Coming Clean on Chemical Weapons

Israel Abandoned Them a Long Time Ago. Why Won’t It Say So?

Israel Chemical Weapons Gas Mask Jewish
A gas mask advertisement in Israel, 2003 (Nir Elias / Courtesy Reuters)

As the world tries to get Syria to hand over its chemical weapons, Israel’s alleged possession of those same weapons looms large. In a familiar twist, senior Russian and Syrian officials -- including Russian President Vladimir Putin -- have loosely linked the prospects of Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament to Israel’s overall posture of amimut (opacity or ambiguity) about its own weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and specifically to its refusal to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Although the attempt to bring Israel into the debate stems from clear political motivations, it also highlights the uncomfortable, indeed problematic, nature of Israel’s evasion on all matters relating to WMD. Israel’s refusal to acknowledge its chemical weapons program only further underscores what has been clear for some time: ambiguity on WMD has become a political burden for Israel, particularly as it tries to rally the world behind preventing a nuclear Iran. Its unwillingness to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention -- a stance it takes largely for the sake of opacity, since it has no use for chemical weapons whatsoever -- undermines its security interests and intensifies its international isolation.

THE FIRST WEAPONS OF LAST RESORT

Although neither confirmed nor denied by the Israeli government, it is widely presumed that, at one time in its history, Israel possessed chemical weapons. Israel likely launched its chemical weapons program in its first decade after independence in 1948, prior to its nuclear program, in an era when Israeli leaders believed their country’s survival was in peril. At the time, chemical weapons were Israel’s weapons of last resort. The recently discovered 1983 CIA documents published in Foreign Policy, which claim that Israel had an active chemical weapons program, may refer to the last residues of such a program. Today, however, Israel does not have an active chemical weapons arsenal (one that could quickly be made operational and deployable for battlefield use) and has not had one for decades.

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