George S. Hishmeh
Gulf News (Opinion)
April 15, 2010 - 12:00am

Benjamin Netanyahu has done it again. The Israeli prime minister dug his head deep into the sand on the eve of the international conference on nuclear security held in Washington, for fear that Turkey, Egypt and others would raise the issue of Israel's unmonitored nuclear arsenal.

Typically, this extremist right-wing Israeli government took two missteps in an attempt to divert international attention over the absence of Netanyahu from the 47-nation conference initiated by US President Barack Obama. Israel was represented only by a Cabinet minister at this largest assemblage of heads of state in the US since president Franklin Roosevelt helped launch the United Nations.

Much to Obama's credit, in their final statement the world's leaders endorsed his call to secure vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. But missing from the communique was any suggestion as to how that goal would be achieved, particularly by countries such as Israel, Pakistan and India, which have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The danger Obama sees is that "non-state actors" such as Al Qaida or like-minded groups could obtain nuclear technology or materials.


Another likely reason for Netanyahu's absences from the Washington summit is his continued failure to submit in writing his commitment to 13 demands made by Obama at their infamous meeting last month, in pursuit of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. These include a two-year deadline for the peace negotiations and a guarantee that Israel will not build in Arab neighbourhoods in occupied east Jerusalem.

Whether by coincidence or design, there was a shocking revelation by Amira Hass of Haaretz that a new military order aimed at preventing "infiltration" will henceforth enable "the deportation of tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank, or their indictment on charges carrying prison terms of up to seven years." This news was met with instantaneous international condemnation, but no definitive response.

Many of the threatened Palestinians are originally from Gaza but live in the West Bank for one reason or another — others may have lost their residency status. Some may be foreign-born spouses of Palestinians. The measures proposed by Israel have been branded as "ethnic cleansing", typical of apartheid. Ten Israeli human-rights organisations had earlier appealed without much success to Defence Minister Ehud Barak to freeze the orders, which were issued on October 13, 2009, and intended to come into force within six months.

Another distraction has been the Israeli government's frantic call for all Israelis vacationing in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to return home immediately because of an alleged threat by "terrorists" to abduct Israelis and bring them back to Gaza, presumably to exchange them for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. The warning, according to Israeli press reports, has so far been disregarded by vacationing Israelis, numbering about 90,000.


Yet another smokescreen deployed by Israel concern's Iran's nuclear programme. But the main issue for all Arabs in the Middle East, as stressed by the Saudi delegate at the Washington conference on nuclear security, remains "Israel's possession of nuclear weapons [which] constitutes a fundamental obstacle to the achievement of security and stability in the Middle East region."

The continued western silence over Israel, which is believed to have "supplanted Britain as the world's fifth-largest nuclear power and now rivals France and China," is puzzling, especially when compared with the verbal bombardment of Iran over its nuclear ambitions. This has been the policy of several US administrations since the Nixon administration endorsed the so-called "nuclear ambiguity" of Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.

In this respect, Obama has up until recently been no exception, as Helen Thomas, the renowned American-Lebanese journalist and longtime White House correspondent, discovered. She asked him at his first press conference upon taking office whether he knows of any Middle Eastern country that possesses nuclear weapons. Obama skipped the question and the microphone was removed as she sought to remind him that he had not answered her question.

However, and probably to the satisfaction of many in the Middle East, the American president took the unprecedented step of calling on Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Disappointingly, Obama did this at a short news conference and not at the international conference itself, and again dodged a question from a Washington Post reporter about pressing Israel to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal. "As far as Israel goes, I'm not going to comment about their [nuclear] programme," he said.

One major London newspaper saw the absence of Netanyahu from the international conference on nuclear security as "a victory for mounting Arab and Muslim pressure on Israel over its most controversial and secret weapon." Maybe so, but regardless of Obama's call for Israel to sign the NPT, his commitment to a two-state solution requires firmer action from the American president.


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