Israel’s chemical concerns

Jerusalem argues it cannot ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention as long as the region is not free of WMDs.

Painting by Avi Katz (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Painting by Avi Katz
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
AS THE world marks the centenary of the first massive use of chemical weapons and as the final steps of Syria’s full disarmament from chemical weapons are being completed, the international community’s efforts to achieve universalization of non-proliferation of chemical weapons may take a step forward.
An indication of that intention was given mid-April at the site of the first attack in Ypres, Belgium. At a commemorative meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the intergovernmental body implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), Ahmet Üzümcü, OPCW Director General, asserted that the declaration issued that day by all parties to the CWC would “hasten the progress toward a world truly free of chemical weapons.”
For Israel, one of the remaining six countries not party to the CWC, a treaty which, since coming into effect in 1997, has been ratified and implemented by the rest of the world’s countries, this may mean another front of diplomatic rifts and international pressure.
A look at the reasons why Jerusalem has so far refrained from fully joining the Convention – it is a signatory, but has yet to ratify the treaty – reveals how deep the Israeli mistrust of the international community is and how bleak its vision of the future of the Middle East. It also exposes Israel’s perception of the international community as insensitive to the country’s unique existential needs.
On April 22, 1915, during World War I, the second battle of Ypres marked a new dark chapter in the history of warfare. The German army released a cloud of chlorine gas in the direction of Allied trenches, killing around 5,000 troops within 30 minutes and inflicting excruciating injuries on more than 15,000 soldiers wounded in the attack.
By the third battle of Ypres, about two years later, chemical agents had already been used by all parties to the war. Around 90,000 soldiers died from exposure to some 124,200 tons of chlorine, mustard and other chemical agents. They may have constituted a relatively small percentage of the war’s more than 8.5 million military fatalities, but the trauma caused by the use of chemical agents was so stark that the war was dubbed by many as the “Chemists’ War.”
The trauma also generated a number of postwar international bans on the use of chemical weapons. Most famous of them is the Geneva Protocol of 1925 (to which Israel is a signatory, with a reservation claiming the right to retaliate in kind to a chemical-weapons attack). But the Geneva Protocol lacked enforcement mechanisms and it also failed to embargo the production and stockpiling of such weapons, which indeed were sometimes actually used.
It was only at the end of the Cold War – and following the use during the 1980s by Iraq under Saddam Hussein of sarin, chlorine and mustard gas – that an effective treaty to tackle the proliferation of chemical weapons finally came into being.
Of the six states that are still outside the CWC, Israel and Myanmar are the only signatories to the treaty: both signed it in the same year it was open for signature, 1993, four years before it came into force in 1997.
The other four – North Korea, Egypt, Angola and four-year-old South Sudan – are not signatories to the treaty.
Not all six are as adamant as Israel, Egypt and North Korea in maintaining their outsider status. Myanmar’s parliament voted this January to ratify the CWC. South Sudan and Angola too are already “on the road to acceding to the convention,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, former US State Department official and the current director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They are not putting up any significant obstacles. It’s just a matter of bureaucracy in their cases,” he tells The Jerusalem Report in a telephone interview from London.
The world’s adherence to the CWC – alongside the treaty’s detailed mechanism of inspection and verification operated by OPCW – has made the convention a relative success story. “It is the one convention in the non-proliferation realm that has been making progress and that shows a real potential for getting very close to universalization,” Fitzpatrick says.
In 2013, a significant landmark was set when under a rare US-Russia coordinated threat Syrian dictator Bashar Assad was forced – following a Sarin attack on the town of Ghouta which caused the death of an estimated 1,400 civilians – to join the convention. Syria’s accession to the CWC meant an obligatory dismantling of its chemical weapons program and the destruction of all stockpiles, storage facilities and production plants.
In a multinational operation of an unprecedented scale, led by a joint UN-OPCW mission, between February and June 2014 all of Syria’s declared 1,308 metric tons of chemical weapons material were removed from the country into specially fitted vessels. The most toxic materials were then destroyed on board a first of its kind US ship anchored in international waters in the Mediterranean. The vessel neutralized close to half of the entire stockpile. The rest was destroyed in plants in volunteering countries – Finland, US, UK and Germany. This operation gained the OPCW the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.
The destruction and monitoring goes on. According to an OPCW report issued in March, 98 percent of the chemicals have been destroyed. However, three of the 12 plants, the report noted, “are not accessible owing to the security situation near these sites.” In addition, reported recent use of chlorine gas in Syria is also being checked by the organization.
Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament created some hope within the international community that Israel would finally agree to join the treaty. A week after Syria’s accession to the CWC in 2013, then-president Shimon Peres was asked by reporters during a visit to The Hague if Israel would follow suit. Peres, who as foreign minister signed the treaty in 1993, replied, “I’m sure our government will consider it seriously.” But the cabinet, convening a month later to discuss the issue, decided to stick to its old policy.
Many in the international diplomatic arena, including all foreign experts interviewed for this piece, are certain that this decision is a mistake and that Israeli ratification of the convention is of mutual interest for all parties concerned. “Israel’s ratification will send out a very strong signal that it is open to diplomatic solutions of particular security problems,” Belgian non-proliferation expert Jean Pascal Zanders tells The Report in a telephone interview from his office in France.
At a plenary meeting of the EU Consortium on Non-Proliferation in Brussels last fall, Nomi Bar-Yaacov, Associate Fellow at the UK international affairs think tank Chatham House argued that if Israel joined the convention, it may eventually lead to Egypt’s joining and thus to a Middle East free of chemical weapons. Such universalization, she asserted, “has far-reaching ramifications at a time when sovereign states in the Middle East are facing unprecedented threats from non-State actors like Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaida and other groups aspiring to acquire non-conventional weapons.”
In Israel, however, the prevalent attitude is skepticism regarding the benefits of becoming a full-fledged member of the convention. Israel’s security establishment apparently believes that the threat of a chemical attack has been nullified. This is underlined by the decision of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in December 2013 to end distribution of gas masks to civilians, and the decision a year later to halt almost entirely the production of masks for soldiers, apart from first responders.
Yet, Israel’s official position remains that “the threats emanating from Syria, including those pertaining to residual chemical capabilities, are still valid in many respects,” according to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement to the OPCW in December 2014.
The statement conforms to the Israeli argument that as long as the rest of the region is not proved free of weapons of mass destruction, it cannot take the risk of joining non-proliferation treaties. It also notes the growing instability in the region and the emergence of non-state and terrorist players as further reason to doubt the ability of international treaties to contribute to Israel’s safety In mid-April, a senior official at the Foreign Ministry informed The Report that despite the ratification of the convention by all the states in the region apart from Egypt, the security situation in the Middle East is far more precarious today than in 1993 when Israel signed the convention. The official suggested, mockingly, that perhaps the OPCW should sign up ISIS (who, according to a filmed report obtained by the BBC, used chlorine gas in the Iraqi city of Tikrit) to the convention rather than pressuring Israel, which has never used chemical weapons. The official also blamed the international organization for picking on the only state that has shown, as the official put it, nothing but peaceful intentions.
Addressing the concerns over residual chemical weapons in Syria, as well as the fear of a potential use of such weapons by non-state actors, Zanders points out that while the chlorine bombs reportedly used in Syria by Assad’s troops should be seriously addressed by the OPCW, they are not a type of a weapon that constitutes a strategic threat to Israel.
Syria, he explains, has been entirely stripped of the equipment required to transfer precursors of agents such as sarin into their final form, of the capability to transfer them into warheads and of the means needed to launch them at heavily populated centers in Israel. Zanders, who has held senior positions in some of Europe’s most prominent military research institutes, remarks that the technical knowledge required to prepare the final agent is so specific, and the process so hazardous, that even if such residues fall into the hands of insurgent groups, the combatants who would undertake them “will become the first victims.”
Dr. Eitan Barak of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem supports the claim that Israel no longer faces the threat of chemical assault. Historically, he explains, the Israeli rationale to refrain from ratifying the CWC was a concern that the nuclear factor may not deter Assad from using chemical weapons against Israel. Maintaining a measure of ambiguity regarding the country’s chemical capacity was deemed, he explains, essential deterrence against Syria. But now, Israel’s position on chemical deterrence “is no longer relevant,” he believes.
According to Barak, it was actually the alleged Israeli nuclear monopoly that prompted the Arab League to urge its member states in 1992 to boycott the forthcoming CWC until Israel committed itself to join the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons).
The US, Mark Fitzpatrick points out, “has been reluctant to apply sanctions that would harm Israel, because of the good friendship [between the countries].” Fitzpatrick doubts that the American administration would change heart anytime soon and invert this policy in order to push Israel to ratification.
Once Israel has joined the treaty, he notes, the Americans may very well promote such restrictions to pressure Egypt to join in, too.
According to Barak, “there is actually an economic disincentive against Israel joining the convention. “The treaty,” he explains, “obliges all party states to destroy any chemical weapons they have, and to do it in an environmental friendly manner. This means that if Israel has a stockpile of chemical weapons, its destruction will prove much more expensive than simply maintaining it.”
All this in the event that a stockpile indeed exists, as Barak believes, citing, inter alia, a secret CIA paper published by the US magazine Foreign Policy in 2013, according to which a US spy satellite uncovered in 1982 a probable nerve agent production facility and a storage facility near Dimona.
During a December OPCW workshop for Israeli journalists, an OPCW official told some of the journalists that he knows of the existence of an Israeli chemical weapons stockpile, as well as its size. The organization hurried to retract the assertion, claiming that it has no capability of assessing whether non-party states have chemical weapons.
In April, a top-level OPCW official told The Report in a phone conversation from The Hague that hypothetically speaking, should Israel ask for aid in destroying a chemical weapons stockpile, it would not be denied. Bringing up the Syrian case as an example of an operation in which the destroying and the funding were conducted by other states, the OPCW official stated that some kind of arrangement to assist can be reached, adding that “where there’s a political will, there’s a way.”
Almost by all interviewees for the piece agreed that Israel’s refusal to join the CWC has little to do with chemical threats or economic calculations and a lot with the elephant in the room: Israel’s fear of exposure of its alleged nuclear capability. The Foreign Ministry official specifically told The Report that Israel has no trust in the OPCW’s framework of verification and inspection.
Asked by The Report about Israeli concerns that, regardless if it has or hasn’t chemical weapons, by giving up the strategic chemical ambiguity Israel would expose itself to further demands to give up on its nuclear ambiguity as well, the OPCW official replied that in his reading of the current situation, “the opposite will be true.”
Despite the growing tension between the Israeli and US administrations over the Lausanne framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, Fitzpatrick, too, deems that Israel will be protected by the US from peering eyes under the verification and inspection regime of the OPCW.
“The United states and the European countries can guarantee Israel that they would protect it from groundless inspection requests designed simply to peer into Dimona or other military secrets,” he says.
“The Western nations are able to block any such request at the OPCW and I’m sure that they would. I don’t think this is really a very strong reason not to ratify the convention.”
Like Barak, Fitzpatrick also is worried that Israel’s tendency to demand tangible gains creates distrust and hurts its diplomatic relationships. “Israeli strategic thinkers should ask what they can get for this. And my answer would be that Israel should do this out of goodwill to show its bona fides.
Chemical agents are abhorrent weapons.
The international community has determined firmly that these weapons are to be abolished. They are illegal and immoral.
“For Israel to hold on to a status of having them just paints Israel in a very bad light.
Israel needs to show it’s not immoral. The United States could suggest that if Israel adheres to the Convention it would continue to protect Israel in the UN despite the bad blood engendered by Netanyahu’s speech in the Congress.”