When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on Sunday, he will present Benjamin Netanyahu with a detailed outline of the agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons.
After the consultants leave the two for a tete-a-tete, Kerry may make a request that has been keeping quite a few top Israeli defense officials awake at night.
Kerry may tell Netanyahu the United States is working to remove one of the gravest threats on Israel’s security, by combining a credible military threat with creative diplomacy. Now, Kerry may say, the U.S. needs Israel’s help by ratifying the treaty prohibiting the use of chemical weapons.
Presumably, senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office have been playing this scenario in their heads in recent days.
After Foreign Policy magazine last week published documents from the CIA archive about Israel’s chemical weapons program, the Foreign Ministry began preparing for the possibility that the international media would raise the issue.
The ministry distributed a short set of guidelines to embassies abroad. Due to the issue’s sensitivity, the diplomats were instructed to use the guidelines only if specifically asked about the matter.
In the last few days, the Syrian regime has intimated that, in addition to its willingness to get rid of its chemical weapons, Israel own stockpile of chemical weapons (according to foreign media) must also be discussed.
Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari said in a briefing at the end of last week that Syria is not setting this as a condition, but it believes Israel must also ratify the chemical weapons treaty.
“The main danger of weapons of mass destruction is the Israel nuclear arsenal,” Jaafari said. He said Israel also possesses chemical weapons but “no body talks about that.”
At least publicly, the American administration rejects any attempt to link Syria’s chemical weapons with those Israel reportedly has. On Friday, in the midst of the discussions between Kerry and his Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov, Wall Steet Journal reporter Jay Solomon asked State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki about it.
“We won’t accept attempts by the Syrian regime … to compare itself to Israel, a thriving democracy which doesn’t brutally slaughter and gas its own people,” she said.
Israel signed the chemical weapons treaty in 1993 in a move spearheaded by Defense Ministry director general David Ivri with the support of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and many others in the defense establishment. The treaty however was never ratified by the cabinet or Knesset, so Israel has not subjected itself to its restrictions and to demands to dismantle immediately all its alleged chemical weapons.
The United States and Russia have been asking Israel for several years to ratify the chemical weapons treaty, but Israel refuses to do so.
It’s arguments are not without reason. Jerusalem says that as long as Arab states, first and foremost Syria, have chemical weapons and threaten Israeli cities with it, there is no reason or sense for Israel to do so.
However, quite a few former defense establishment officials think that in view of the current reality Israel should reexamine its policy. The Iraqi chemical threat disappeared a decade ago, if it ever existed. Egypt’s chemical weapons program is dormant, the potential Iranian threat is nuclear and the central chemical threat – Syria – may disappear within a year.
Israeli military deterrence stems from its nuclear ambiguity and the bombs which, according to foreign media, have been manufactured in Dimona – not from poison gas that was produced, or not, at the Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona. Then there's the moral aspect: Could the Jewish army use poison gas in warfare, even against its worst enemies?
The issue of chemical weapons can be compared to the Gaza disengagement plan. Gaza went from being an asset for Israel to a burden – and the same could happen to the country's chemical weapons. They are expensive to maintain and their effectiveness is uncertain. By ratifying the treaty and dismantling its chemical arsenal – if one does in fact exist – Israel could not only garner international credit, which it desperately needs, but also maintain more important strategic security interests.