Opinion

Israel Must Sign the Chemical Weapons Convention

Israelis' reaction to the Syria strike shows they only understand the use of force for their own sake and not as a tool to enforce norms and international order

Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen
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This image made from video released by the White Helmets shows a medical worker giving toddlers oxygen after a gas attack on the rebel-held town of Douma, Syria, April 8, 2018.
This image made from video released by the White Helmets shows a medical worker giving toddlers oxygen after a gas attack on the rebel-held town of Douma, Syria, April 8, 2018.Credit: /AP
Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen

Let’s be clear: The strike in Syria was not motivated by geopolitical reasons, but by ethical norms. This strike was about defending “the values and ideals that our nation represents,” said the Pentagon spokeswoman. Bashar Assad violated the norms regarding chemical weapons, norms that were enshrined in the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the development, manufacture, storage and usage of chemical weapons. This convention is the normative-legal basis for the strike in Syria. U.S. President Donald Trump is not known for his exactitude with language or sensitivity to terms like “normative” and “ethical,” but the statement from the White House was carefully worded to make the distinction between geopolitics and values.

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The statement notes that since World War I, chemical weapons have been recognized by the international community as nonconventional and that fostering deterrence against violating the norm of the illegitimacy of chemical weapons is also an American interest. The French and British statements were even more direct: It was necessary to act because the Syrians crossed a red line, a line to which they committed themselves upon signing the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013, and it is vitally important that the crossing of this line not be met with silence.

As a whole, the Israeli media took a derisive view of an operation motivated by values and norms rather than geopolitical strategy, calling the action too small, too proportionate and too focused on chemical weapons to the exclusion of all else, and arguing that it therefore would not be taken seriously. This kind of reaction just goes to show that Israelis only understand the use of force for its own sake and don’t really grasp how it can be used as a tool to enforce norms and international order. The Israeli view was that the strike didn’t do anything to advance Israel’s main interest in Syria – getting Iran out of there, and that as far as the more limited matter of chemical weapons goes, everyone knows that Syria would never dare use them against Israel because it knows what an overwhelming response that would elicit. So all this talk of norms is beside the point.

Though not all that surprising, it’s a shame that the Israeli attitude toward international norms and values is so provincial and cynical. Because norms, rather than sheer force, are what transform chaos into international order. And it’s all the more unfortunate when, for historical reasons, Israel ought to feel a special commitment to upholding the norm that says the use of chemical weapons – gas – is intolerable. Given the memory of the Holocaust, how can Israel assume the pose of a neutral observer when a neighboring country is gassing its citizens? If any Israeli military action in Syria could evoke admiration and respect, it would be a punitive action in response to the gassing of civilians with chemical weapons. Israel ought to have joined in the recent strike as well, if only for symbolic and moral reasons.

But none of this is possible because Israel is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention. According to foreign sources, in the distant past Israel had a chemical weapons program, but that was in an age when all the Western countries had similar programs. These weapons’ existence as a deterrent did not violate international law at the time. The call for an across-the-board ban on chemical weapons first arose in 1987, in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attack on Iraqi Kurds.

In January 1993, Yitzhak Rabin decided, contrary to the position of the defense establishment, that Israel should sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. But four years later, when 167 nations ratified the convention and put it into effect, Israel was not among them. Today, 192 nations are signatories to the convention. Israel, like Egypt, North Korea and Sudan, is still not one of them. The time has come for Israel to do the right thing, morally and ethically, and join the convention.

The author is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California and co-editor of a newly published collection of articles on norms concerning WMD.

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