As war in the Middle East threatens to spread, nuclear disarmament is imperative

Israel is, and has long been, a nuclear-armed state — the only one in the Middle East — though this fact has never been officially acknowledged. For decades, the Israeli government has maintained a policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” neither confirming nor denying it possesses the bomb.

And the United States and most western governments, at the expense of their credibility as advocates for non-proliferation, have played along.  

But with the risk that the war in Gaza is morphing into a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran that could draw in more nuclear-armed states on different sides (given U.S. support for Israel and Russia’s growing support for Iran), clearly the time has come for urgent action to ensure nuclear weapons are not used in the Middle East.  

The tit-for-tat drone and missile strikes between Israel and Iran since the Israeli attack on the Iranian embassy compound in Syria last month seem to be calibrated not to provoke an all-out war. But that is an approach fraught with the risk of miscalculation and cannot be relied on to prevent a wider conflict.  

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has raised the alarm that Israel could attack Iranian nuclear facilities, which Israel alleges are a covert nuclear weapons program. For their part, the IAEA and U.S. have expressed concern about Iranian intentions, without accusing it of planning to develop weapons, and called for it to return to compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.  

There is also the threat Israel could use its own nuclear weapons, as politicians from Israel’s governing coalition have already talked about the possibility. It’s an idea some U.S. politicians, including most recently, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), have appeared to endorse.  

When a member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, Amihai Eliyahu, spoke of dropping a nuclear bomb on the people of Gaza, the Israeli leader immediately slapped him down. But such threats, even from a junior minister, raise a justifiable concern about Israel’s vague and ambiguous nuclear intentions.

For years, Arab states and Iran have vocally objected to Israel’s nuclear arsenal — thought to comprise around 90 warheads. Their calls for Israel to eliminate these weapons have grown louder during the current Gaza war.  

The U.S. and the rest of the international community must be clear-eyed about the need for nuclear disarmament in any long-term peace settlement in the Middle East. We need to dispense with the pretense of ambiguity and have an honest and open discussion about Israel’s nuclear weapons and why they must be eliminated, particularly given that they clearly have not had any deterrent effect against conventional attacks.  

Israel and its key allies have long demanded, as a condition for their future recognition of Palestinian statehood, that Palestine be completely “demilitarized” to ensure Israel’s long-term security. But there is an imperative, too, for Israel to move in the same direction — first and foremost, by dismantling its nuclear arsenal — for the security of Palestinians, Israelis and the entire world.  

Equally, Israel and the international community have been adamant that Iran must not use its nuclear program to develop nuclear weapons. The current impasse in reviving the nuclear deal, following then-President Trump’s decision to abandon it in 2018, could be superseded by a grand compromise that sees a nuclear-free Middle East.

To this end, Israel and the other countries in the region, along with all other nuclear-armed states, should join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) as the only existing international treaty that provides a pathway towards fair and verifiable disarmament.  

Negotiated and adopted at the United Nations in 2017 with the backing of 122 states, it established a legally binding, multilateral framework for eliminating nuclear weapons.  

In Israel’s case, once it has destroyed its stockpile of nuclear warheads, it should also accede to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Notably, the state of Palestine is already a party to both treaties, having acceded to the NPT in 2015 and ratified the TPNW in 2018.  

At the same time, Israel should engage with the process to establish a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. This proposal was first made in the 1970s, but it has gained traction since 2019 with the establishment of a negotiating conference at the UN that is scheduled to meet annually until a treaty is achieved. While it enjoys strong support from Arab states and Iran, Israel has so far failed to participate.  

More than 35,000 civilians, mostly Palestinians, have been killed by conventional weapons in the past six months; imagine what a nuclear weapon would do. 

Eliminating Israel’s nuclear weapons and ensuring that Iran or any other state in the Middle East never acquires them is vital to ensuring the long-term security of all people in the region — including, not least of all, Israelis. Without disarmament, true peace will remain elusive, and the threat of a nuclear conflagration will continue to loom large. 

Melissa Parke is executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. She formerly worked for the United Nations in Gaza, Kosovo, New York and Lebanon and served as Australia’s Minister for International Development. 

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