Israel is attending a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference in New York today for the first time in 20 years—and it’s doing so in what looks like coordination with and out of solidarity for the Sunni Arab states that originally provoked Israel’s boycott.
Israel, though not a declared nuclear state, is widely perceived to have the region’s only bomb, and its enemies, particularly Egypt, have long criticized the country’s nuclear status at NPT conferences. In 1995, spurred by a hostile resolution, Israel withdrew from regular meetings of the NPT signatories. But now Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel all feel they have such a dangerous common enemy—Iran—that they have to stand together. Israel returned and Egypt, for its part, pointedly held its fire. One Egyptian official even said, “Our initiative for a Middle East free of non-conventional weapons is a principle. It will not change. But nothing is against Israel itself. It’s for everyone—Iran, Israel, everyone.”
But not quite everyone is on board with this new attitude towards Israel. Speaking at the conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called for a nuclear-free Middle East, an obvious dig at Israel’s undeclared stock of nuclear weapons. And perhaps more surprisingly, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry then called this proposal an “ambitious goal and fraught with challenges” but worth pursuing.
It’s a sign of how things have changed in the region when the Israelis and Sunni states are so concerned about Iran that they’re willing to bury a 20 year old hatchet. Kerry met with Zarif on the sidelines on Monday, in their first face-to-face meeting since they parted ways in Lausanne, Switzerland on April 2. We can only hope that his comments off-the-record were more pointed and realistic than his public response to Zarif’s nuclear-free proposal. Otherwise, the U.S. will certainly be seen by historians to have been whistling past an impending nuclear arms race in the Middle East.