Mon, 24 Apr 2000

Arabs renew pressure on Israel over nukes

By Lachlan Carmichael

CAIRO (AFP): Arab states led by Egypt are renewing pressure on Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) as a key step toward ensuring a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.

Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, says Israel is sowing the seeds of future instability as the only state in the region not to have signed the 1970 treaty.

"Commitment to non-proliferation of nuclear arms should be applied to all countries in the region without exception because any exception will provoke negative reactions," Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Mussa said last month.

Without confirming or denying it has a nuclear arsenal, Israel has declined to sign the treaty amid domestic fears Iraq and Iran have programs to build not only nuclear weapons but also chemical and biological arms.

Non-Arab Iran and Iraq, along with all the other Arab states, have signed the NPT.

When the United States and other countries led a campaign in 1995 to extend the NPT, Egypt complained loudly that Israel had never inked it and showed no intention of doing so -- putting a strain on Israeli-Egyptian ties.

With a current five-year review of the treaty and a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace looming on a cloudy horizon, Egypt and other Arab countries are driving their point home again.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was to have raised the issue with U.S. President Bill Clinton during his visit to Washington late last month. Egypt also put it on the agenda of the Europe- Africa summit April 3-4.

And in mid-March Arab foreign ministers urged an NPT review conference meeting in New York later this month to issue a "clear appeal" for Israel to sign the treaty immediately and open its sites to international inspection.

Its failure to do so "represents a direct threat to international and regional security and stability," the ministers of the 22-member Arab League said in a statement during their meeting in Beirut.

They also urged NPT member countries -- especially the United States, Britain, and Russia which sponsored efforts to extend the treaty in the Middle East -- to do their utmost to make Israel sign and open up its sites.

"That will constitute a step toward the creation of a region without nuclear weapons," they said.

But with the Arabs putting the priority on nuclear weapons, Israel is stressing the threat from chemical and biological arms, often dubbed the poor man's atomic bomb.

In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak, and in the Gulf war a decade later Israelis donned gas masks when Iraq struck their cities with long-range missiles they feared might have chemical weapons.

Iraq officially admitted in 1995 that it had tried in vain to build an atomic bomb shortly before it invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

With much of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction eliminated by the 1991 U.S.-led war and subsequent UN disarmament missions, Israel is now turning to Iran as the strategic threat because of its missile capability.

But Mubarak's political advisor Ossama al-Baz has played down Israeli fears of both Iraqi and Iranian threats.

"No one can claim that Iraq is capable of possessing weapons of mass destruction," he said recently.

"Regarding Iran, President Mohammad Khatami said his country won't oppose a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, after Syria entered into negotiations" with Israel, he added.

A full Arab-Israeli peace will also rob Israel of its security arguments and Washington of its pretext for applying a policy of double standards, he asserted.

"Israel will be incapable of then repeating that it's a small state surrounded by powerful and aggressive states," he added.