• U.S.

Middle East: The Ban That Isn’t

2 minute read

If a Middle East peace conference is a nonstarter, how about arms-control talks? Stymied in his efforts to bring Arabs and Israelis to the negotiating table, President Bush launched a new initiative last week. In two brief paragraphs of a commencement speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy, he called for a Middle Eastern regional ban on chemical and biological weapons and a freeze on the acquisition of ballistic missiles and nuclear arms.

Conventional weapons such as the planes, tanks and artillery that continue to flood the area should be constrained if they are “destabilizing,” Bush said, but the U.S. still backs “the legitimate need of every state to defend itself.” The President would like representatives of the big five arms sellers — the U.S., Soviet Union, Britain, France and China — to meet in Paris in a few weeks to exchange views, but no date or agenda has been set.

Bush’s aides were not certain how the proposal might be carried out. It is the start of a “cooperative consultative process,” said one. But the process already appears something less than cooperative. Israel, the only state in the region with nuclear weapons, feels singled out. The Israelis want to begin with curbs on conventional arms, where the Arab states have the edge.

The Soviet Union and China have not even agreed to attend the Paris meeting. Beijing has repeatedly refused to take part in existing international controls on the transfer of missile technology and insists its own sales are always responsible. Meanwhile, French President Francois Mitterrand and British Prime Minister John Major were planning to announce their own proposals.

Nor was the U.S. a model of restraint last week. The day after Bush spoke, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told the Israeli government that Washington would pick up most of the development cost for Israel’s new antimissile missile, the Arrow. The U.S. is giving the Jewish state 10 used F-15 fighters and, said Cheney, will make sure the Israelis “maintain their qualitative edge.” Cheney also said Israel has promised to store U.S. military equipment for American use in future emergencies, an arrangement Washington is negotiating with some of the gulf states as well.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com