Israel's weapons of mass destruction
By Neill Lochery
April 09, 2003
One day, in the not too distant future, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's phone will ring and all of Israel will learn from U.S. President George Bush the price it will pay for the coalition war in Iraq. For the record, it was the fear of such a phone call that led Yitzhak Rabin to embark on the Oslo process with Yasser Arafat. Rabin talked about a strategic window of opportunity for Israel to settle on its own terms with the Arabs, one that he felt might close if there was a second major war in the region involving the United States.
In 2003, Israel is vulnerable in two key areas: weapons of mass destruction and in the political negotiations with the Palestinians. Mr. Bush is likely to demand major Israeli concessions in both areas as the United States moves to shore up its support among the so-called moderate Arab states whose relative silence during the current war has been noted and appreciated by Washington. Though it's still too early to crystal-ball gaze, it is clear -- presuming Israel is not attacked during the final days of the war -- that its political position will be much weaker than at the conclusion of the first Gulf War in 1991 when the United States was grateful to Israel for not responding to Iraqi Scud missile attacks.
The charge of hypocrisy and double standards over Iraq and Israel's WMD still dominates the agenda of the majority of those states and individuals that opposed the war in Iraq. Even in Britain there is a feeling that once the war in Iraq is over, Israel will have to be pressured to destroy its arsenal of WMD. A British official excitedly informed me this week that the war in Iraq would lead to a concerted British effort to clip the wings of Israel's military power in the region in the hope that such action would help mend British bridges with the Arab world.
The rationale that Israel employs for having WMD is that with a standing army of around only three million, it cannot match the Arab armies in terms of manpower and therefore relies on what is termed a "qualitative edge" in weaponry. Part of this qualitative edge includes missiles (a small number armed with nuclear warheads) and chemical weapons.
The Israeli argument that it exists in a hostile neighbourhood and therefore needs to retain its military might carries a lot of merit. The difficulty for Mr. Sharon, however, is going to be how best to retain this qualitative edge, while at the same time making concessions to the United States that reflect the post-war realities in the Middle East.
By far the most sensible solution for Israel would be to immediately dismantle its chemical and biological stocks of weapons under international supervision. Such a unilateral gesture would go a long way to helping Israel keep its conventional missiles, and even nuclear deterrent. In effect, this would protect the current strategic balance of the region.
Soon, the U.S. administration will present its "road map" peace proposals. The plan predetermines that there will be a Palestinian state created in the middle of this road map, and that the difficult issues such as Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees will be left until the very end. Sound familiar? Mr. Sharon should warmly endorse the plan and put the ball firmly in the court of the Palestinians. The plan, which is of course highly flawed, ignores the political reality in the region that the Arab states will not allow the Palestinians to unilaterally settle with Israel -- they prefer a multilateral Arab deal with Israel. It appears that the Americans have still not learned the lesson from Camp David in 2000, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan pulled the plug on Mr. Arafat, stating that he had no right to negotiate the future status of Jerusalem which Mubarak argued is an Arab -- not a Palestinian -- issue.
Another flaw in the road map proposal centres on the question of who is going to fund the creation of a Palestinian state. Judging by the proposals, it looks like the U.S. taxpayer is going to have to pick up the bill. Congress may have something to say about this. By endorsing the plan, a smart and long-sighted Mr. Sharon would avoid much of the blame when it almost certainly starts to unravel.
In the current climate of continued violence between Israelis and Palestinians, offering concessions on the military and political arenas may appear reckless to many Israelis. However, it would go a long way to helping Mr. Bush avoid having to choose between his two closest allies, Tony Blair (hell-bent on extracting Israeli concessions to bolster his own domestic position) and Mr. Sharon.
Though the war in Iraq appears to have weakened Israel's political position, it can take heart from the fact that it has not strengthened the hand of any of the hostile Arab states either. Israel, however, must come to the rapid realization that the post-war Middle East is likely to be even more complex and act accordingly now to protect its position.
Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College, London.
This article was originally published in the National Post