International Conference For A WMD-Free Middle East
Haifa was the unlikely setting for the first multinational conference on Israeli soil to plan the elimination of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. The conference was held on December 5-6, 2013. The next day, December 7, Arab group participants held a companion symposium in Ramallah, Occupied West Bank, to give Palestinians a greater voice and achieve a clearer view of group goals for a more peaceful region.
Formally entitled, “For a Nuclear Weapons and Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East” the significance of this conference cannot be overemphasized. This was the first time that these issues were publicly discussed in Israel by men and women from various countries who want a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. Coverage of the proceedings by news sources in Israel appears to have been minimal. I found the conference covered in only two English language publications: Haaretzi and Times of Israel.ii
This was not the first time Israel’s nuclear capability had been discussed in Israel. In 2000 two Knesset members, Issam Makhoul and Avraham Berg, the co-conveners of the current conference, asked for a discussion by Knesset members of Israel’s Dimona reactor. In response, an estimated two dozen members walked out. The remaining members ultimately engaged in a shouting match. This first venture to publicize Dimona lasted about one hour. Thirteen years later, the same intrepid anti-nuclear activists successfully convened a conference on Israeli soil.iii
Adding to the timeliness of such a conference were current disturbances in the region. Syria was in the process of eliminating its stockpile of chemical weapons under the supervision of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the UN, even as it remained entangled in a deadly civil war; In addition, Iran’s nuclear research activities were of great concern and suspicion by other nuclear powers. All the involved parties were currently engaged in intense negotiations over them. Adding to the tension was Israel’s rejection of negotiation in favor of a more aggressive response.
The remainder of this paper covers two areas: (1) How Israel’s positions impact U S politics. (2); Concerns expressed by selected delegates to the conference. (Reports of attendees like Odile Hugonot Haberiv provide a description of the overall conference.)
Political, Military and Moral Issues
The United States has long had a partnering relationship with Israel. When other states have condemned Israel’s aggressive actions, Israel has been buffered by the United States. Recent issues concerning Iran reveal a clash between the U S and Israel. The Obama administration has chosen talks as the preferred way to discuss Iran’s nuclear activities. Israel’s Prime Minister, Netanyahu, rejects negotiations in favor of force.
This schism is reflected in the US Congress. Some are willing to support Obama’s position while others loudly reject it in favor of Israel. The U S media is mainly focusing on hawks in Congress who want to increase sanctions against Iran while giving little play to the voices supporting nuclear talks between the U S and Iran.For example, On July 31, 2013 the House passed a bill, sanctioning Iran, by a count of 400 to 20.v
This was an apparent attempt to scuttle Obama’s stated goal of achieving a negotiated settlement in conjunction with allied world powers. On November 23, 2013 the news media announced that Iran had agreed to comply with certain measures regarding its nuclear activities. The continuing push by some in Congress to increase sanctions in defiance of the agreement pleased at least one head of state, Benjamin Netanyahu.vi Congressional solicitousness appears to have been unnecessary. Israel not only boasts one of the best equipped armies in the world, it also has a nuclear reactor at Dimona quite capable of starting a nuclear holocaust.
Israel is one of four countries that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (Israel, India, Pakistan, South Sudan). It is one of two countries not ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention (Israel, Myanmar).vii Israel has always been protective of its nuclear reactor. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency has orders not to inspect it. Israel’s development of its nuclear capability has been a stealth operation. Throughout the 1950’s Israel had surreptitiously collected needed materials, found appropriate personnel and finally began construction in 1958. U S intelligence formally learned of Israel’s building a nuclear site in “the early sixties”.viii
Israel’s nuclear reactor is the elephant in the room. Everyone knows about it but no one will talk about it. If Israel’s Arab neighbors attempt to force the subject they risk Israel withdrawing from talks. Under the current situation any meeting between Arab states and Israel will attempt to bypass Israel’s nuclear capabilities. Recently, Israel has been obliged to show some interest in participating in anti-WMD talks. News accounts note that the Israeli and Arab groups did meet but that, other than having a pleasant meeting, little was accomplished.ix
Promoting a Nuclear Free Zone; Joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty; Banning Chemical Weapons
There is broad international support, including the peoples of the Middle East and progressive forces inside Israel, for the immediate implementation of the UN general assembly resolution from May 2010. That resolution called for holding an international conference in Helsinki under the auspices of the UN to promote the creation of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East. This plan proposed that all the countries of the region join both the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the treaty on the banning of chemical weapons. Israel has been cool to these recommendations. After substantial planning, Israel withdrew December, 2012. Israel’s action was supported by the United States and criticized by the Arab participants. If all the states in the region were not going to participate there was no option but to cancel the Helsinki meeting. This was a disappointment to the Arab states.
Another Helsinki meeting of various international NGO’s was held in its place. IThere Issm Makhoul, an Arab Palestinian and a former Knesset member, announced that he was determined to organize an anti-nuclear, anti-chemical weapons conference in Israel. If Israel won’t come to Helsinki, Helsinki will come to Israel.”
The time was ripe for coming together over weapons of mass destruction. In addition to the furor over Iran’s nuclear activities, Syria had agreed to join the 189 members of the Chemical Weapons Convention after chemical weapons, of unknown origin, were used in its ongoing civil war.
Under the joint leadership of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the UN, the destroyed chemical weapons would be entirely removed from Syria.x
If Israel won’t come to Helsinki, Helsinki will come to Israel
Against this backdrop long-time non-proliferation activists arranged for an international conference “For a Middle East Free of Nuclear Weapons and Weapons of Mass Destruction”. The primary conveners were Avraham Berg, author and former speaker of the Knesset, and Issam Makhoul, former Arab member of Knesset and long time anti-nuclear activist, currently with the Emile Tourma Institute for Research. (These the two, thirteen years earlier, had introduced the subject of nuclear weapons in the Knesset.)
Initially they had hoped to attract international celebrities such as Archbishop Tutu, Noam Chomsky and former US President Carter. Those who did accept invitations to participate are less well known, but all have been activists in the area of non-proliferation. Jackie Cabasso, from our San Francisco Bay area was invited to be on the conference advisory board. She is a member of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Executive Director of the Western States Legal Foundation and a long-time activist for the abolition of nuclear weapons. She is a well-informed critic of our unwelcome neighbor, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Also attending was WILPF member Odile Hugonot Haber, co-chair of WILPF’s Mid-East Committee.
Approximately 100 persons from fourteen countries attended the Conference. Delegates came from Israel, Palestine, Belgium, France, Senegal, the Congo, Germany, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Japan and the United States. This included 4 current members and 4 former members of the Israeli Knesset. They were joined by elected officials from progressive political parties in Europe.xi
Introductory remarks by Andrew Marder, Honorary President of International Association of Peace Messenger Cities, set the tone of concerns about the relationship of the Middle East to the most powerful nations, particularly the United States. Mr Marder observed that the American public has forced the administration to choose negotiation with Iran, moving away from military attacks.xii
Prof. Tadatoshi Akiba, a former mayor of Hiroshima and a founding member of Mayors for Peace Now, urged a 2020 deadline for world nuclear disarmament. He added that no one needed to suffer as his countrymen had suffered. He added that governments had not met expectations and that civil-society groups must help governments achieve the goal.
From the tiny island of Cyprus, Georgios Koukoumas, The Progressive Party of the Working People, expressed distrust of the current nuclear powers: the European Union, the United States, and Israel. He noted that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes also presents a great threat, as in Fukushima, Japan. He expressed concern that a Middle East free of WMD could be threatened by the current nuclear powers.
His main focus was the EU and NATO. He observed that 37% of his country, is occupied by Turkey where there are two British military bases and a spy/surveillance system. He expressed concern that the EU is increasing militarism at the cost of decreased human services. xiii
On December 7, the conference moved to Ramallah in order to include Palestinians.
Although the conference attendance was modest, it was a radical event. It brought discussion of weapons of mass destruction to Israel, where such discussions have actively been discouraged. Mordechai Vanunu has been the most famous victim of Israel’s obsessive efforts to keep its nuclear capabilities secret. He is the former nuclear technician who, because of his opposition to nuclear weapons, in 1986 revealed to the British press details of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. As a result, he has spent years in prison. He has been called by Daniel Ellsberg, “the preeminent hero of the nuclear era”.xiv
About the Author
Betsy Wolf-Graves lives in San Josè, California, and has been a long-time licensed clinical social worker as well as a WILPF member. She has also been a serious student of events in Israel and Palestine, developing presentations on subjects such as the issue of water under Israeli occupation. She is committed to writing on events impacting Palestinians. Her other passion is working on improving local criminal-justice system through connecting with local action groups. She is always inspired by the great wisdom coming from WILPF members. Of particular note is the Middle-East Committee.
copyright 2014 Betsy Wolf-Graves under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License