All conflicts experience game changing events, or events that highlight issues with far reaching implications well beyond the initial causes of the conflict. The use of sarin gas in the Aug. 21 rocket attack on the Ghouta area of Damascus, apparently by the Syrian regime, has become such a watershed point. What was described by the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as a “war crime,” not only led to the involvement of major international powers in the civil war, but also shifted the focus from the on-going civil war in Syrian and its atrocities, to the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in the region.
Not surprisingly, soon after the U.S. and Russia agreed on steps needed to dismantle all Syrian chemical weapons, some international attention was diverted to Israel’s alleged WMDs, especially her reported nuclear capability. It was in fact President Vladimir Putin, in his typical direct manner, who made the link between Syrian chemical weapons and Israel’s nuclear weapons. He claimed that the Syrian chemical stockpile was a response to Israeli nuclear capability and her technological supremacy in the region. One wonders whether it was an attempt by Putin to divert attention from the fact that, while sparing his Syrian ally from the wrath of U.S. military force, he forced Assad to potentially surrender some of Syria’s military capability. Alternatively, for better or for worse, he no doubt wants to seize the opportunity of Russian diplomatic success to restore his country’s role in the Middle East, where it seemed to be marginalized at least since the end of the Cold War, if not before. Whatever his intentions were, Putin put Israel’s WMDs project under the spotlight once again.
Israel has always maintained a policy of ambiguity regarding her WMD’s, especially her nuclear program. Officially it has always been argued by Israel, as early as the 1960s, that “it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East.” Maintaining this opacity, in agreement with Washington, has enabled Israel to fend off pressure to disclose its nuclear military capacity and at the same time to retain nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis other countries in the region. They operate, nonetheless, on the assumption that Israel possesses considerable nuclear capacity. A recent report in the British Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists asserts that Israel possesses 80 nuclear warheads, but produces enough fissile material for up to 190 warheads. The rumors, according to this report, are that Israel has mounted some of its submarines with nuclear-capable cruise missiles. This of course provides Israel with military superiority and deterrence, but it is unimaginable that she might use this capability unless she fears existential threat. On the other hand, this sense of military power together with Israelis’ deep-seated fear may contribute to her diplomatic rigidity and unwillingness to compromise in peace negotiations.
Admittedly, Israel has never used WMD’s against other countries, nor has she threatened her neighbors with the use of them. Realistically speaking, Israel has enough conventional military superiority against almost any hostile alliance in the region. This leaves the nuclear or any other non-conventional weapons she possesses, as “last resort” or “doomsday scenario” weapons. In other words, Israel would resort to the use of nuclear weapons only if it was on the verge of obliteration The danger is that such a decision is always a matter of judgment which in the heat of the war can be less than optimal, especially in a country whose overuse of the term “existential threat” has led to the development of a siege mentality.
Israel has always maintained a policy of ambiguity regarding her WMD’s, especially her nuclear programYossi Mekelberg
On only one occasion in Israel’s history, on Oct. 9, 1973, was it reported that the Israeli government considered the nuclear option seriously and even readied its nuclear arsenal. This was at the beginning of the October War when Moshe Dayan, the then defense minister, described the situation as on the verge of the “fall of the third Temple.” Eventually, rationality prevailed and Israel did not press the nuclear button even with its back against the wall. On the other hand, it is quite a chilling thought that this option was considered at all viable in a situation that was later settled using conventional weapons.
Israeli has complimented her nuclear strategy by making every effort to prevent other countries in the region from acquiring such capability. In June 1981 Israel attacked the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq which was nearly completed. This was followed years later in 2007 with the destruction of Syria’s alleged nuclear reactor al-Kibar. The ongoing war of words with Iran about her nuclear program and the secret war against it needs little mention, however, if not resolved diplomatically it might still lead to military confrontation.
This monopoly on nuclear capability in the region is increasingly coming under scrutiny. It has been nearly 20 years since the U.N. adopted a resolution calling for a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone. Only last December the U.N. General Assembly voted on a resolution, with a massive majority, calling Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and to place its nuclear program under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision. Just last week, representatives of a group of Arab countries proposed, in an IAEA meeting, a resolution expressing concern about Israel’s nuclear capability.
It is only to be expected that this trend of putting Israeli WMDs under scrutiny will continue, and perhaps even intensify at a time when other countries in the region are pressured to destroy their stock piles of chemical weapons and to stop their development of nuclear capacity. There is a strong sense of double standards that Israel is allowed, with the protection of the U.S., to possess such weapons while others are threatened with sanctions and military action for pursuing similar capabilities.
Israel and the U.S. reject this allegation, maintaining that conditions in the region, especially the absence of peace between Israel and her neighbors as well as the constant instability in the region, are not conducive for Israel to sign to the NPT or even discuss the future of her WMD arsenal. Some in the international community are even apprehensive that pressuring Israel on this issue might push it to be more intransigent in future peace negotiations. The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime was precisely the evidence for the Israeli government as to why it must stand firm on keeping her WMDs off the international agenda.
Though chemical weapons are rarely employed, what has happened in Syria demonstrated that the risk is real. Consequently, there is a need for a comprehensive process leading towards regional disarmament of WMDs. Without this, more Middle Eastern countries will enter into the non-conventional arms race. Any such process requires the inclusion of Israel. However, one must take into consideration that as long as a comprehensive peace treaty is not reached with Israel’s neighbors, and as long as the U.S. continues to support Israel on this issue, it is very unlikely that Jerusalem will show any readiness to bring the issue of Israeli WMDS to the negotiations table. Yet, someone in the Israeli government should have realized that it was inevitable, following ultimatum put to Damascus about her chemical weapons, that increasing attention would be turned to Israeli WMDs, particularly the nuclear ones.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.
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