Israeli motives, policy and strategic approach in relation to nuclear disarmament have always been clouded with ambiguity and a sense of insecurity during efforts for cooperation. Moreover, Israel has not signed any of the significant treaties and conventions against the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It is not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Biological and Toxin Weapons Conventions (BTWC) nor the Missile Technology Control Regime. While it has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), it has ratified neither of them.
Contextual Understanding of Israel in relation to WMD discourse
With the context of the Czech-Egyptian Arms deal in 1955 and the 1956 Suez Crisis, France and Israel discovered each other’s shared interests. Another motivation for France to cooperate in secrecy was to avoid US-led worldwide attention towards its intention of nuclear armament. France rolled in and created an IRR-2 (Israeli Research Reactor-2) at Dimona for the production of weapons-grade plutonium. They honed in on Dimona for the creation of an autonomous nuclear research plan with the construction of the Negev Nuclear Research Centre around IRR-2. The United States initially became conscious about Israeli nuclear motives in Dimona when an “American Corporate Official” had hinted at such intentions. Moreover, the US Embassy officials had also pointed out probable intentions of concealing what was going on at Dimona. However, the US failed to act upon the obvious red flags and then-president Dwight Eisenhower reportedly chose to remain oblivious to such findings.
The major breakthrough within international discourse was through the revelations made by a former technician from Dimona, John Crossman (previously known as Mordechai Vanunu) to the Times of London. Israel’s scathing response to the story was to accuse the media outlet of ‘abducting’ Vanunu and creating a fictitious narrative against the state. Later on, Vanunu was abducted by Mossad agents, brought back to Israel and charged with treason and espionage with an 18-year sentence. There was an apparent inconsistency between the Israeli statement (to the Times of London report) and their consequent actions of charging Vanunu of espionage and treason. Broad assumptions have been made about an estimate of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, but according to legitimate sources, Israel is believed to possess at least 90 warheads and to have the capacity to build around 100-200 total.
In the context of Biological and Chemical Weapons, Israel has been suspected of furthering objectives of chemical and biological offensive infrastructure. Such suspicions of research are largely centred on the Israeli Institute of Biological Research. Moreover, there have been instances of bioterrorism drills being carried out which indicates a desire for defensive preparedness in the wake of such an attack on Israel. Under this context, they may be driven with research to acquire chemical and biological weapons of their own. However, like the nuclear opacity policy, there isn’t much explicit admittance by the state to be pursuing such an objective.
Roadblocks within Disarmament Discourse – How to move forward?
Israel’s rationale to acquire WMD critical infrastructure stems from the regional context of conflict, distrust and animosity that surrounds it. While Israel has had a history of conflict with all countries that it borders, (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestinian Territories of West Bank and Gaza) it has always had regional insecurity with all Arab countries within the region. This insecurity not only pushes the state to acquire weapons of mass destruction but also incentivises it to maintain ambiguous secrecy surrounding such plans and intentions. The political mood in Israel has always indicated the need for WMD infrastructure as a necessary evil but a ‘last resort’ method to opt as a deterrence strategy (known as the Samson Option).
Since Israel’s distrust stems from the isolating, antagonizing and ostracising treatment that it has historically faced, the state will likely never feel comfortable committing to disarmament until they perceive a change in behaviour of other regional states. Addressing the UNGA Resolution to commit to a “Conference on Establishing a Middle East WMD Free Zone” (also known as the November Conference), Israel voted against it and called the resolution ‘unilateral’ and ‘destructive’. Israel raised objections towards the resolution for the establishment of the November Conference because it believed that the procedure and discourse that led to consensus on such an initiative never involved Israel, which furthers the Israeli belief of facing isolation and constant danger within the region. The November Conference has been an attractive prospect towards the creation of a regional treaty within the Middle East, and it recorded progress in its first session itself. However, the absence of Israel will always raise questions on the validity and legitimacy of any conclusion from such a conference that does not include a regional state strongly assumed to possess WMD infrastructure.
Israel’s apprehensions in getting involved within peacebuilding processes leads to its call for states to establish regional peace before moving towards a resolution on disarmament. Arab states led by Egypt urge that peace will likely follow after shared commitment towards a resolution. While this discourse is a redundant deadlock, regional states should take part in “Confidence Building Measures” (CBM) to build trust. This also entails Israel reciprocating to promote further progress in such measures.
The Stimson Centre’s paper on CBMs in the Arab-Israeli progress identified progress in four significant CBM areas in the 1994-95 Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) Working Group sessions. At its May 1994 Doha plenary session, two-fold progress was made in establishing a “Regional Communications Network” and garnering broad support for talks on a “Regional Security Centre”. Maritime Security measures like collective search and rescue operations were discussed heavily at the March 1995 session. Lastly, the ACRS participants also agreed to pre-notify members of the mobilization of more than 1400 troops and 110 tanks in the region. While all these aspects created a lot of room for discussion, ACRS was redundant due to the political posturing of member states. Such manufactured obstacles reiterate the need for Track II diplomacy measures where regional collectivization on common ground is devoid of political posturing due to the involvement of non-governmental organizations (such as Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, International Crisis Group, etc.). While immediate results are a far-fetched expectation from states driven by animosity for each other, acknowledgement of differences and receptiveness within discourse will likely facilitate such processes.
* University of Delhi, India
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