The United States-Russian deal for the destruction of Syria’s huge chemical weapon stocks caused Israelis to breathe an audible sigh of relief.
Many expected that a U.S. strike would push either Syria or its ally Hezbollah to retaliate by attacking Israel. Over the past few weeks, thousands of Israelis, not known for their patience, spent hours waiting in line for government-issued gas masks.
Yet the deal also increases pressure on Israel to get rid of its chemical and, even more troubling to the Jewish state, its nuclear stockpile. If Syria must get rid of its chemical weapons, the reasoning goes, why can’t Israel do the same?
Secretary of State John Kerry came to Israel to discuss the Syrian plan with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. According to the deal, Syria will give a list of all its chemical weapons sites to the United Nations within a week, and all such arms would be destroyed by the middle of 2014.
Groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said Syria has already moved significant stocks of chemical weapons out of the country. The Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal claimed that some 200 trucks were loaded with chemical weapons last week and sent to Iraq.
Israel’s Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio that Israel has “good capabilities” when it comes to following the trail of Assad’s chemical arsenal.
At the same time, the 100 tons of chemical agents and munitions that Syria is believed to possess are distributed among dozens of sites, which will make their verification and destruction difficult.
Netanyahu sounded unconvinced when it came to the new U.S.-Russian agreement. He spoke after his meeting with Kerry.
“We have been closely following — and support — [the] ongoing efforts to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. The Syrian regime must be stripped of all its chemical weapons, and that would make our entire region a lot safer,” Netanyahu said. “What the past few days have shown is something that I have been saying for quite some time, that if diplomacy has any chance to work, it must be coupled with a credible military threat. What is true of Syria is true of Iran, and, by the way, vice versa.
Other Israeli officials were less diplomatic.
“All of the conversation is duplicitous,” a senior Israeli official said. “It’s a way of diverting attention away from the real subject, which is the fact that Syria has chemical weapons, has used chemical weapons and has threatened its use of chemical weapons to try to switch the spotlight onto us. While we’ve been going to coffee shops and starting high-tech companies, they’ve been using chemical weapons.”
Israel has always kept a low profile when it comes to its own chemical weapons program. They signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1982 but never ratified it, which means that Israel considers itself bound by the spirit of the treaty but not legally obligated to observe it.
“The main pretext for Israel’s refusal to ratify the treaty was the Syrian arsenal,” Eitan Barak, a professor of international relations from Hebrew University, said. “Israel says Syria is a neighbor country, hostile, with a large arsenal of chemical weapons, and we needed to be able to retaliate.”
He said that given Israel’s pharmaceutical success, it is likely that Israel has a significant arsenal of these armaments. Israeli officials say that efforts to force Israel to join the Chemical Weapons Convention are duplicitous.
“Unfortunately, while Israel signed the Convention, other countries in the Middle East, including those that have used chemical weapons recently or in the past, have failed to follow suit and have indicated that their position would remain unchanged even if Israel ratifies the Convention,” Deputy Foreign Minister Paul Hirschson said. “Some of these states don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and blatantly call to annihilate it. In this context, the chemical weapons threat against Israel and its civilian population is neither theoretical nor distant. Terror organizations, acting as proxies for certain regional states, similarly pose a chemical weapons threat. These threats cannot be ignored by Israel in the assessment of possible ratification of the Convention.”
Even more disturbing to the Jewish state is a possible linkage of its chemical weapons program with its nuclear weapons program. Israel’s long-stated nuclear policy is one of ambiguity.
“Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East,” officials have intoned repeatedly over the past decades.
Yet the purported chemical weapons deal with Syria has also increased pressure on Israel to join the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. Some 190 states have joined the NPT, whose goal is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. Of the world’s nuclear powers, only four have not joined the treaty — India, Pakistan and North Korea, which have all openly tested nuclear weapons, and Israel, with its policy of nuclear ambiguity.
International media reports say that Israel has some 200 nuclear weapons. Israel has refused to sign the NPT despite pressure from the international community. However, when it comes to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the country might be more flexible.
“Israel has an interest in a chemical-free zone as opposed to a nuclear-free zone,” Eitan Barak said. “That would leave Israel with its alleged monopoly on nuclear weapons.”