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A Political Victory at the IAEA: But for the Right Reason?

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ended its week-long annual General Conference (GC) in late September 2010. In one of its last acts, the GC defeated yet another attempt to pass a resolution calling on Israel to adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to place all of its nuclear installations under IAEA safeguards. While a similar resolution was accepted at last year’s GC, this time the Arab states, led by Egypt, failed to secure a majority.

Israeli_Air_ForceEven if the resolution had been accepted it would not have had practical implications for Israel, nor would it have caused a change in Israel’s nuclear policy. The IAEA – established in 1957, thirteen years before the NPT came into force – is not an NPT organization. The IAEA safeguards nuclear activities of states, but the specific relationship between the IAEA and the NPT derives from the fact that the IAEA was assigned to safeguard the nuclear activities of all NPT member states. Israel (as well as India, Pakistan and North Korea) is not a member of the NPT, and as such only some of its activities are safeguarded by the IAEA. Joining any international treaty is of course the sole prerogative of every sovereign state, in accordance with its interests. Therefore, a call to join a treaty – especially when coming from an organization that is not itself an integral part of the NPT – can have at best declaratory value. But at times when pressures on Israel in the nuclear realm are on the rise, declarations matter. In this sense, what happened at the IAEA GC was a political victory for both Israel and the US, albeit not a major one.

The relatively large number of abstentions in the latest IAEA vote (including those delegates that did not vote at all) was a reflection of a decision on the part of some developing countries not to heed the current efforts of the Arab bloc. Instead, they chose to adhere to the reasoning emphasized by US delegates at the IAEA – basically, that this was not an auspicious time to pass such a resolution. It would not achieve anything concrete, would surely antagonize Israel, and most important, would risk disrupting other more important activities.

The two leading reasons given by the US delegates to convince states to vote against the resolution emphasized first, that a vote against Israel could disrupt the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that had begun only a few weeks earlier; and second, that such a vote would give Israel reason to resist participating in the conference on a weapons of mass destruction-free zone (WMDFZ) planned for 2012, according to a clause in the final resolution of the NPT Review Conference (RevCon) held this past May. What the US delegates did not emphasize (according to media reports) is that pressure on Israel to join the NPT was unwarranted as long as Israel faces serious regional threats to its security and survival, and that it is deplorable to single out Israel in this way. Israel has been consistent throughout the years in presenting this reality as the only rationale for not joining the NPT.

American (and Israeli) efforts to convince a number of states to change their vote at the IAEA meeting were successful, and it can be argued that this is what counts. Still, the reasons that were used for this purpose are nevertheless somewhat unsettling, due to their possible implications.

That actions that might upset the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians should be avoided is reasonable. But raising the proposed 2012 conference on a WMDFZ in the context of efforts to forestall passing the new resolution is a different matter. In the dynamic that preceded the NPT RevCon, Egypt campaigned to advance an agenda at the RevCon that was designed to pressure Israel in the nuclear realm. Reports at the time relayed that the US was negotiating with Egypt to abandon or at least moderate this agenda but that Egypt was pressing hard. Indeed, Egypt threatened to deny a consensus final document of the conference if its agenda was not accepted, knowing that the Obama administration very much wanted the RevCon to result in a consensus document. For this reason Iran and Syria were not mentioned in the final document.

The result of this Egyptian attempt to blackmail the administration was a partial victory for Egypt in that Israel was called on by name to join the NPT, and the idea of the 2012 conference was included. Thus for the US to urge states at the IAEA conference not to alienate Israel on the idea of the 2012 conference, when only several months earlier it had supposedly been pressured into accepting this idea, seems strange. What is the US position on the conference? It would seem from the IAEA dynamic that the US is now behind the idea, and that Israel should not expect that its resistance to participating in the conference will be accepted by the US. Indeed, after "saving" Israel from the IAEA vote, expectations of Israel to return the favor by playing along with regard to the conference are likely to be reinforced.  One can only wonder if this was not the original US (tacit) position at the RevCon.

All this is not to say that the idea of a conference on a WMDFZ is necessarily a bad one; the point, rather, is the problematic way the US is using the idea in the overall debate on Israel's nuclear posture. In this sense, it is certainly cause for concern that the US delegates did not use the same rationales for not pressuring Israel at the IAEA conference that they had voiced surrounding the NPT RevCon – namely, that Israel joining the NPT is something that can only occur under much changed regional conditions in the Middle East. This is the most important reason why pressure on Israel to take this step cannot be accepted. It goes to the heart of the matter, whereas the rationales that were used by the administration are tactical. And a quid pro quo might be forthcoming.


The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs.


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