Finding the way to Helsinki

NPT conference has been postponed indefinitely, a shame considering new poll shows Israelis favor nuclear free Israel.

Bibi netanyahu (photo credit: JPost Staff)
Bibi netanyahu
(photo credit: JPost Staff)
In the span of one week at the end of last month, two major events occurred: First, a cease-fire ending the escalating conflagration between Israel and Hamas in Gaza was reached, and second, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution granting Palestine non-member state status. During that same week, away from the spotlight trained on these dramatic events, and no doubt in some measure influenced by them, something else -- with potentially enormous impact on the future of the Middle East – also happened. To very little notice, a long-anticipated conference that was to take place in Helsinki was postponed indefinitely. The international gathering had the aim of banning nuclear weapons in the region. 
The US, UK, Russia, and the UN were slated to be sponsors of the talks.  On November 23, US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland announced the postponement, citing the reason as being the “present condition in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.” 
The decision to hold a special conference on a nuclear-free Middle East was made in 2010, during a meeting of states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  The NPT’s objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to further the goal of nuclear disarmament around the world. Since its rollout in 1970, 190 parties have signed the treaty. Israel – widely understood to hold a stockpile of nuclear weapons while maintaining a policy of “nuclear ambiguity” – has not.  Before postponement of the conference was announced, Israel had apparently decided not to attend. 
Given the heightened turbulence in the region, it’s hardly surprising that the conference was postponed – but it is disappointing. In early November, a meeting was held in Brussels that was attended by delegations from Israel, Iran, and about ten Arab states, and moderated by US and European officials, to discuss whether the conference would be held. The Israeli team was led by Jeremy Issacharoff, an ambassador for strategic affairs at its foreign ministry; Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the long-serving ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, represented Iran. According to The Guardian newspaper, the mood at the meeting was described as "respectful and positive," and devoid of “fireworks” and “denunciations.” 
Unfortunately, these positive signs didn’t lead to the hoped-for December conference. Instead, there is now talk of convening in the Spring of 2013.
In the face of an Iranian regime that may well be moving toward nuclear weapons capability – regardless of what deterrent actions are taken – a Middle East free from weapons of mass destruction is all the more urgent.  Israel is on record as favoring the objective, but only if it can be achieved in the context of overall peace with its neighbors.
Which brings us to an illuminating poll of Israeli public opinion conducted at the end of November at the Brookings Institution by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. The survey found that 87 percent of Israelis think it is either very likely or somewhat likely that Iran will eventually develop nuclear weapons. Overall, half the sample oppose any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and only one in five believe an attack would delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by more than five years. But here’s the most striking finding: Respondents were asked whether they favor or oppose a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East (that would include both Islamic countries and Israel) and assuming an inspection system was shown to be fully effective. 58 percent of the Israelis polled replied that they would be in favor of such an agreement. 
In other words, even in the current climate of threats and unrest, a sizeable majority of Israelis would tender their country’s arsenal of atomic weapons in exchange for regional nuclear disarmament.
But what about the Israeli government’s insistence that nuclear disarmament can only happen alongside comprehensive peace with all its neighbors?  The Saban poll found, soberingly, that half of Israelis don’t believe lasting peace with the Palestinians will ever happen. Though on the flip side, a majority is ready to accept the Arab Peace Initiative – under which Israel would withdraw to the 1967 borders and a peace agreement with all Arab states would be established – as the basis for negotiations.  In other words, most Israelis favor negotiations, along the lines proposed by the Arab states and echoed elsewhere, toward comprehensive peace. 
All of which suggests that most Israelis are waiting for leaders who will counter their pessimism and move the country – through negotiations toward a two state solution -- in the direction of peace with its neighbors.  It also suggests that Israel ought to be booking seats for Helsinki next spring.
The writer is an attorney and is president of Boston Workmen’s Circle, a 110 year-old community organization dedicated to Jewish education, culture, and social justice.