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Israel, Arab States Talking -- But Still Deadlocked on Mideast WMD Ban

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

A Palestinian man sits waiting to cross into Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip. Egypt, Israel and other Middle Eastern nations took part in a second round of consultations on the idea of banning weapons of mass destruction from the region (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images). A Palestinian man sits waiting to cross into Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip. Egypt, Israel and other Middle Eastern nations took part in a second round of consultations on the idea of banning weapons of mass destruction from the region (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- Israeli and Arab envoys met for the second time at a Swiss resort late last month to confer on the agenda for regional talks about a possible ban on weapons of mass destruction, but some key differences remain, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

One central stumbling block: Determining which arms could be discussed, insiders tell Global Security Newswire. While Arab states insist that the focus must remain on nuclear, biological and conventional weapons and delivery systems, Israel says the role of unconventional systems cannot be discussed outside of the broader context of threats to national security in the Middle East.

"With support from Western co-conveners," Israel "pressed for inclusion" of conventional weaponry and confidence- and security-building measures "as part of the overall discussion on a WMD- [and] delivery vehicles-free zone," said one informed observer who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the behind-closed-doors consultations.

The Arab side's position was "to focus only on [a] WMD- [and related] delivery-vehicles-free zone," this source said.

Multiple insiders described the tone of the meetings last month as cordial and constructive, though.

There were "no absolute noes, no absolute yeses" to any topic under discussion, said one diplomat close to the process, suggesting that the international dialogue has the potential to continue.

The Nov. 25-26 gathering was preceded by an October confab at the same Glion location at which Israeli, Arab and Iranian officials met for the first time with the aim of sorting out an agenda for a major conference to be held in Finland.

Diplomats from Iran did not take part in the most recent Glion meetings. Key officials were said to be busy working on international talks over their country's contested nuclear program, though it was unclear whether any additional issues also were factors in the absence. Source said that Tehran had not ruled out rejoining any further WMD-free zone consultations.

The major Helsinki conference to explore the concept of a Mideast WMD ban was to have taken place last year. However, it was postponed indefinitely when the regional states -- along with convening nations Russia, the United Kingdom and United States -- were unable to agree on terms for participation.

Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava, the U.N.-sponsored facilitator for the process, is now eyeing a third session at Glion, possibly early next year, GSN has learned.

This meeting would be "to seek agreement on the modalities of the organization of the [Middle East] conference to be held in Helsinki in the first half of 2014," one source said this week. Others also close to the process confirmed discussion of that possible time frame for the Helsinki event.

However, the potential timing might be overly optimistic for the proposed talks, because modalities -- that's diplo-speak for agenda and ground rules -- "will be difficult to agree upon absent agreement on the scope and mandate of the [Middle East] conference," the insider said.

If plausible, though, an early- to mid-year Helsinki gathering could suit WMD-free-zone advocates. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy in September called for the major talks to be held "by spring 2014, at the latest."

He and other Arab leaders continue to press Laajava and the convening nations to set a date for the Helsinki conference, with or without Israeli assent to participate.

However, a key international resolution on the matter said the conference must include the voluntary participation of all states in the region. That wording has effectively given veto power to Israel or any other Mideast nation regarding whether the conference is held, several expert sources say.

Egypt has led the effort to convene the Middle East WMD discussions and has sought progress on the matter prior to the next preparatory committee meeting on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. That gathering is slated to begin in late April in New York.

To protest the 2012 postponement of the Helsinki talks, the Egyptian delegation walked out on the previous NPT preparatory meeting -- held last April in Geneva -- at which treaty member nations continued planning for a 2015 review conference.

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