January 2, 2015 | Commentary on United Nations, Arms Control and Nonproliferation, Israel

Israel Signs the Arms Trade Treaty: Unhelpful Appeasement for Implacable Enemies

Last Thursday, Israel signed the U.N.’s Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a treaty that supposedly prevents nations from arming terrorists and mass murderers. But in reality, the treaty’s advocates spend most of their time vehemently criticizing Israel, and, of course, the United States.

Israel is understandably tired of the relentless criticism of the way it defends itself from the murderous Islamists who want to rub it out of existence. Signing this pointless treaty — heavily criticized in the U.S. Congress — may have seemed like an easy way of pushing back in the court of world opinion against the barrage of anti-Israeli lawfare launched by left-wing activists and terrorists alike. And, as the press release from Israel’s Foreign Ministry put it, Israel does have an obvious interest in “combatting illegal arms sales . . . and preventing these weapons from reaching terrorist groups.”

But it’s not going to work. It won’t work as a strategy for combatting terrorism for the same reason that you can’t stop crime by banning it. Terrorist states — preeminently, Iran — openly oppose the treaty, and many more states that pretend to back it have neither the will nor the resources to live up to their promises. Heck, the U.S. signed the treaty in 2013, and we’ve openly violated it ourselves.

More important, though, it won’t work as a strategy for making Israel look like the good guy, because its opponents aren’t the kind of people to be persuaded by logic, evidence, reason, or history.

The ATT was the result of a lengthy campaign by a committed group of “progressive” NGOs, and there’s no one progressives love to hate more than Israel. This campaign was, in its own way, extremely impressive in its scope and sophistication, as this summary by one of its leaders makes clear. Normally, the NGOs celebrate every new signature of the ATT, but they’ve not mentioned Israel’s.

Presumably, though, Iran is pleased: it called on the U.S. to pressure Israel to sign back in May. It’s a safe bet that Iran doesn’t have Israel’s best interests at heart. But what makes the true nature of the ATT really clear are the lobbying efforts of the NGOs themselves. In five years of following this subject closely, I have  never seen the NGOs criticize Iran’s arming of Hamas — which even the U.N. admits — with anything like the venomous enthusiasm they reserve for U.S. and British arms sales to Israel.

A few examples: A recent U.S. arms sale to Israel was immediately met by activist attacks on the “heinous role that the US plays as the biggest seller of weapons globally” and as a “flagrant violation of the International Arms Trade Treaty.” Amnesty International U.K. has run a similar campaign in Britain, and the Campaign Against Arms Trade has even pursued a legal case against the British government in an effort to end Britain’s arms sales to Israel

The best example of all, though, comes from Amnesty International U.S., which in June 2014 launched a major campaign on the Hill to encourage Congress to “suspend all arms transfers to Israel” as a punishment for “Israel’s lack of accountability for human rights violations” and to ensure that U.S. arms would “not be used to commit or facilitate violations under international humanitarian and human rights law.” That infinitely flexible phrasing, of course, comes directly from the Arms Trade Treaty.

The activists always try to cover themselves with the mealy-mouthed claim that they are simply calling for an embargo on everyone, Israel and Hamas alike. The imputation that Israel and Hamas are in any way comparable is disgusting: One is a recognized and democratic state that has the inherent right of self-defense; the other is an anti-Semitic terrorist group. Nor will there be any embargo on arms to Hamas as long as Iran is doing the supplying. What the activists actually want is an embargo that affects only Israel, while leaving Iran, in practice, entirely untouched.

None of this should be a surprise. The ATT was created by groups that campaign relentlessly against Israel. It was negotiated at the U.N., on which no comment is necessary. It has been enthusiastically backed by the EU, which can’t even summon the legal competence to get Hamas designated as a terrorist group, and by a Europe that even the New York Times belatedly realizes is increasingly anti-Semitic. It receives uncritical support from a media that, as former AP correspondent Matti Friedman points out, is systemically biased against Israel. And, of course, it’s backed by the Obama administration, which has made a fetish out of trying to distance itself from Israel.

So Israel, as both an arms seller and an arms purchaser, is going to get nothing helpful out of its signature of the ATT. What it’s done is put its signature on a treaty that’s already being used to restrict its ability to defend itself.

I wish I could say I was surprised by this, but when I attended both the U.N. negotiating conferences for the treaty in 2012 and 2013, it was obvious that Israel knew it had almost no friends in the room. Its approach was to keep quiet and hope that no one would notice it. Signing the treaty is just another effort to avoid criticism. But that hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t work this time either.

 - Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Originally appeared in NRO's "The Corner"