accessed: Sept 10, 2021 https://www.mei.edu/publications/two-pillars-abraham-accords.

[xvi] Gawdat Bahgat. 2013. “A WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East?” Middle East Policy. 10(1): 30-38.

[xvii] For Knesset discussions see: Lauren, Greg. “Good vs. Evil: A Knesset debate on nuclear weapons” Times of Israel, 4 July 2013. Accessed: Sept 10, 2021 https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/good-vs-evil-a-knesset-debate-on-nuclear-weapons-2/

For public debate on Israel’s nuclear weapons see: Norton-Taylor, Richard. “MP drops bombshell on Knesset besieged by nuclear row” The Guardian. 3 February 2000. Accessed: Sept 8, 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/feb/03/israel

[xviii] Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. 2020. “The 2019-20 Arab Opinion Index” Accessed: Sept 13, 2021. https://www.dohainstitute.org/en/Lists/ACRPS-PDFDocumentLibrary/Arab-Opinion-Index-2019-2020-Inbreef-English-Version.pdf.