Official Israel was on Thursday maintaining a stony silence, but insiders said they were concerned that the Obama administration might not block new efforts by a UN conference to force Israel to come clean on its nuclear capabilities as a step toward a nuclear-free Middle East.
The United States has sent a top official to Israel to discuss the question of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, a central issue of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference that is set to adopt its closing resolutions on Friday.
At the previous conference, in 2010, to Israel’s dismay, the Obama administration signed onto the final document which called for a conference of all Middle Eastern states to move forward on a 1995 proposal for a nuclear-free Mideast and which urged Israel to sign the NPT treaty and place “all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards.” Later, though, President Barack Obama and his then national security adviser James Jones denounced efforts to single out Israel.
“We strongly oppose efforts to single out Israel, and will oppose actions that jeopardize Israel’s national security,” Obama said. And Jones said he “deplores” the singling out of Israel, which he said placed the prospect of the planned conference in doubt.
On Thursday, the State Department confirmed that Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, was in Israel to discuss the NPT issue. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman declined comment on Countryman’s visit, saying it was a “very sensitive” matter. Other officials also refused to comment.
Two insiders, both speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, raised concerns that the US might be backing away from the 2010 pledge to ensure Israel’s security was not jeopardized on the issue. One said there was concern that the US might take a position that breached this pledge. The other said “it seems possible that there is a change there.” The insiders said the issue was still fluid, with the final texts of the New York conference still being debated.
In a column for Bloombergview.com on Wednesday, writer Eli Lake said the Israeli government was worried the US would allow the conference “to adopt a resolution that could compel Israel to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal.”
He quoted a senior Israeli government official saying, “Israel is increasingly concerned that the United States is not going to prevent the NPT review conference… from adopting a resolution on the Middle East that would jeopardize Israel’s national security.”
However, Lake also quoted Bernadatte Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, disputing this. The US, Meehan said, was working to ensure the final text “meets our interests and those of Israel.” She added: “Both the United States and Israel support the creation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. We are working closely with our Israeli partners to advance our mutual interests, including preserving the NPT.”
Obama said in 2010 that the US backs a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, but he stressed that “a comprehensive and durable peace in the region and full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and nonproliferation obligations are essential precursors for its establishment.”
Lake’s piece further indicated, however, that the US might not be able to block a problematic decision even if it wanted to. Acting on an Egyptian proposal, he wrote, the Spanish delegation is pushing for the UN secretary general to be authorized to convene a conference on a nuclear-free Middle East, even without consensus support from the US, Russia and Britain, as previously required.
Nonetheless, even though the US might be powerless to stop it, “the adoption of such a resolution would contradict a US commitment made to Israel as publicly stated in 2010 by President Obama and then National Security Adviser James Jones,” the unnamed Israeli official told Lake.
But Meehan discounted this prospect too. “This administration and this president do not break commitments to our Israeli partners, and any suggestion to the contrary is offensive,” she told Lake.
US Secretary of State John Kerry this month called the proposed nuclear-free zone an “ambitious goal and fraught with challenges” but worth pursuing.
The president of the review conference, Taous Feroukhi of Algeria, on Wednesday pleaded with countries to close the “still wide” gaps on major issues under disarmament and nonproliferation.
“I have nothing substantive to share with you. This is the problem,” she said. “Please, I need your help.” She set a deadline of Thursday afternoon for a draft text that can be shared with countries’ capitals for possible action on Friday.
The review conference for the landmark Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty takes place just every five years, and a failure to agree on a way forward would highlight the growing frustration of countries without nuclear weapons to get the nuclear-armed ones to take concrete steps to disarm.
Israel is not a party to the treaty but showed up this year as a surprise observer. It blamed its Arab neighbors for the failure of progress toward achieving a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, saying that after five rounds of consultations with some of its Arab neighbors in Switzerland between October 2013 and June 2014 on a possible agenda, the other states discontinued the meetings.
Israel did not say why the talks were discontinued, but noted that the consultations were “the first direct engagement between Israel and its neighbors on this issue in over 20 years.”
Iran, a party to the treaty and engaged in talks with world powers on its own nuclear program seen by many as a major regional threat, this month spoke on behalf of more than 100 mostly developing countries in calling for Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, calling them a regional threat.
Israel has never publicly declared what is widely considered to be an extensive nuclear weapons program.
AP contributed to this report.