News Analysis: Israel is Reacting Cautiously to Bush Arms Control Proposal

Israel is reacting cautiously to President Bush’s new initiative for arms control in the Middle East.

The tone was set by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who told visiting British Conservative Party members that Israel welcomes the president’s call for curbs and international supervision on weapons of mass destruction, but has “some questions” about it.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens, talking to reporters after a meeting with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, said Israel would “study very closely” the details of the initiative and would “continue to discuss it” with the United States.

Both leaders stressed that Israel has long favored regional arms controls in principle. “We have been the major victims of the lack of arms control,” Arens observed.

Nevertheless, Bush’s plan, which he unveiled Wednesday afternoon, after brushing aside a written request from Shamir for prior consultation has aroused nervousness in policy-making circles here.

On the one hand, officials are privately buoyed by the interpretation of the plan voiced in Washington — that it would mean effectively enshrining Israel as the only nuclear power in the region, by forbidding any other country from acquiring or producing nuclear materiel. Israel, after all, is believed to be the only Middle Eastern nation that now has a nuclear capacity.

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On the other hand, the president’s call for curbs on all future nuclear arms production, coupled with his call for a ban on missile supplies into the region and the eventual destruction of missile stockpiles, worry Israeli policy-makers, who base the Jewish state’s “last resort” strength precisely on these two strategic components.

Traditionally, Israel has refused international inspection of its nuclear facilities and has not signed the non-proliferation treaty, despite international pressure over the years.

A highly placed defense official, briefing reporters Thursday, said Israel could only go along with the U.S. proposal if it embraced all of the regional powers — including those far removed from Israel’s borders. The official mentioned, for example, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq.

Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, widely credited abroad with being the father of Israel’s nuclear strength, said Thursday he welcomes the U.S. proposal, but said it would stand or fall on the complex issue of verification.

In its official reaction to the Bush announcement Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s Office reiterated Israel’s long-proclaimed policy that it would “not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region.”

A statement released by Shamir’s spokesman, Avi Pazner, also stressed, though, that Israel regards the massive quantities of conventional arms presently in Arab hands as a strategic threat to which arms control efforts should be applied.

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