Kerry and Lavrov.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Photo by AP
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The agreement reached by the United States and Russia for Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament, if it is implemented in letter and spirit, holds a great opportunity for Israel. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s stores of nerve gas were considered a strategic threat to Israel’s home front that pushed Israel into making huge investments in gas masks for the population. When the central government in Damascus was undermined with the outbreak of the Arab Spring, it was feared that Syria would pass on its chemical weapons to Hezbollah or that its arsenal would fall into the hands of extremist groups in Syria.

Imposing international control on the chemical weapons in Syria, and overseeing their subsequent destruction, will lift the direct threat on Israel and reduce the danger that these weapons will reach Hezbollah. The gas arsenals cannot be destroyed by aerial bombardment and the diplomatic accord seems so be the most effective way to get rid of them even if Syria makes sure that the path to implementation involves difficulties and obstacles.

The chemical disarmament of Syria will also give Israel the opportunity to revisit its position on the Chemical Weapons Convention. Israel signed the convention in 1993 but since then has refused to ratify it and adhere to its rules, which require reporting, oversight and destruction of chemical weapons materials. The official stance is that as long as enemy countries possess these weapons, Israel will not ratify the convention. But that is a shortsighted position of dubious usefulness.

A show of “ambiguity” with regard to chemical weapons serves no deterrent purpose for Israel. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which the Israel Defense Forces would use Sarin and VX gas, if it has these means, to stop a ground invasion of Israel or to strike enemy cities. Israel has other means of deterrence that can provide a response to chemical weapons. The superpowers, first and foremost the United States and Russia, have already implemented the Chemical Weapons Convention and have given up their military gas arsenals; Israel could do the same. In the 1993 ceremony at which the convention was signed, under the slogan, “Farewell to Chemical Weapons,” then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said “there is no weapon against an unconventional weapon; there is only policy that can prevent its use, and preferably its manufacture as well.” His words are still true today.

The ratification of the convention will save Israel the costs of developing, manufacturing and storing chemical weapons, if it possesses them, and will show that the country is doing its part in the general effort to rid the region of weapons of mass destruction. It would be a pity if in the future Israel finds itself in the position of Syria --forced to sign the convention under international pressure.