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Nuclear-free Middle East might be the answer

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War drums are beating in the Middle East once again. A surgical strike by Israel, the United States or both on Iran’s nuclear reactors will only delay but not prevent the Islamic Republic from eventually acquiring such capability.

The debate over the proper response to Iran’s nuclear drive has entailed two distinct short-term policies: sanctions and negotiations and military strike, and one long-term policy of containment, which has been rejected by the American and Israeli governments. Each policy has its supporters and opponents, but the question remains — what would happen in the not-too-distant future if other countries such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia, in addition to Iran, also attempt to embark on a nuclear path? Would those countries become the next targets for military action?

Two long-term alternatives to the current escalating tensions between Israel and Iran ought to be considered, so war is avoided and a nuclear arms race is prevented. The first alternative would make Israel a member of NATO, protected by the "one-for-all, all-for-one" policy of the 28-member alliance, leading to a new security architecture that would deter Iran and guarantee Israel’s long-term survival.

The second would be an agreement to transform the Middle East into a nuclear-free-zone. This December, the Non Proliferation Treaty conference, supported by 189 countries, will meet in Finland to discuss this issue.

Injecting the alliance’s reach into the Middle East could provide it with a renewed sense of mission in the post-Cold War environment, especially as the NATO combat presence in Afghanistan is about to draw down in two years.

However, there are several obstacles to an Israeli membership: Turkey, Israel’s estranged ally, the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israel’s own identity as a self-reliant power.

Israeli-Turkish relations deteriorated significantly after the Gaza flotilla incident in May 2010. In all likelihood, Turkey will veto Israel’s accession (all existing members of the alliance must approve the admission of a new member). However, re-engagement with Turkey is a vital Israeli national interest as well as a NATO interest.

Perhaps Israeli membership in NATO could become part of the "reconciliation package" between the two countries. A possible incentive for Turkey is to link resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to the accession process. Turkey, which regards itself as a champion of the Palestinian cause, could be offered a special role to restart the derailed Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Failure to make real progress in this issue will likely result in resumption of large-scale violence in the occupied territories, a development dreaded by most Israelis and could spell a serious overload to the overstretched Israeli Defense Forces.

Ironically, Israel could prove to be the staunchest opponent of its own NATO membership. Israel’s national ethos espouses self-reliance and the motto "never again" is ingrained in the nation’s collective psyche. The notion that the international community is taking responsibility for the country’s security and survival might be difficult for Israelis to swallow, especially if the Palestinian question is also linked to Israeli membership in NATO. But as long as the Palestine issue remains unresolved, the survival of Israel as a Jewish state will continue to be challenged as is the case now with Iran.

The second option, would transform the Middle East to a nuclear-free-zone. Such a proposal was endorsed numerous times by the UN General Assembly, and President Obama regards this issue as a component of his vision of a nuclear-free world.

Israel, the only country in the region with a nuclear arsenal, has developed over the years a formidable capability, including submarine-based cruise missiles carrying nuclear warheads — considered as Israel’s second-strike capability.

Israel, however, having never admitted publicly it possesses nuclear bombs, objects to the idea of a nuclear-free-zone. Nuclear weapons have always been regarded by Israel as an ultimate trump card and a guarantee of its survival. But a close scrutiny of the Jewish state’s long-term interests indicates that a nuclearized Middle East is a serious threat to the country’s own longevity. Israel must realize it cannot maintain a nuclear monopoly forever.

There are no quick-fix, short-term solutions to nuclearization of the region. Israeli membership in NATO or the establishment of a nuclear-free-zone are types of a long-term structural solution to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East that policymakers should seriously consider as the foundations of a new security system in the most volatile region of the world.


Yehuda Lukacs is associate provost for international programs and director of the Center for Global Education, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.


—McClatchy Tribune Services

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