With Moscow and Washington now discussing a diplomatic deal that would rid Syria of its chemical weapons, officials in Jerusalem are preparing for the possibility that Israel will be asked to submit to supervision of the chemical weapons that foreign reports say it possesses.
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In the past few days, Foreign Ministry officials note, senior Russian officials have repeatedly drawn a connection between Syria’s chemical weapons and Israel’s military capabilities. President Vladimir Putin, for instance, told Russian media outlets that Syria’s chemical weapons exist as a response to Israel’s military capabilities, while Russia’s ambassador to Paris told Radio France that Syria’s chemical weapons were meant to preserve its balance of deterrence against Israel, “which has nuclear weapons.”
Israel signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, but never ratified it. Consequently, it hasn’t agreed to submit itself to international inspections or to refrain from steps that would violate the convention.
Syria, which has one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world, has never even signed the convention, nor has Egypt, which also has a chemical weapons program. Iran, which suffered chemical weapons attacks from Iraq during their war in the 1980s, signed the convention in 1993 and ratified it in 1997. Nevertheless, senior figures at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem claim that Iran secretly maintains a large stash of chemical weapons.
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Both Syria and Egypt used Israel as their excuse for not signing the convention. In various international forums over the years, Syrian and Egyptian officials have said their countries would agree to sign only if Israel signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and opened its nuclear reactor in Dimona to international inspectors.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told Haaretz on Wednesday that Israel would not ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention as long as other states in the region with chemical weapons refuse to recognize Israel and threaten to destroy it.
“Unfortunately, while Israel signed the convention, other countries in the Middle East, including those that have used chemical weapons recently or in the past, or are believed to be working to improve their chemical capabilities, have failed to follow suit and have indicated that their position would remain unchanged even if Israel ratifies the convention,” Palmor said in a written statement. “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.”
Despite not having ratified the convention, Israel does have observer status at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international agency that monitors the convention’s implementation, and participates in many of its meetings.
In early 2010, then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman sent a letter to the OPWC’s director general saying that Israel was interested in increasing its cooperation with the organization. But he also stressed that Israel wouldn’t sign the convention until it has signed peace treaties with all its neighbors and is no longer threatened by its neighbors’ chemical weapons.
U.S. State Department cables leaked to WikiLeaks reveal that the American administration held lengthy talks with Israel about the possibility of ratifying the convention, including at a February 2007 meeting in Jerusalem between senior State Department officials and their Israeli counterparts.
An American cable summing up the meeting said that U.S. officials urged the Israelis to move forward on this issue, stressing that Israel is one of only five countries that haven’t yet ratified the convention, with the others being North Korea, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.
Alon Bar, then director of the Foreign Ministry’s arms control department, responded that Israel signed the convention in the early 1990s, when the peace process was at its height, and that since then, the situation had changed.
Israel’s chemical weapons policy is overseen by a Defense Ministry panel comprising about 20 senior representatives from the defense establishment and the intelligence community. The committee was established in 1991, dismantled in 2007 and reconstituted in 2009. It meets every few months, but in recent years it has spent very little time discussing chemical weapons.