Menu JTA Search

News Analysis: Moscow Talks Unlikely to Yield Progress on Mideast Arms Control

Although arms control is high on the agenda of the multilateral conference on Middle East regional issues opening in Moscow this week, significant progress in this area would be a “miracle,” say American, French and Israeli experts on the subject.

There is more chance of arms control agreements between Washington and Moscow or NATO and the former Warsaw Pact countries than between Israel and its neighbors, according to participants in a conference on arms control organized by Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Nevertheless, Israel is planning to present the Moscow conference with detailed proposals to curb the arms race in the region, according to Foreign Minister David Levy, who is heading the Israeli delegation in Moscow.

According to Levy, Israel’s suggestions have already been well received by the United States.

But skepticism about the chances for progress abounded at the Tel Aviv University forum.

One of the big obstacles will be the mutual suspicions and fears that the various Middle East parties will bring to the negotiating table. The participants pointed out that each party’s military buildup in the region differs from the others’.

The Arab countries are concerned not only with Israel’s capabilities. Egypt must consider the Libyan threat. Iraq must consider the threat posed by Iran, with which it recently fought an eight-year war.

There have been reports of contacts between Iran and Pakistan, “and once you get to Pakistan, you’ve got India and so on,” said Geoffrey Kemp, a senior adviser on the Middle East in the Reagan administration.

ISRAEL WON’T GIVE UP QUALITATIVE EDGE

Barry Posen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies said it is “hard to see how an arms control accord will provide enough benefits for all parties to achieve an agreement.”

The longstanding enmity between Israel and the Arab states aggravates the problem because each side sees its own armament as defensive and the other side’s as aggressive. Each has a mentality which says that if it concedes anything, it will be weakened and its enemy strengthened.

Some of the countries involved approach arms control with a “measure of paranoia,” said Shai Feldman, a senior researcher at the Jaffee Center. They fear “a conspiracy to weaken them and keep them weak,” he said.

The conference participants noted the asymmetry of the arms buildup between Israel and the Arab countries. Outnumbered by the Arabs, Israel has relied on its qualitative edge.

Israel will not give up its qualitative advantage, which is why sometimes it regards arms control “as a conspiracy to erode our deferent.”

The Arabs, on the other hand, fear that arms control will “keep them culturally and technologically backward,” Feldman said.

The experts agreed that arms control cannot be imposed on the Middle Eastern countries. But they believe the sale of missiles could still be halted.

There are comparatively few missile producers in the world. Western countries, Russia and China are ready to join an embargo. And the experts think North Korea could be persuaded to comply.

ARABS WON’T ACCEPT ARMS SALES BAN

But other weapons pose problems. The now-independent republics of the former Soviet Union may be tempted to sell some of their tanks and heavy weapons for hard currency, and there are ways to evade Western inspection, the experts said.

A ban on arms sale would benefit Israel, which has its own very sophisticated indigenous weapons production capability. As a result, the Arab countries are not likely to accept this.

Hovering over the conference was the specter of nuclear weapons, the ultimate deterrent and potential destroyer of victim and victor alike.

For years, Israel has repeated the ambiguous formula that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region. It will neither confirm nor deny it has them, which is part of the deterrence of ambiguity.

But most of the world, including Israel’s Western friends no less than its foes, is convinced that Israel possesses a formidable nuclear arsenal and is prepared to use it if it perceives its survival to be at stake.

Israel has refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It has refused to allow international inspection of its nuclear facility at Dimona in the Negev, built for it by French scientists decades ago.

According to Christophe Carl of the French Institute of International Relations, Israel either is already a nuclear power or it has managed to pull off “the most successful hoax.”

The Arabs fear that Israel’s nuclear arsenal is not limited to bombs, but includes nuclear artillery shells for tactical use on the battlefield.

OTHERS HAVE NUCLEAR AMBITIONS

Would Israel yield to nuclear disarmament?

Not according to reserve Maj. Gen. Aharon Yariv, former chief of Israeli military intelligence and the Jaffee Center’s director.

“To exchange the only independent guarantee that we have for our survival for something short of full, true peace, friendly relations, is dangerous,” he said. “We should proceed slowly.”

Kemp said Israel might make concessions if it is the only nuclear power in the area and peace is so secure that it need not fear a maverick state.

But those are two big “ifs,” the American said. He pointed out that Iraq came close to acquiring a nuclear bomb and that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi tried to buy one from China and was rebuffed.

Iran is now interested in acquiring nuclear weapons, and Syria, Algeria and possibly Turkey may soon have the same ambition, he said.

Lewis Dunn of the Center for National Security Negotiations in Virginia suggested that Israel might be induced to curb its nuclear program if inspectors are kept in Iraq indefinitely and a missile defense pact is offered by the United States.

But Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official regarded as a leading U.S. military strategist, said he did not foresee any conditions under which Israel would give up an independent nuclear deterrent or drop out, at least from the design stage, of chemical and biological weapons.

There is no point “waiting for the marvelous day when the world can get rid of the Israeli deterrent,” he said. A more realistic approach is figuring out how to live with it, he said.

Kemp summed up the feeling of many experts by predicting that “breakthroughs in arms control are years away.”

NEXT STORY