Should Israel ratify the chemical weapons treaty?

Israel stands as one of 7 nations, against list of around 190 countries, that have not signed the CWC; though Rabin signed the agreement in 1993, Jerusalem doesn’t appear any closer to ratifying it now amid increased pressure.

israeli soldiers wearing anti chemical gear 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
israeli soldiers wearing anti chemical gear 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 them.
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 1970s.
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 program.
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 weapons.
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 possess.
Some even say Israel giving up chemical weapons would propel momentum in getting Iran to give up its nuclear program.
These voices 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 under wraps.
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 attack.
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 responsibilities.
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 Post.
Whatever the reason, it seems unlikely that Israel will be ratifying the CWC anytime soon.