Israel ‘probably’ next to ratify nuke test ban treaty — top official

Head of test ban treaty organization optimistic on visit to Jerusalem; Israeli sources ‘surprised we haven’t ratified it already’

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

South Korean protesters burn an effigy of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during an anti-North Korea rally to denounce North Korea's nuclear test in February 2013.  (photo credit:AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)
South Korean protesters burn an effigy of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during an anti-North Korea rally to denounce North Korea's nuclear test in February 2013. (photo credit:AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

The head of the international organization set up to outlaw nuclear weapons testing urged Israel Wednesday to be the next country to ratify the global nuclear test ban treaty, and told The Times of Israel he thought Israel would “probably” do so.

Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the preparatory commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), held talks with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, and the head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission Shaul Chorev. In his meeting with Liberman, where participants spoke of a good rapport but no spectacular breakthrough, Zerbo promised to continue to work to help create the necessary confidence for Israel, which signed the treaty, known as the CTBT, in 1996, to proceed to ratification.

Israel is “probably the one that could ratify first” of the eight countries that must ratify the treaty before it takes effect, Zerbo told The Times of Israel. “The message I’m getting is not ‘if” but ‘when’,” he said.

Israeli sources later told The Times of Israel that, while they knew of no dramatic current initiative to have the CTBT ratified, a process that requires Knesset approval, they were surprised that Israel had not already ratified it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear that he considers the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to be of no use in the Middle East, the sources said, but by contrast Israel considers the CTBT to be “very significant,” is “proud” to have signed it, and “has never had a problem with the CTBT.”

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

Burkina Faso-born Zerbo, a geophysicist by training, said “the concerns we see from Israel are concerns that we can deal with. The trust Israel should have in this treaty is increasing.

“We have a [global] monitoring system that works; the Israeli experts are participating in our technical work, and participating in the framework of development of our site inspection capabilities,” Zerbo added, noting that Israel already hosts certified CTBTO monitoring facilities.

These are a radionuclide laboratory at the Sorek Nuclear Research Center, which Zerbo visited on Wednesday, and seismic monitoring stations in Eilat and Mount Meron. Israel also hosted a 21-country calibration experiment on infrasound technology two years ago.

The preparatory commission was established in 1997 in Vienna and works to bring the treaty banning all nuclear explosions into effect by having it ratified by the 44 countries designated to have a nuclear reactor or at least some advanced level of nuclear technology. Eight of those 44 have yet to ratify: Israel, Iran, Egypt, China, the United States, India, North Korea and Pakistan (the last of three of which have also yet to sign the treaty).

Zerbo noted that 183 nations have signed the treaty, of which 162 have ratified it — “so 90% of the world is saying ‘no’ to nuclear testing; we have to get everybody to say ‘never.'”

He noted that North Korea was unanimously condemned by the Security Council for carrying out a nuclear test last year, but that until the treaty takes effect and is enforced, there is “no mechanism for sanctions” under the UN’s aegis.

He argued that the CTBTO was providing an increasingly effective deterrent to nuclear weapons testing, as it gradually completes a unique international monitoring system, comprising seismic, infrasound, hydroacoustic and radionuclide monitoring stations and laboratories.

The seismic monitoring station at Eilat (photo credit: Courtesy CTBTO)
The seismic monitoring station at Eilat (photo credit: Courtesy CTBTO)

“There is no other organization with a sophisticated and comprehensive structure like ours,” he said, stating firmly that, “If any country tested today, we would detect it. Any country on earth, our system would detect it.”

Only the CTBTO, he said, “detected a sniff of radionuclide isotope, 50 days after the seismic event, after the explosion,” that constituted the “smoking gun” that proved North Korea had carried out a nuclear test last year. Thus, no matter how sophisticated a country’s own monitoring systems, he argued, “we showed we can add value, add something to their own national security.”

Zerbo noted that US President Barack Obama had made clear he wants to ratify the treaty, “but he doesn’t have the numbers on Capitol Hill. China, though, he said, was now making its data available via the international monitoring system — a move he called “a major milestone.”

Iran hosts a single certified monitoring facility — a seismic station in Tehran — and “has experts participating in our work,” he said.

Acknowledging widespread mistrust and hostility in the Middle East and beyond, which would seem to make the prospect of the treaty attaining the necessary ratifications unlikely, Zerbo said all eight of the holdout countries “are concerned about their own national security,” but argued that “the treaty can enhance the national security of all those countries.”

He also noted that “geopolitical conditions can change radically and drastically. Who would have imagined a year ago that we would be dismantling chemical weapons in Syria?” That process, he argued, showed that “we can solve issues through multilateral effort.”

If it came into force, the treaty “can stop people from doing the testing that is a necessary component prior to building a nuclear weapon” and would thus deal with proliferation. It would also prevent existing nuclear weapons powers from developing more sophisticated weapons. Beyond that, “maybe they can consider disarmament,” he suggested. “I’m hoping that we will not have to wait for a disaster, as far as the CTBT is concerned, to act.”

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