A “WMD-Free” Middle East – Is A Disarmed Israel Even Desirable For The Region?

While the preparations for next year’s UN conference on a Middle East Nuclear & WMD Free Zone are underway, commentators are already expressing pessimism as to the possibility of such a zone being established. Even those supporting the conference expect no easy gains, and see it as the start of a long and arduous process.


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This pessimism is unfortunately well founded: the historical record for broad regional co-operation on security is rather bleak and in spite of relatively high levels of economic development, the region has seen several bloody wars. One important argument in favour of a WMD free zone is that these conflicts then would not be capable of escalating into even more disastrous nuclear war.

At the centre of Middle Eastern conflicts is that between Palestine and Israel, which feeds into all the others in various ways. The treatment of ordinary Palestinians, the regular assassinations of their leaders and continuing construction of illegal settlements provoke popular resentment throughout the region and the world as a whole. These sentiments are dealt with, and used, by regional powers in various ways. Iran supports and funds Hamas and Hezbollah, while Turkey wins ‘hearts and minds’ by championing the Palestinian cause and standing up against Israel, notably through the recent Gaza-convoys. As the decline of secular Arab nationalism centred on the individual states continues and the pan-Islam movement grows, these connections will grow stronger rather than weaker.

While Israel has no moral grounds to deny democratic regimes in Egypt, Libya and beyond, it does have legitimate security interests that may appear to be at stake. Israel has been at war with several of its Arab neighbours in the past, and remains immensely unpopular with the region’s populations. Taken together, Egypt, Jordan and Syria have more than 900 000 troops, compared to Israel’s 176 000. Granted that the US is ensuring Israel’s “Qualitative Military Edge” over its neighbours by the nature of its arms deals, this is still a potentially overwhelming imbalance of power, presently moderated by Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons. What then would be the likely consequences if Israel were to abolish their WMDs?

It is certainly not a given that this disarmament, and populist democratic regimes in the region, would precipitate an invasion or even a limited incursion into Israel or Palestine, but this is nevertheless an eventuality Israeli policy-makers would do their utmost to prevent. Considering Israel’s increasingly strained relationship with the US, it is unlikely that they could obtain more favourable arms deals than those they already have, so they would be obliged to increase their conventional forces, reversing the current trend to reduce the defence budget.

However, as Israel is already one of the most militarized countries in the world (10 percent of the population are either on active duty or in the reserves, and they spend more than 6 percent of GDP on their armed forces) there is a limit to how much they can rearm conventionally without doing harm to its economy. Even with a military build-up, Israel’s military position would be severely weakened. To have a chance of winning, or even surviving, they may be forced to strike pre-emptively in the case of a crisis – like in the 6-day war.


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Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 3  No. 2

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