What do Israel, North Korea, Myanmar, Angola, Egypt, South Sudan, and until a
month ago, Syria, have in common? They are the only nations on the planet,
against a list of around 190 countries, who have not ratified the 1997 Chemical
Weapons Convention (CWC).
What is the CWC? It achieved a revolution,
after nearly three decades of negotiation, to not only ban the use of chemical
weapons under international law, but also to create a binding mechanism for
declaring existing chemical weapons stocks and a hard timeline for destroying
This was a big jump from the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which merely
banned the use – not possession – of chemical weapons following the disastrous
consequences of their use during World War I.
Why hasn’t Israel ratified
the CWC (it signed the treaty years ago, but that is symbolic since only
ratification is binding), why is there now increased pressure for it to ratify
and why is the current government still declining to do so? Historically, Israel
is presumed to have developed chemical weapons in the 1950s as a weapon of last
resort and survival. For an extended period, analysts have said, it made sense
for Israel to have a chemical weapons deterrent, especially against Egypt, which
possessed chemical weapons and has been accused of using them in Yemen’s civil
war in the mid-1960s and of sharing technology with Syria in the
But according to Avner Cohen, a leading critic of Israel’s policy
of ambiguity regarding weapons of mass destruction, Israel’s chemical weapons
program has been essentially left to rot for the past few decades and is no
longer quickly deployable or operational.
The reasons, he says, are that
Israel concluded chemical weapons were not actually an effective deterrent; the
peace treaty with Egypt; the strengthening of the US alliance; and its unspoken
(and unconfirmed) much greater nuclear deterrent.
In that spirit, former
prime minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the CWC, also hoping that doing so might
reduce pressure on Israel to disclose its unconfirmed nuclear weapons
The increased pressure on Israel over the past few months stems
from the current US-Russian deal to destroy Syria’s 1,000 tons of chemical
Many nations are arguing that Israel should undertake a
reciprocal chemical weapons disarmament with Syria, as it is considered the last
threatening chemical weapons arsenal in the Middle East, and Israel would have
no scenario for a need to reactive its program.
With no remaining
chemical weapons threat in the region, critics of Israel say it has no remaining
justification for not disarming, while others say it can finally reap the
benefits Rabin sought, while only giving up weapons none of its enemies
Some even say Israel giving up chemical weapons would propel
momentum in getting Iran to give up its nuclear program.
allege that Israel is illogically holding onto old policies out of an overblown
commitment to consistency as long as it also wants to keep its nuclear program
But there are other explanations for Israel maintaining
chemical weapons ambiguity.
First, Syria has only just begun its
disarmament, and will be done by mid-2014 at the earliest – if it does not try
to “cheat,” as many expect.
Secondly, even if Syria is removed as a
chemical weapons threat, Israel still faces existential threats from countries
like Iran and nonstate terror groups.
As long as these threats exist,
many say there is logic to holding onto a range of deterrent weapons, not just
nuclear, to be able to respond differently to different levels of
Also, some observers say that if Israel binds itself under
international law to the CWC, it could allow unfriendly nations into the country
as inspectors who may have spying or terror agendas beyond their official
Others claim that ending ambiguity on chemical weapons
would signal weakness on ending ambiguity regarding its nuclear program, and
doing so before Iran makes any major changes would reward Iran for merely
symbolic gestures – which Israel is working hard to avoid.
Despite all of
the debate among commentators, the government recently passed on the issue
without even a serious debate, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, one of the
bigger “internationalists” in the government, responded dismissively to the idea
of Israel ratifying the CWC when recently asked by The Jerusalem
Whatever the reason, it seems unlikely that Israel will be
ratifying the CWC anytime soon.