A Nuclear or Non-Nuclear Middle East?

In the aftermath of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Congressional speech, there is really only one question that towers over all others. Does Israel want to be a part of a nuclear Middle East or a non-nuclear Middle East?

Both Obama’s potential nuclear deal with Iran and Netanyahu’s non-viable re-negotiation response will inevitably lead to a nuclear Middle East. Even an American demand — that by the end of the short decade-long agreement, Iran must moderate its regional behavior — would still not prevent other countries from attempting to emulate the Iranian program. Whichever way you cut it, the bottom line is this: Either the region will go nuclear, or it won’t. The Middle East nuclear “genie” is out of the bottle, and the only way to stop its spread (and put it back in the bottle) is a nuclear-weapons-free zone.

Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons is coming to an end. Only a dangerous direct assault on the Iranian nuclear facilities can postpone this new nuclear reality. And it is reality that we must deal with. The opaque delusion that Israel would not be the first country in the Middle East to introduce nuclear weapons has now outlived its historical usefulness. Israel was indeed the first country in the region to introduce nuclear weapons, and now the entire region is in the process of catching up. In fact, the Obama administration and many in Washington’s think tank community believe that, because of Israel’s nuclear capabilities, Iran (as a threshold state) can and will be deterred. This is the reason why so many liberals in Washington are sanguine about Obama’s highly flawed and unusually short nuclear agreement. In the final analysis, it is the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons (and everyone knows it) that has allowed this very bad deal to go forward. Do you think for one moment that the US would have negotiated the same deal if Israel were not in possession of such weapons?

The people of Israel are now faced with a major decision. In which direction would they like to go — toward a war with Iran, in order to maintain their regional nuclear monopoly for a few more years, or toward a Middle East where nuclear weapons, plutonium and uranium enrichment would be outlawed? There are dangerous questions in both directions. If Israel did go to war over the nuclear issue, how would that effect its global standing in the world? Would such a war immediately involve Iran’s local proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas? Would there be fighting over Syria, and wouldn’t that inevitably involve some kind of Russian reaction? How might the Americans respond to an Israeli attack or a Russian counter? Would their response crack along partisan lines, once again exposing the Israel-US strategic relationship to political division? Would the war spread to include Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states? What would that do to the world economy? And what about the unalterable destruction that such a war might cause, to a region already faced with great economic and political failure? Israel, of course, would be drawn into this vortex, as both its economic and political life would be very negatively impacted.

But what if the people of Israel decided to go in the opposite direction, what then? What would be the nature of such an idealistic and radical concept as a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East? Many decades ago, Israel developed nuclear weapons for two reasons. First, it was threatened by an existing nuclear power (the Soviet Union in 1956) with an attack, and the US had declared that it would not come to Israel’s assistance. Second, the 1949 armistice lines were insufficient for the permanent strategic depth necessary to prevent a united Arab or Muslim world attack against the tiny Jewish state. In both these respects, nothing has changed. If there is to be a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, all the nations bound to the terms of the agreement would be rendered defenseless against nuclear blackmail. This is the grim fact of life for all countries without nuclear weapons. So, by necessity, such a zone in the Middle East must have the full and complete backing of all the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

But most important of all, a nuclear-weapons-free zone means that the geopolitical divisions of the great powers must never intrude on their vital responsibilities within the zone itself. This is a tall order, because it will require a level of cooperation and coordination that belies the friction apparent in both Europe and East Asia. In other words, for such a zone to have legitimacy, the permanent powers on the Security Council will need to iron out their differences by the eventual creation of other such zones. Just like the new paradigm in quantum physics demonstrated to everyone’s amazement that the whole of physical reality has now become greater than the sum of its specific parts, international politics in the twenty-first century is the same. First and foremost, the military division of Europe and the balance of power in East Asia must be peacefully addressed, if there is to be a successful US-China-Russia understanding in the Middle East. These issues don’t have to be settled immediately, or even before the Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone begins to take shape. But ongoing negotiations and regular summits will become the crucial new element to build confidence in such a revolutionary new construct as a nuclear-weapons-free zone.

Also, as a vital component of such a zone, Israel must keep its control of the strategically vital Jordan River Valley (and the mountain passes adjacent to the valley). In order to maintain any semblance of national security, the immense population center at the heart of the Sharon Valley must remain protected by a natural barrier. As the only non-Muslim nation within this proposed zone, conventional deterrence through strategic depth and advanced conventional weaponry would become the essential elements for security. A firm commitment by all members of the Security Council to come to the aid of any aggrieved state attacked by another state or states would also add to the deterrent value of the zone. But in Israel’s case, without the threat of its own nuclear response, the Jewish state would be nearly defenseless against an all-out attack from the pre-1967 lines. Similarly, the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace must be left to the parties themselves for negotiation leading to adjudication. Since the future of the disputed territories cannot be separated from the overall issue of Israel’s conventional strategic depth and therefore its security, the so-called two-state solution might not be applicable within a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone. Hence, new ideas for Israeli-Palestinian peace would become essential.

Anyone even remotely familiar with my blog knows that I have long advocated for a Zone of Peace leading to a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East (Times of Israel, February 27, 2015). I believe that this unique idea (a Zone of Peace) is the only viable alternative to either a vastly expanded war in the region (already bordering on chaos) or a nuclear arms race with the potential for severe brinksmanship leading to a series of Cuban-missile-like crises. These scenarios cannot be good for anyone’s future. And that includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Obama is wrong. The administration’s proposed nuclear deal is a complete disaster. It has been correctly criticized, and even without all the details has been clearly found lacking in all its dimensions. Its sunset clause is far too short; it rewards Iran’s aggressive regional behavior and is de-linked from all aspects of Tehran’s military research. Why else would Iran have an ICBM program if it wasn’t seeking nuclear weapons in the future? A decade is no time at all in the life of a nation. This president should have known better.

But Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alternative can be described as approaching fantasy. Iran’s race to the bomb won’t be stopped by mere words, only by serious international pressure (hard sanctions, a naval blockade and a UNSC agreement on the future of Syria). And that will require a major Israeli concession on nuclear weapons. The sad truth is that both Israel and the United States have failed in their differing policy approaches toward nuclear Iran. The only question that remains relevant for the people of Israel is whether they want a nuclear or non-nuclear Middle East. A repeated succession of Gaza-like attacks to prevent Iran’s nuclear development is a fool’s errand. And perhaps the first attack might even lead to a superpower global showdown. This cannot possibly be in Israel’s interest. The people of Israel must decide whether or not a non-nuclear Middle East is a better option for them than their current nuclear arsenal. And if they choose the non-nuclear option, they must be assured that Moscow and Beijing will stand behind them one hundred percent. Because the people of Israel can rest assured that the people of the United States of America will support a Middle East Zone of Peace without even the slightest hesitation.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).
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