Let’s Be Honest About the Real Problems in the Middle East

In the aftermath of Syria’s decision to release details about its stockpile of chemical weapons and eventually to eliminate those weapons, attention has increasingly been turning to Israel and its own cache of weapons of mass destruction.

At the UN nuclear disarmament treaty on September 26, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for Israel to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and ultimately to destroy its collection of nuclear weapons. This followed a very close vote on September 21 by the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to reject a resolution also calling on Israel to join the NPT. Furthermore, Bashar Al-Assad has used his country’s chemical weapons deal as an opportunity to switch focus back to Israel, stating that the only reason America wants to remove Syria’s chemical weapons is to give the advantage to Israel.

This sudden attention on Israel marks an alarming turn in the West’s perception of the current situation in the Middle East. With so much at stake, be it the lives of individual citizens or widespread regional peace, are these really the questions we should be asking about Israel or the Middle East?

Let us ignore the fact that it’s taken Western powers two and a half years to do anything about Assad’ chemical weapons. Let us also ignore the fact that agreeing a deal with Assad to hand over his chemical weapons doesn’t actually do anything to stop the bloodshed that is washing away the lives and livelihoods of millions in Syria. These are questions that we in the West do need to ask ourselves, but this article is not about the effectiveness of the Russia- and US-brokered deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. This is about the absurdity of trying to shine the spotlight on Israel.

First of all, it is important to consider the internal points of the case for criticising Israel’s nuclear weapons. Simply put, Israel should not be under the same pressure to reveal details about, or to hand over, its arsenal of nuclear and chemical weapons as countries such as Assad’s Syria and Rouhani’s Iran. There is an underlying difference between Israel and its neighbours.

Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and many other Arab countries have, throughout the past seventy years, significantly spearheaded or contributed to military efforts aimed at destroying Israel. While nowadays Israel enjoys the benefits of peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, the idea of a Jewish state in the centre of the Middle East is anathema for many other Arab countries.

The Iranian regime has often declared its intention to annihilate the “Zionist state” and rid the world of the “stinking corpse” that is Israel. Hezbollah in Lebanon has threatened to rain rockets on Israel in the event of an American attack on Syria. These countries are also known to have populations that despise America and the West.

So when these countries, not Israel, have WMDs, we have reason to be scared. For countries in the power of fanatical Muslim organisations, for countries that have previously stated their desire to destroy another country, for these countries it is imperative that the rest of the world prevents them from gaining the means to do so.

Whether you look at it from a moral perspective or a practical perspective, there is no argument for allowing Iran or Syria to possess chemical or nuclear weapons. These countries pose a risk to the stability of the region and the wider world.

This is not the case with Israel. Israel is a democracy with an accountable government and universal suffrage, including its Arab citizens – a right not afforded to millions of Arabs in Arab-ruled states. It cannot be considered in the same light as the dictatorships and military autocracies around it.

Despite Rouhani saying Israel is the source of all insecurity in the Middle East, Israel is one of the few countries in the region not to have declared a desire to wipe anyone else out. This is an astonishing fact, and so I shall repeat it. In this volatile region, Israel is one of the only countries not to have declared war on its neighbours for the purpose of destroying them.

Conversely, in 1948, 1967, 1973 and continuing today with rocket attacks, Israel’s neighbours attacked, and continue to attack, Israel in order to bring about its destruction. And so, it is clear to see the difference between the existence of WMDs in the hands of Israel, and in the hands of Israel’s neighbours.

Assad has used his chemical weapons on his own civilians. Iran has previously threatened to destroy Israel and knows that a nuclear weapon gives it the capability to do so. Israel has never committed any act or made any statement of the sort.

In a New York Times op-ed on September 18, Victor Gilinsky and Henry D. Sokolski claimed that Israel’s refusal to sign the NPT despite its nuclear arsenal “will soon become the central fact in this drama”. This is incorrect. We cannot put Iran and Israel on equivalent moral terms. Perhaps the world would be a better place if no one had nuclear weapons. But to say it is just as bad for Israel to have them as Iran is a disturbing, and potentially harmful, fallacy. Iran wants to destroy Israel. Israel wants to destroy no one.

Of course, you may disagree with Israel’s possession of WMDs simply because you don’t think WMDs are a good thing. That is certainly an argument worth having. But if that is the argument you want, don’t focus on Israel. There is no more reason to protest Israel having WMDs than the USA, the UK, France, or any other democratic country.

Many of these countries require a nuclear deterrent, and indeed, many of them do not. Yet none of them needs a nuclear deterrent as much as Israel. Israel faces the threat of military action every day. Its neighbours despise it and are not shy in declaring so. If Israel did not have a nuclear deterrent, there would be significantly less reason not to attack it. So if the question is over how to remove all nuclear and chemical weapons, then by all means let’s include Israel in the equation. But let’s not centralise the debate around it.

For the truth is, this is not about the legitimacy of Israel’s claims to require nuclear capability. This is about a much more fundamental argument, external to the individual case against Israel’s nuclear capability. Because, from whatever perspective you look at the Middle East, you cannot claim that Israel’s WMDs are the main, or even a serious, cause of upheaval.

What causes upheaval is Arabic governments’ refusal to allow their citizens basic human rights. What causes upheaval is the influx of terrorists into Syria, a country ripped apart by civil war and ruled by a murderous maniac. What causes upheavals is the quest from Iran, a country that has a stated desire to destroy another, to acquire nuclear weapons. What causes upheaval are military coups, Hezbollah and Hamas rockets, and a strong Arabic desire to remove the Jewish ‘stain’ from their midst.

So yes, let’s be honest about Israel’s nuclear arms. Perhaps Israel should sign the NPT. But would that solve the problems in the Middle East? Absolutely not. Israel may or may not have had nuclear weapons for decades. But there has been no war caused by their existence.

For too long, the world has raised Israel on a moral platform far higher than the rest of the world, and far, far higher than its neighbours. And yet at a time when the innocent people of the Middle East are fighting literally to the death, it is time to realise we can never solve any of these problems if we constantly insist Israel must maintain a better standard of behaviour than the countries around it. Not only is this patronising to Israel’s neighbours, not only is this injudicious towards Israel, it works against the interests of the very people we ought most to help: the citizens of Syria, Iran, Egypt, and the rest of the Middle East.

Will focussing on Israel stop war and give all civilians in the Middle East the rights they deserve? No. Those people who shout and scream about how terrible it is that Israel possesses WMDs are merely playing into the hands of dangerous, Israel- and Western-hating dictators. This is just another example of people egregiously shifting focus onto Israel away from where it rightly should be, which is the terrible situations in Syria, Egypt, Iran, and across the Middle East.

When there is so much trouble in these countries how can we delude ourselves into thinking we’re doing anyone any benefit by trying to turn the spotlight on Israel?

About the Author
Josh Goodman is a second year Classics student at the University of Cambridge and an alumnus of FZY/Young Judaea Year Course 2011-12.