Nir Elias / Courtesy Reuters A gas mask advertisement in Israel, 2003

Coming Clean on Chemical Weapons

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

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.

The Israeli decision to pursue a chemical weapons capability must be understood in the strategic and international context of the time. Surrounded by hostile Arab armies, and without a security guarantee from the United States, Israelis were worried. The country’s neighbor and most powerful foe, Egypt, not only possessed chemical weapons but used them during its intervention in Yemen’s civil war in the mid-1960s.

On the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli military leaders feared that Egypt might unleash its chemical weapons, either on the battlefield or even against Israeli civilians. In response to these concerns, Israel hastily purchased tens of thousands of gas masks from Europe (primarily from West Germany) just days before the war began. Some evidence also suggests that Israel successfully deterred Egyptian use of chemical weapons by making its own chemical weapons capability battle-ready. According to the Israeli analyst Dany Shoham, Egypt “probably did not resort to chemical warfare because it feared Israeli retaliation in-kind." Israel considered chemical weapons to be nasty but probably legitimate retaliatory weapons, especially considering that the United States and some NATO countries also stockpiled chemical munitions at that time for deterrence purposes.

In the following years, the prospect of an Egyptian chemical attack continued to haunt Israel’s leaders. Early in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt apparently prepared chemical weapons for launch in the event that Israel continued its military offensive after restoring the status quo that existed before the war. In 1975, the Egyptian military’s chief of staff, General Mohammed el-Gamasi, warned publicly that Egypt would employ its own nonconventional arsenal if Israel made use of its nuclear weapons. In addition, Egypt allegedly supplied Syria with chemical agents sometime in the 1970s, and it cooperated closely with Iraq on chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.

During these early years, the international norm against chemical weapons was still nascent. Before the Chemical Weapons Convention opened for signature in 1993, chemical and biological weapons programs were not illegal. The 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons in warfare, was silent on developing, producing, and stockpiling such arsenals. Moreover, many countries that ratified the Geneva Protocol did so while explicitly reserving the right to employ such weapons for retaliation in kind. By the 1950s, all three major NATO powers -- the United States, the United Kingdom, and France -- had significant offensive chemical and biological capabilities, and the United States did not ratify the Geneva Protocol until 1975.

As Israel’s strategic position in the Middle East improved following the peace agreement with Egypt in 1978 and the strengthening of the U.S.-Israeli alliance, its stockpiles of chemical weapons became less relevant. By the mid- to late 1970s, Israeli policymakers decided that chemical weapons were no longer effective instruments of warfare, or even deterrence, and briefly considered dismantling the country’s chemical and biological weapons facility at Ness Ziona. Later, in 1989, Israel's high-profile participation in the Paris conference on chemical weapons demonstrated that Israel sided with the international community in its efforts to strengthen the international norm against chemical warfare.

The sense in Israel’s strategic community that an international ban on chemical weapons was in the country’s interests only grew. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin came to power in 1992, he considered the emerging Chemical Weapons Convention to be a net benefit for Israel. Given its nuclear capability, Rabin figured, Israel stood to gain the most from a Middle East in which no country had chemical weapons. Even if major Arab states refused to join the convention, an Israeli decision to sign would probably improve its diplomatic position, perhaps even easing the pressure on the nuclear issue.

In response to criticism from within the security bureaucracy that Israel was going too far, the Rabin government noted that signing the Chemical Weapons Convention, while an important symbolic act, was not the final word; only ratification would make Israel’s commitment complete. Guided by these considerations and under pressure from the United States, Israel overcame its longstanding aversion to global arms-control conventions and signed the convention on January 13, 1993, the first day it was open for signature.

Two decades have passed since Israel signed the convention, but it has yet to ratify the treaty, which would most likely require a Knesset vote. Since Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Israel has gradually retreated to the comfort of its traditional opacity on WMD. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his recent predecessors, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert, never liked the idea of formally ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention. The issue was too politically irrelevant, strategically insignificant, and diplomatically marginal to stir any interest. The Arab Spring, and the Syrian civil war in particular, only served to solidify the attitude that Israel should stick to its old policies in a time of turbulence. 

THE BURDEN OF AMBIGUITY

It is time for Israel to revisit its old-fashioned chemical weapons ambiguity. In light of the Assad regime’s use of the weapons, and with the international community intensely focused on their prohibition, Israel’s past program and its reluctance to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention have become a strategic, diplomatic, and military burden -- both for Israel and its most important ally, the United States. By failing to ratify a convention banning a weapon it does not need, Israel finds itself in the company of Angola, Egypt, Myanmar (also known as Burma), North Korea, South Sudan, and Syria -- a motley crew of pariah and failed states with which it would certainly like to avoid association.

The proposed U.S.-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program is great news for Israel. If successful -- which is still a big if -- the deal would eliminate the largest and last remaining chemical weapons program in the Middle East, and the only one that is deeply integrated into a country’s military doctrine. Israel would further enhance its strategic and moral position -- and help the deal’s success -- by openly supporting the framework to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons and by committing to ratify the convention. That last step shouldn't be too hard: Israel has absolutely no need for chemical weapons. Chemical weapons have no role in the country’s military doctrine, and no scenario exists in which the program would have to be reactivated.

Furthermore, ratifying the convention would strengthen Israel’s credibility on WMD-related issues, long undermined by the ambiguity surrounding its WMD programs, particularly its nuclear arsenal. Whether the issue is the use of chemical weapons in Syria or Iran’s nuclear program, Israel’s adversaries can always respond to international pressure by pointing at Israel’s nuclear arsenal and its opacity on chemical and biological weapons. While this rhetorical tactic is politics pure and simple, it effectively frustrates Israel’s ability -- and that of the United States -- to stop proliferation activities in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Until Israel’s leaders realize the cost of ambiguity, the country will be held hostage by weapons it no longer possesses, in order to deter threats that no longer exist, causing it to suffer isolation it does not deserve.

 

 

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