Obama Takes a Small Step

By George S. Hishmeh – Washington D.C.
 
Benjamin Netanyahu has done it again. The Israeli prime minister has dug his head this time deeper 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 President Obama. Israel was only represented by a cabinet minister at this largest assemblage of several heads of state in the U.S. capitol in 60 years as when President Theodore Roosevelt helped launch the United Nations.
 
Much to Obama’s credit, the world leaders in their final statement endorsed his call for securing vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. But missing from the communique was any suggestion as to how that goal would be achieved particularly among countries like Israel, Pakistan and India who have not signed the 1970 non-proliferation treaty (NPT), or “non-state actors" — Al-Qaeda or like-minded groups — from obtaining nuclear technology or materials. 
 
However, and probably to the satisfaction of many in the Middle East, the American president took the unprecedented American step by calling on Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which came  into effect in early 1970 and has 189 signatories. Israel has always maintained a policy of “opacity” regarding its own nuclear weapons program. Disappointingly, Obama made his point at a short news conference – not at the international conference – when he dodged a question from a Washington Post reporter about pressing Israel to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal. “I’m not going to comment on (Israel’s nuclear) program,” he replied.
 
At his first press conference as president, Obama had dodged this question from Helen Thomas, the renowned American-Lebanese journalist and longtime White House correspondent.  She wanted to know whether he knows of any Middle Eastern country that possesses nuclear weapons. Obama skipped the question and the microphone was removed from her as she was reminding him that he did not answer her question. (She has promised to repeat the question should he call on her again at future press conferences. But, disappointingly, he has not for over a year.)
  
Israel’s nuclear arsenal has all along been a  key issue for all in the Middle East, a point underlined by the Saudi Arabian delegate at the Washington conference on nuclear security, Prince Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz, head of Saudi intelligence, who declared that  “Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons constitutes a fundamental obstacle to the achievement of security and stability in the Middle Eastern region.”
 
Another likely reason for Netanyahu to skip Washington is his continued failure to submit in writing his commitment to 13 demands reportedly requested by Obama at their infamous meeting last month, in pursuit of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. These include a two-year deadline to the peace negotiations and a guarantee that Israel will not build in Arab neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem.
 
Remindful of what happened to the U.S. vice president, Joe R. Biden, Jr., when he visit Israel last month, there was a shocking revelation this week (by Amira Hass of Haaretz) that a new military order aimed at preventing “infiltration “into Israel or Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories 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 has grabbed instantaneous international condemnation but not any counter-measures.
 
These threatened Palestinians were either from Gaza but lived in the West Bank for one reason or another, or they may have lost their residency cards. Some may also be foreign-born spouses of Palestinians. The measures were branded as “ethnic cleansing” or typical of apartheid. Ten Israeli human rights organizations had earlier appealed without much success to Defense Minister Ehud Barak to freeze the orders, which were issued on October 13, 2009, with the provision they come into force within six months.
 
Another attempted Israeli distraction has been its frantic call this week on all the thousands of 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, assumedly to exchange them with Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.  The high alert, according to early Israeli press reports, has initially been disregarded by the vacationers.
  
The continued western silence over Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, which is believed to have “supplanted Britain as the world’s fifth largest nuclear power and now rivals France and China”, seemed puzzling, especially when compared with the verbal bombardment of Iran over its nuclear ambitions. This has been the case with several U.S. administrations since the Nixon administration and Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir had endorsed the so-called “nuclear ambiguity” stance.
 
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.” May be so, but regardless of Obama’s backhanded call on Israel to sign the non-proliferation treaty, his commitment for a two-state solution requires firmer action from the American president.

– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: hishmehg@aol.com.

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