Chemical arms official urges allies to pressure Israel into joining pact
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Chemical arms official urges allies to pressure Israel into joining pact

Expert from OPCW watchdog claims to know size of Israel’s chemical weapons stockpile; after Syria threat neutralized, organization looks to convince Jerusalem to ratify convention

Lazar Berman is a former breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Employees in protective gear holding a dummy grenade during a demonstration at a chemical weapons disposal facility in Munster, northern Germany, October 30, 2013 (AFP PHOTO/ Phillip Guelland)
Employees in protective gear holding a dummy grenade during a demonstration at a chemical weapons disposal facility in Munster, northern Germany, October 30, 2013 (AFP PHOTO/ Phillip Guelland)

THE HAGUE — An official from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons called this week for Israel’s close allies to apply pressure on the country to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and allow international monitors to verify compliance.

The official added that he knew of the existence and size of Israel’s chemical weapons stockpile, despite Jerusalem’s maintenance of strategic ambiguity on the matter.

Speaking from The Hague on condition of anonymity, the official said unnamed allies should be doing more to bring Israel under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the production and use of chemical weapons.

“I think Israel should be under a little more pressure by its close allies in order to join the treaty,” the OPCW official told The Times of Israel in The Hague.

At the same time, he said, the OPCW itself would seek constructive methods in order to raise awareness and influence public opinion in Israel.

“I hope we [the OPCW, directly] don’t do any diplomatic pressure. I hope we will continue to work with Israeli media, and think tanks in Israel, in order to build a little more confidence,” the official said.

Israel signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, but when it was put into force in 1997, Israel refrained from ratifying the treaty. State parties that sign the convention undertake the obligation to prohibit producing and using chemical weapons, as well as to destroy all weapons and facilities they have.

Little is known about Israel’s chemical capabilities, and Jerusalem does not comment on the matter, preferring to maintain a policy of strategic ambiguity.

The official claimed to know details of Israel’s chemical program from a previous position he held outside the OPCW.

When asked if he knew the size of Israel’s stockpile, he said, “Yes, I know,” but would go into no more detail.

The headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, Netherlands (photo credit: AP/Peter Dejong)
The headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, Netherlands (photo credit: AP/Peter Dejong)

The official did reveal that Egypt has “thousands of tons” of chemical weapons.

Others disagreed with his assessment. Avner Cohen, professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told The Times of Israel last year that he “strongly doubts” Israel currently has deployable chemical weapons.

The OPCW itself has no official stance on the capabilities of states that are not party to the convention.

“It does not have any capability for assessing whether or not non-Member States possess chemical weapons, nor do we make any assumptions in this regard, in keeping with our mandate,” said Peter Sawczak, head of the OPCW’s Government Relations and Political Affairs Branch, in an email interview Wednesday.

Major push

These are heady times for the OPCW. After years outside of the limelight, an unexpected opportunity struck when Russia and Syria responded positively to an offhand suggestion by US Secretary of State John Kerry that Bashar Assad’s regime could avert airstrikes if it agreed to turn over its chemical weapons — which had killed hundreds in an August attack — within a week.

The Syrian ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the prompt beginning of the destruction and removal process, led to the OPCW winning the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, further raising the organization’s profile. In addition, next year the OPCW will mark 100 years since the first full-scale deployment of deadly chemical weapons at the Second Battle of Ypres, and a number of high-profile ceremonies and initiatives are planned.

The OPCW is in the midst of a major push for ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention by the six remaining countries that are not members. According to Sawczak, Myanmar and Angola are making rapid progress toward joining, and South Sudan is expected to join as well.

This would leave Israel in the dubious company of Egypt and North Korea.

Of the three, Israel seems to be the one the OPCW believes can be convinced to join.

One of Israel’s chief reasons for remaining outside the CWC was the Syrian chemical program, which is now no longer a strategic threat, according to the OPCW.

According to the group, 100 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons have been removed from the country, and 98% have been destroyed. The remaining 2% are weapons containing hydrogen fluoride that are difficult to destroy because of the corrosion of the cylinders containing the chemicals.

The OPCW has also overseen the complete destruction of 13 of the 27 production facilities declared by the Assad regime. Only the structure of the other 14 facilities remains, with the equipment inside destroyed, according to the OPCW official.

“You might have some munitions remaining somewhere, not a full program in order to produce chemical weapons. We continue to investigate,” said the official. “We have 95% of the puzzle, we have some small pieces missing in the puzzle.”

Still worried over Syria

But skepticism remains in Israel over Syria’s honesty regarding its chemical weapons declarations. In September, an Israeli official told Reuters that Israel’s security establishment believes Syria still possesses “significant” stockpiles of ready-to-use chemical weapons.

“There is, to my mind, still in the hands of Syria a significant residual capability…that could be used in certain circumstances and could be potentially very serious,” the official was quoted as saying.

“I don’t believe OPCW claims that 100% of Syria’s chemical weapons have been removed from the country,” Dany Shoham, biological and chemical weapons expert at Bar Ilan University’s BESA Center, told The Times of Israel.

Video broadcast on Syrian State Television purports to show an UN expert examining a chemical weapons plant at an unknown location in Syria, October 8, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Syrian State Television)
Video broadcast on Syrian State Television purports to show an UN expert examining a chemical weapons plant at an unknown location in Syria, October 8, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Syrian State Television)

Other issues complicate the assessment of Syria’s compliance. Syria claims to have destroyed 100 metric tons of sulphur mustard before joining the Chemical Weapons Convention. OPCW teams can verify that such weapons were indeed destroyed there, but cannot verify the exact quantity. Much of the inspections regime is based upon the declarations of the member states, which the organization then seeks to verify through investigation. “When Iran says something, we trust Iran. When the US says something, we trust the US. When Syria says something, we trust Syria,” explained the OPCW official.

“What will be the interest for Syria [to lie] under the pressure of the US? You have to put everything in context. Syria joined the treaty under the pressure of US and Russia. For what? In order to save his regime. What will be the interest of the [regime] to do something against their wish to rebuild his credibility in the international community?” he asked.

There is also the suspicion that Assad passed some chemical weapons to Shiite terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In 2013, a Free Syrian Army spokesman claimed that Syria had passed two shipments of chemical weapons to the organization. In October of that year, the Saudi al-Watan newspaper reported that a Lebanese anti-Hezbollah parliamentarian claimed that Assad had transferred large stores of chemical weapons to Hezbollah. Neither report could be confirmed.

“According to my knowledge, I have not seen any transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah or Lebanon,” said the OPCW official.

‘Cost to Israeli industry’

There are other reasons for Israel to ratify the treaty, according to the OPCW.

“The CWC is underpinned by a gold standard verification regime, which would be significantly strengthened by Israel’s participation. Israel’s concerns about proliferation in its region would best be addressed by being inside the CWC regime,” emphasized Sawczak. “At a time when non-state actors have made no secret of their interest in acquiring and using chemcial weapons, it is vital that our efforts to combat this threat draw on the expertise of all countries, including Israel’s.”

Sawczak pointed to commercial benefits as well, as non-member states are subject to restrictions in some commercially significant chemicals. “This may well entail a cost to Israeli industry.”

Hadassah Medical Center staff and Home Front Command soldiers during a drill Wednesday simulating a chemical weapon attack on Israel (Photo credit: David Katz/ The Israel Project)
Hadassah Medical Center staff and Home Front Command soldiers during a drill Wednesday simulating a chemical weapon attack on Israel (Photo credit: David Katz/ The Israel Project)

But Israel has other reasons to balk. Joining the treaty would theoretically open it up to challenge inspections by member states, including hostile countries looking to embarrass Israel or extract intelligence. However, no challenge inspections have ever been undertaken, and there are safeguards in place to protect against frivolous or abusive challenges.

Another concern could be the fear of the international community increasing pressure on Israel to allow inspection of its reported nuclear program, though there is no direct connection between Chemical Weapons Convention ratification and any obligations on a country’s nuclear program.

There is also the deterrent benefit of enemies believing Israel possesses chemical weapons, but that might be overstated. It is inconceivable that Israel would use them, and unlike nuclear weapons, there is no international legitimacy to possessing chemical weapons.

On December 2, Tamar Rahamimoff-Honig, director of the Strategic Affairs Division of the Foreign Ministry’s Arms Control Department, said in her official statement at the Chemical Weapons Convention that “Israel fully support the goals and purposes of the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

She called for comprehensive regional security arrangements to address Israel’s concerns. “Only once such measures are in place, have taken root and have shown to be durable and conducive, can more ambitious undertakings be considered,” she said, likely referring to Israel’s ratification of the CWC.

The OPCW official sees Israeli ratification as a positive step for the region. “It will be healthy for the Middle East if Israel can join this treaty,” he said.

Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.

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