Nation & World

Syria chemical weapons plan renews talk of whether Israel also has them

A U.S.-Russian plan to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons has prompted Syria and Iran to point to Israel’s reputed chemical stockpile, but Israeli officials have dismissed suggestions that they give an accounting of their country’s capabilities.

Israel signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production or use of chemical weapons, in 1993, but it has not ratified it. Ratification would require Israel to declare such weapons it has held in the past, destroy any weapons it might currently possess, and allow inspection of suspected weapons production sites.

In line with a policy of ambiguity regarding Israel’s reported nuclear and chemical capabilities, Israeli officials have argued that neighboring states, such as Egypt and Syria, have not signed the chemical weapons pact and that their country faces existential threats that must be deterred.

“There are countries in the region that want to destroy Israel, so we have held off on ratification,” said one official, who was not authorized to speak by name.

“As a matter of strategic concept, as long as Egypt and, more importantly, Iran possess chemical and biological weapons, there will be no change in the Israeli position,” said Dany Shoham, an expert on such weapons at Bar-Ilan University.

Iran has signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, but Shoham said it was “bluffing” and continues to maintain a stockpile of such weapons. In announcing his country’s accession to the chemical weapons treaty last week, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, said his country had held chemical weapons as a deterrent against Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, in an interview last week with Russia’s Rossiya 24 television, argued that “if we want stability in the Middle East, all the countries must honor the agreements, and Israel is the first that should do so, because it possesses nuclear, chemical, biological and all other types of weapons of mass destruction.”

Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said that raising the topic of Israel’s reported chemical weapons “is a diversion of attention from the real conversation, which is to see that Syria actually implements this deal. It’s not like anyone thinks that Israel is threatening someone with chemical weapons.”

Similarly, State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki last week rejected what she said were attempts by Syria to compare itself to the “thriving democracy” of Israel, which “doesn’t brutally slaughter and gas its own people.”

In Israel, the liberal Haaretz newspaper argued in an editorial that Israel should take the opportunity of Syria’s chemical disarmament to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. The paper argued that the policy of ambiguity with regard to chemical weapons served no deterrent purpose and that it was hard to imagine a scenario in which Israeli forces would use such weapons to stop an invasion or hit enemy cities.

“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,” the paper said.

Israel has never acknowledged possession of chemical or biological weapons, but suspicions run high.

In a report this month, Foreign Policy magazine cited what it said was a 1983 CIA document that said Israel had a “probable chemical weapon nerve agent production facility and a storage facility” at Dimona in the southern Negev region. The document said there were indicators that Israel had “at least persistent and non-persistent nerve agents, a mustard agent and several riot-control agents, matched with suitable delivery systems.”

A cargo plane of El Al, the Israeli national airline, that crashed in Amsterdam in 1992 carried a chemical that can be used in the manufacture of the deadly nerve gas sarin. An Israeli spokesman said at the time that the chemical on board was not poisonous and had been ordered for the testing of gas masks and other filters designed to protect against chemical agents.

The shipment was sent to the Institute for Biological Research in the town of Ness Ziona, south of Tel Aviv, whose work is a closely guarded secret in Israel.

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