Talk of ridding the Middle East of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) has been heard for years, but no efforts have been made to bring this closer. Whenever Arab states raised the issue, for example at the United Nations, instantly doubt would be cast on their motives, and their efforts would be perceived as a veiled attempt to point fingers at Israel, which is known to have huge arsenals of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
The UN has lacked credibility whenever it raised the issue, because of the careful avoidance of mentioning Israel in any serious way. The 1991 Security Council Resolution 687, which ended the first Iraq war, clearly called for all countries to work to rid the region, not just Iraq, of WMD. Yet, all the focus has been on Iraq, even though, it was clear as early as 1994, despite propaganda to the contrary, that it had been already effectively disarmed.
Iraq’s recklessness has provided a convenient cover for the UN and its powerful states to hide their timidness when it comes to confronting Israel and its American sponsor. But the unwillingness to confront Israel has also meant that it has been too embarrassing to target other countries’ WMDs on a purely subjective and selective basis. Hence, stalemate.
Now, in the wake of the US occupation of Iraq, we see a new kind of effort towards “disarmament”. This involves the US, principally, but also its British subordinate, pressing for the unilateral disarmament of Israel’s adversaries, not in order to make the region safer, but simply to ensure continued Israeli military hegemony. To be sure, the US obsession with Iraq was in large part driven by Israel’s agenda, which is well represented within the complex US policy-making process. Now with Iraq totally disarmed and occupied, attention has swiftly shifted to others, notably Iran, Libya and Syria. The Bush administration’s high concern with these countries contrasts with its relaxed and careless attitude towards North Korea, which certainly has a far more advanced nuclear programme than any of these countries, if not already nuclear bombs. It is no coincidence, of course, that Iran, Libya and Syria are adversaries of Israel. Barely a day passes without one or another Israeli official declaring Iran to be the greatest “threat” to Israel.
Iran has reacted wisely to this growing pressure, cooperating fully with the UN and its International Atomic Energy Agency. This approach takes away any excuse for aggression against Iran. Despite this, however, the level of hostility towards Iran that exists in Washington and Tel Aviv means that one cannot be sure there will ever be enough that Iran can do to spare itself their wrath.
As far as Libya is concerned, what appears to have happened is an arrangement of convenience for Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, President George Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. As the satirical British magazine Private Eye brilliantly rendered it, Qadhafi promised to give up his “weapons of nonexistence”, which means he pledged to “get rid of all the weapons that he does not possess and cease manufacture of any more weapons of the type he hasn’t been making”. (9 January 2004)
Libya’s surprise announcement handed Bush and Blair a propaganda victory that allowed them to claim that the war on Iraq was vindicated and that their show of force convinced other “rogue states” to come clean. Libya had its own reasons for signing up to this doubtful show, mainly to rehabilitate itself from the pariah status it had earned in the 1980s. But Libya’s unconditional surrender has given undue credibility to the US method of putting selective, unilateral pressure on targeted states, completely bypassing the international arms control apparatus.
With the United States acting alone, countries that are accused have no chance but to submit, because their denial that they have weapons are simply ignored. To be accused by the US of having WMD is effectively the same as really having them.
With Libya under its belt, the US is now turning up the pressure on Syria. But the Syrian case is fundamentally different. Syria is in direct conflict with Israel and hence the only legitimate comparison is Israel, not Libya, Iran or South Korea.
Whenever Israel’s WMD are brought up, the standard defence of Israel is that it is a tiny country surrounded by vicious enemies that want to destroy it and therefore its possession of nuclear and other weapons ought to be tolerated until the Arab-Israeli conflict is completely resolved. In other words, Israel must be treated as the only state exempt from all laws and norms, because of a set of utterly untrue premises.
It is untrue because despite the official history that must be repeated in the United States, Israel was the aggressor in each and every war with its neighbours. Israel began its war for Arab territory in 1947, long before a single Syrian soldier advanced towards the border with Palestine in May 1948. In 1956, Israel, in conspiracy with France and Britain, launched an unprovoked invasion of Egypt. In 1967, Israel launched a surprise attack on Egypt, Syria and Jordan and conquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan and Sinai. As Baruch Kimmerling has documented in his recent book, `Politicide’, no fewer than three Israeli prime ministers admitted that Israel knew that it was not in danger from Arab states in 1967, but chose that moment to conquer territory it had always coveted. Only the 1973 war was started by Arab states. In this case, Egypt and Syria did not attack Israel, but their own occupied land, in an entirely legitimate attempt to liberate it.
In 1982, Israel launched an invasion of Lebanon, which killed more than 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, not in order to protect itself against “terrorism”, as it always claims, but for the explicit political goal of liquidating the Palestinian nation and turning Lebanon into a pro-Israeli client state. Today, Israel continues to occupy the lands of millions of people and to freely launch attacks on its neighbours. In 1997, it even attempted the assassination of one of its opponents, Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal — using a chemical weapon — on the soil of Jordan, with which it has signed a peace treaty.
Whatever claims Israel makes about the past, today it cannot claim to be “surrounded” by enemies. It has full peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Syria and Lebanon, despite Israeli rejectionism, continue to offer to negotiate full peace in return for their occupied land, in accordance with the Madrid formula. Iraq is no longer an independent state, and all the Gulf Arab states combined have neither the capacity nor the intention to do Israel any harm.
Israel’s essential conflict is with the Palestinians, on whose usurped land it was established. As bloody as this conflict is, the Palestinians have no weapons of mass destruction nor can Palestinians or Israelis use such weapons against each other because to do so would first and foremost be suicide.
Apartheid South Africa, which Israel increasingly resembles in the eyes of the world, taught another lesson: the nuclear weapons which the apartheid regime developed with Israeli assistance were no defence against a majority population struggling for its freedom.
As a matter of principle, weapons of mass destruction should not be tolerated because they are illegal and immoral. If efforts to free the region of these weapons are to be taken seriously, they ought to start with the only country that actually possesses nuclear weapons and is currently threatening and occupying its neighbours.
The writer is former ambassador and permanent representative of Jordan at the UN.