Adoption by the Security Council of a resolution requiring Syria to eliminate its chemical weapons and join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) again raises the question: what about Israel’s weapons of mass destruction? There are repeated demands on Israel to abandon its nuclear deterrence and join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Even in conservative Washington circles there are calls to “be honest about Israel’s nukes.”
I am not convinced that a departure from Israel’s four-decade policy of nuclear ambiguity would improve regional dynamics or make it easier for Israel eventually to give up those weapons. Nor is there a strong logic in arguing that once Syria has no chemical weapons, Israel won’t need nuclear weapons. Israel doesn’t need nuclear weapons in any case; its conventional forces are far superior to any others in the region and the terrorism threats it faces are not amenable to a nuclear solution. But the weapons have long been Israel’s ultimate national insurance policy. To drop it would require peaceful borders and a stable regional security environment. Those conditions are still far off.
A far stronger case can be made for Israel to come clean in the chemical-weapons field. Israeli ratification of the CWC is long overdue. Syria’s agreement to sign and abide by the convention removes one of the main reasons offered to date for Israel’s refusal to sign the treaty. The other stated reasons for staying outside the CWC are flimsy. Israel’s position, as stated recently by Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yigal Palmor, is that even if Israel ratified, other nations have indicated their positions on the treaty would remain unchanged; “some of these states don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and blatantly call to annihilate it.” But wait a minute, assuming Syria joins the CWC, the only other state in the region not party to the treaty is Egypt, which recognises Israel. The only state that calls for Israel to be wiped from the map is Iran, which adheres to the CWC. Claims that Iran has a secret stash of chemical weapons are unsubstantiated.
Despite the definitive way the issue is sometimes treated in the media, there is no telling whether Israel actually has any chemical weapons. The only good evidence comes from a 30-year-old CIA assessment about a mustard- and nerve-gas production facility at Dimona, but this data point was subsequently said to be “probably erroneous.” In the absence of good evidence about current stockpiles, I withhold judgement. Having signed the CWC in 1993, Israel is bound by the spirit of the treaty, even if it is not legally obliged to observe it. A country whose people suffered the horrors of Nazi gas chambers would think twice about making gas canisters. But by not ratifying the CWC, Israel allows reasonable suspicion. It is in the company only of Myanmar as the other nation that has signed but not ratified the treaty.
Despite the definitive way the issue is sometimes treated in the media, there is no telling whether Israel actually has any chemical weaponsMark Fitzpatrick
If Israel does have chemical weapons, CWC ratification would require them to be declared and destroyed, with compliance verification by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Israelis worry about inspections that would get too close to the nuclear-weapons facilities at Dimona. The OPCW’s challenge-inspection procedures have never been put into play anywhere, but there is no reason why they could not be administered in a way that fully protects Israel’s other equities.
The unstated reason for Israel to remain outside the treaty is the slippery slope concern. Israelis fear that agreeing to one WMD treaty would only accelerate the pressure on them to sign the other one. The opposite argument is just as valid, however: by ratifying the CWC, Israel would gain moral high ground that would reduce the pressure to join the NPT.
This article was first published on the IISS blog on Sept. 30, 2013.
Mark Fitzpatrick directs the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program. Mr. Fitzpatrick's research focus includes nuclear proliferation concerns and preventing nuclear danger in the emerging ‘nuclear renaissance’. He is the author of The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding worst-case outcomes (IISS Adelphi Paper 398, 2008) and has written articles on non-proliferation in the Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Survival, and other publications.