Israel and the entire Middle East are approaching a stark existential choice: a nuclear holocaust or a nuclear-free Middle East. "Israel will almost surely attack Iran's nuclear sites in the next four to seven months," said Benny Morris, a well-connected professor of Middle Eastern history at Israel's Ben-Gurion University, in a recent New York Times op-ed. Morris also predicted that should the attack fail, "a ratcheting up of the Iranian-Israeli conflict to a nuclear level" will occur. Indeed, Israel's air force recently practiced manoeuvres for such a strike, and Iran responded by test-firing a missile that can retaliate against Israel. In a desperate effort to assure its local nuclear monopoly, Israel is in danger of courting national suicide.
Can new diplomatic strategies be launched before the hawks take to the air? No question is more important for international security, yet no conventional solution, diplomatic or military, seems likely to resolve it. Even if Israelis did not believe that an Iranian bomb is an existential threat, the consequences of letting Iran proceed with its nuclear weapons program are grim. Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, all wary of a nuclear-armed Iran, are only a few of the nations in the region that have recently shown a renewed interest in nuclear technology.
How are the Americans and Israelis going to deal with this threat? Serial bombing? That is an admission of failure, not a foreign policy. It is a prescription for an escalating series of wars that could eventually lead to Israel's destruction. A solution requires thinking beyond the conventional wisdom. It requires a grand initiative that would fundamentally change relationships in the Middle East.
The key to unlocking a dynamic and comprehensive peace process is Israel's (unacknowledged) nuclear arsenal. To date its purpose has been to deter an overwhelming conventional attack. But absent radical change, the region will eventually become crowded with unstable, nuclear-armed states. The threat of a Middle East bristling with nuclear weapons should be as terrifying to Arab states as it is to Israel. In such a dangerous environment it is inevitable that Israelis will have diminishing confidence in their deterrent. Under the circumstances, it is prudent to consider what might be done, other than bombing Iran. There are sanctions, of course, but few informed Iran scholars believe sanctions will produce the desired results.
Although the outlook seems dire, Iran's nuclear ambitions -- and Israel's nuclear arsenal -- may have created a diplomatic opportunity. Does Israel's arsenal have value beyond military deterrence? Can it be traded for the security and stability Israel has sought since its inception? Can Israel formulate a "Grand Design for a Nuclear-Free Middle East" linked to a transformative settlement of the issues that have troubled the region since 1948? Is it possible for Israel to be more secure in a nuclear-free Middle East than it is today? The answer to all of these questions is a qualified yes. It's difficult to be optimistic about any Middle East peace initiative, but what is the penalty for trying?
A strategy of peaceful atomic diplomacy is certainly worth pursuing, provided Israel can receive sufficient security guarantees from the United States, the UN, the EU, Iran and its Arab neighbors. It should go without saying that there must be unanimous agreement by all that Israel has the right to exist. To initiate this proposal, Israel (with US support) need only suggest a regional conference. In fact, that first step has been taken: In July, at French President Nicolas Sarkozy's Mediterranean conference, Israel, Syria and the Palestinians signed an agreement to "pursue a mutually and effectively verifiable Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction." To argue whether the signatories were sincere misses the point. The agreement is an opening, a first tentative step that legitimizes discussion of a nuclear-free Middle East. It should thus be pursued by every nation that desires peace and stability in the region.
This initiative is not a case of local idealism. Since January 2007, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn, all cold war nuclear hawks, have twice published Wall Street Journal op-eds calling for the global abolition of nuclear weapons. "Nuclear weapons today present tremendous dangers, but also an historic opportunity," they wrote. "US leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage -- to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world."
The United States must lead this global transformation and in the process do everything possible to support an Israeli effort to create a stable, secure future in a nuclear-free Middle East. The alternative -- the military option, so shortsighted and fraught with dangerous unintended consequences -- would set yet another new standard for government incompetence and human stupidity.
Jonathan Schell is the author of The Fate of the Earth, among other books, and the just-published The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger. He is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at The Nation Institute, and a visiting lecturer at Yale University.
Martin J. Sherwin won the Pulitzer Prize as co-author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
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