Should Israel Surrender Its Chemical Weapons?

Sara Sorcher, National Journal
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Sara Sorcher, National Journal
Sept. 20, 2013, 5:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad has agreed to trans­fer his massive stock­pile of chem­ic­al weapons to in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol where they can be des­troyed, and now he is rais­ing the stakes: He says Is­rael should also rat­i­fy the glob­al treaty ban­ning the stock­pil­ing and use of weapons of mass de­struc­tion, for the sake of “sta­bil­ity in the Middle East.” His ally, Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin, is sup­port­ive, in­sist­ing that Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons ex­ist as a de­terrent to Is­rael’s mil­it­ary cap­ab­il­it­ies.

Al­though U.S. of­fi­cials have de­nounced any com­par­is­ons between Syr­ia and Is­rael, a demo­cracy that does not slaughter or gas its own people, Syr­ia’s planned dis­arm­a­ment could build mo­mentum for Is­rael to rat­i­fy the Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion—and per­haps oth­er agree­ments on nuc­le­ar and bio­lo­gic­al weapons. “There will be pres­sure on Is­rael,” pre­dicts Ely Kar­mon, seni­or re­search schol­ar at the In­sti­tute for Counter-Ter­ror­ism in Is­rael, who says the na­tion should rat­i­fy the agree­ment now, if only to elim­in­ate po­ten­tial ex­cuses for Syr­ia. “Syr­ia can use the fact that Is­rael has not rat­i­fied to post­pone the de­struc­tion of [its stock­piles] or part of the ar­sen­al.”

Is­rael signed the Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion in 1993 but re­mains one of the sev­en coun­tries in the world that are not state parties to the pact (oth­er out­liers, in ad­di­tion to neigh­bors Egypt and Syr­ia, are An­gola, My­an­mar, North Korea, and South Su­dan). The half-meas­ure sig­nals that Is­rael agrees with the treaty’s spir­it but is not bound by in­ter­na­tion­al in­spec­tions or a com­mit­ment to des­troy its own stock­piles, which the Jew­ish state will not con­firm or deny it has.

Is­rael may view its policy of am­bi­gu­ity on chem­ic­al, bio­lo­gic­al, and nuc­le­ar weapons as pro­tect­ing its self-in­terest, if only to avoid pres­sure to give them up, says Henry Sokol­ski, former deputy for non­pro­lif­er­a­tion policy at the De­fense De­part­ment and now ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Policy Edu­ca­tion Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton. But Is­rael’s stance has blocked ser­i­ous arms-con­trol ne­go­ti­ations in the re­gion, as oth­er coun­tries try to build their cap­ab­il­it­ies to chal­lenge what they per­ceive as Is­rael’s ad­vant­age. And Is­rael’s pos­ture has even con­strained dis­cus­sion between Jer­u­s­alem and Wash­ing­ton about these weapons and how they might be used.

If As­sad ac­tu­ally gives up his chem­ic­al weapons, Wash­ing­ton may seize the op­por­tun­ity “to jump-start the lar­ger WMD-free zone ef­forts,” says Jon Wolf­sth­al, a former ad­viser to Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden for nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity and a former Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil dir­ect­or for non­pro­lif­er­a­tion. Re­mov­ing Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons, the ma­jor stra­tegic threat to Is­rael on that front, “cre­ates a little breath­ing room to open up a con­ver­sa­tion,” says Wolf­sth­al, now deputy dir­ect­or of the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies at the Monterey In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies. Even without chem­ic­al weapons, Is­rael main­tains a mil­it­ary ad­vant­age in con­ven­tion­al strength (and nuc­le­ar cap­ab­il­it­ies).

Is­rael sup­ports the idea of a WMD-free zone in the­ory but is un­der­stand­ably wary of any agree­ment aimed at get­ting the Jew­ish state—which has not ac­ceded to the chem­ic­al, bio­lo­gic­al, or nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion agree­ments and is the only coun­try in the Middle East thought to pos­sess nuc­le­ar weapons — to dis­arm. It usu­ally comes down to the nuc­le­ar is­sue. “Ar­ab coun­tries typ­ic­ally gang up and say, “˜[After] Is­rael comes clean and gets rid of its nuc­le­ar weapons, then we can talk,’ “ says Thomas Moore, deputy dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies’ Pro­lif­er­a­tion Pre­ven­tion Pro­gram. Is­rael be­lieves re­gion­al stra­tegic is­sues must be ad­dressed first. The cur­rent polit­ic­al tur­bu­lence, es­pe­cially in the wake of the Ar­ab Spring, may con­vince Is­rael this is not the time to join these treat­ies.

Aside from wor­ries about Syr­ia, Is­rael also has con­cerns about the Ir­a­ni­an and Egyp­tian ar­sen­als, al­though it’s pos­sible that if As­sad fol­lows through on the dis­arm­a­ment plan and re­mains in power, Ir­an could draw the les­son that it can trade away its WM­Ds and nuc­le­ar de­terrents in ex­change for in­ter­na­tion­al le­git­im­acy.

The more im­me­di­ate ques­tion, however, is what Syr­ia does next. As­sad’s agree­ment is “only words and pa­pers,” and his stated com­pli­ance is no guar­an­tee, says Dav­id Fried­man of Is­rael’s In­sti­tute for Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Stud­ies and the former head of the Is­raeli mil­it­ary’s Chem­ic­al/Bio­lo­gic­al Pro­tec­tion Di­vi­sion. As­sad still claims he did not use chem­ic­al weapons in the Au­gust at­tack that killed hun­dreds of people, and, un­til re­cently, he for dec­ades denied hav­ing chem­ic­al weapons. “It’s not a simple situ­ation when you deal with someone whose nature is not to tell the truth,” Fried­man says. Emily Land­au, his INSS col­league and the dir­ect­or of the Arms Con­trol and Re­gion­al Se­cur­ity Pro­gram, adds that Ir­an, Ir­aq, Libya, and Syr­ia have been found “cheat­ing” on agree­ments or at least have been “de­cept­ive” about their non­con­ven­tion­al ar­sen­als. “Is­rael is wary of trust­ing these is­sues to an in­ter­na­tion­al agree­ment, be­cause when Is­rael [rat­i­fies] an agree­ment, it means it — and it will fol­low it to the let­ter.”

If Is­rael rat­i­fies, fel­low treaty mem­bers could de­mand “chal­lenge in­spec­tions” of its fa­cil­it­ies — and even try to tar­get Is­rael with a false al­leg­a­tion of pos­sible mis­use of chem­ic­al weapons or oth­er vi­ol­a­tions, CSIS’s Moore says. While two-thirds of the 41-na­tion ex­ec­ut­ive coun­cil could over­turn such de­mands, Ir­an or oth­er mem­bers might “point fin­gers and say, “˜See? They won’t in­spect people when there are doubts, be­cause they are U.S. al­lies; the CWC is a big U.S. plot,’ “ Moore says. Then some coun­tries may draw at­ten­tion to the fact that even the United States has not met its com­mit­ment to des­troy all its chem­ic­al stocks in 10 years.

The dur­ab­il­ity of the en­tire Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion is in danger if it be­comes politi­cized, Moore says. “That’s the big fear: That folks would say, “˜To heck with it.’ “

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