Obama in Israel: Tourism or opportunity

The U.S. president could use next week’s visit to the region to propose and push for a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone -- beginning with Israel and Iran.  

The idea for a regional zone is hardly new. It goes back to the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the regional nuclear weapon-free zones (in Latin America, Southeast Asia, South Pacific, Africa and Central Asia) that followed. Continuing opposition of Israel (not an NPT member) has kept such a plan off the table for the Middle East.  

In 2011, Finland proposed to host a conference to lay the groundwork for the possible creation of a WMD-free Middle East. The Jerusalem Post quoted a State Department spokesperson as saying that the conference could not be convened “because of present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.”

Other observers attributed the cancellation to US and Israeli fears that the conference would call attention to Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear weapons capacity.

U.S. and Israeli insistence that there can be no nuclear arms-free zone in the Middle East without a broad Arab-Israeli peace and an Iranian commitment to curb its nuclear program appears self-defeating. Rather, such a conference could be a first step toward achieving solutions on both the Iranian and Palestinian fronts.  

Progress on a nuclear-free zone agreement would build confidence among the parties. It would also create a positive political climate for addressing a variety of security issues, including Israeli-Palestinian relations. Moreover, the lessening of immediate threats of WMD attacks would allow diplomats to refocus their attention on border and other two-state issues. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process would again become a necessity for diplomats, not just a hobby.

In an op-ed published last year by Al Jazeera, Richard Falk, U.N. special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, lamented the failure of the United States “to raise the possibility of a solution to the conflict other than either an Iranian surrender with respect to its enrichment rights or an impending military attack.” He said the silence of Washington with respect to a peaceful regional solution to the conflict with Iran “confirms what is widely believed around the world -- that the U.S. government will not deviate for the official line on security issues in the Middle East.” Must this remain so?

Iran may react positively to a renewed call for a regional nuclear or WMD-free proposal. Citing a statement by Iran’s envoy to the UN, an April 7, 2011 article in Haaretz reminded readers that Iran had been advocating a nuclear-free region since before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The visit of President Obama to Israel next week provides an opportunity for him to reverse America’s narrow and unproductive foreign policy course.  Strong U.S. endorsement of a Middle East WMD-free zone could restart and empower the de-nuke process initiated by the Finns. It would underline the President’s commitment to global nuclear disarmament.

Moreover, a declaration of U.S. support for a regional nuclear-free or WMD-free zone would demonstrate America’s foreign policy independence and a renewal of its pro-active role as regional peace maker. It could also be the first step in jumpstarting the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Hager is cofounder and former director general of the International Development Law Organization in Rome.