For Israel, nuclear test ban looks better in theory than practice
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For Israel, nuclear test ban looks better in theory than practice

Lassina Zerbo, head of group administering the global treaty, makes case for ratification on trip to Jerusalem; his hosts are not yet convinced

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo (photo credit: AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo (photo credit: AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

In theory, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty is viewed favorably in Israel. After all, Israel has no real reason to conduct such tests itself – it reportedly did so in the South Atlantic in 1979 – and it has every reason to want to know, quickly and precisely, who in the region may have conducted one.

But in a region with a rich history of clandestine nuclear weapons programs, where the surface tide always appears to be pulling toward non-proliferation as the undertow tugs toward the security of the ultimate weapon, the CTBT is a bit of a double-edged proposal.

First, the good. The treaty, which has been signed by 183 countries and aims to detect and ban all nuclear testing, has been largely successful. The verification regime consists of roughly 300 facilities worldwide. It monitors seismic activity within the earth, sound waves in the oceans, infrasound upon the surface, and radionuclide particles in the air.

In 2006, the monitoring stations picked up a weapons test in North Korea in real time, ruled out an earthquake, and “caught a sniff” of the isotype Xenon, which they were able to isolate and trace back to North Korea, delivering a “smoking gun” to the international community, Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive director of the Comprehensive-Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, told The Times of Israel.

In 2013, however, it took 55 days to detect the radioactive noble gas linked to North Korea’s February 12 test: it was conducted in a sealed chamber and the trapped gas did not immediately leak through the cracks in the earth.

A screen capture from a video of North Korea's Unha-3 rocket lifting off from the Sohae launching station in Tongchang-ri, North Korea in December. (photo credit: AP/KRT via AP Video)
A screen capture from a video of North Korea’s Unha-3 rocket lifting off from the Sohae launching station in Tongchang-ri, North Korea, in December. (photo credit: AP/KRT via AP Video)

And yet, Zerbo, who was in Israel to discuss a recent CTBT field exercise held in Jordan – and he insisted on having the follow-up conference in Israel, despite regional grumbling – rightly presented the treaty as “a vertical and horizontal gate” barring proliferation. The vertical, he said, prevents those that possess nuclear weapons from improving them, and the horizontal stops those in pursuit of their first bomb from taking the necessary step across the threshold.

Calling a test “the last hurdle you jump through before getting the bomb,” he said he has “no doubt that no nuclear test can go undetected.”

Even Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, in a meeting with Zerbo last week, said Israel’s ratification is “a matter of when” and not if.

For the treaty to go into force it must be signed and ratified by 44 specific nuclear technology holder countries. Eight are still missing: China, North Korea, the United States, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel and Iran.

“I believe Israel will be the first one to ratify among the eight remaining states,” Zerbo said last week.

And he may well be right – partially on account of the fact that the P5+1 negotiators did not demand ratification from Iran at the outset of talks. But Israel has several causes for concern.

Presentation of credentials by Israeli IAEA representative Merav Zafary-Odiz to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano on October 24, 2013. (photo credit: Dean Calma / IAEA/ (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Presentation of credentials by Israeli IAEA representative Merav Zafary-Odiz to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano on October 24, 2013. (photo credit: Dean Calma / IAEA/ (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Israel’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its permanent representative to the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organization, Merav Zafary-Odiz, listed three central reservations at a Carnegie Endowment panel on March 23.

“First of all, Israel addresses its ratification, like all other security-related issues, mainly in the regional context,” she said, seated alongside Zerbo. Non-proliferation and arms control may sound promising in theory, but in a region where several states have developed clandestine nuclear projects and where states are currently falling apart, “Israel’s wider calculus is directly linked to regional political realities.”

Second, she said, is the incomplete nature of the verification regime. There are currently two seismic monitoring stations that have not yet been established in the region, and Iran, which built a station, has bolted it shut and does not transfer data to Vienna. This is important not merely for detecting weapons tests but also in order to safeguard against false accusations. “I don’t know how many of you know, but oftentimes when there are major earthquakes in the Middle East, Israel is falsely accused of having conducted a nuclear test,” she said.

Third, she asserted that Israel, under the treaty, is a member of a regional group called MESA – Middle East and South Asia. “However, the group has been paralyzed for nearly 19 years because some members of this group who do not recognize the existence of the State of Israel block it from functioning.” This is crucial, she said, because “we want to make sure that we can be represented in the future executive council” – the body that will be in charge of enforcing the treaty once it is ratified by all eight outliers.

Finally, there is the elephant in the room: the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel is not a signatory. Zerbo, declaring a future goal of a WMD-free Middle East, referred to the CTBT as “the low-hanging fruit” and the NPT as the higher one. Zafary-Odiz would like that linkage to be banished.  “Many states in the region link their ratification of the CTBT to Israel becoming a member of the NPT,” Zafary-Odiz said. “And I think that certainly abandoning this position will demonstrate a pragmatic and practical approach to business security in the Middle East and will contribute as well to confidence building which is so lacking in the region.”

Which means, in translation from the original diplomatese, fuhgeddaboudit.

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