Gerald Steinberg, Director, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Project

BESA Center for Stratetic Studies, Bar Ilan University, Israel

February 9, 1998

In January 1993, the Israeli government signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Israel must now decide whether to ratify the treaty. The issues are complex, and the outcome of the Special Cabinet Committee’s discussions remains uncertain. Related developments in the region, such as the resolution of the situation in Iraq, Iranian compliance with the terms of the CWC, and the implementation of CWC inspection procedures will influence the prospects for ratification. Other factors also play a role, including broader security and deterrence considerations, the status of the Middle East peace process, and the perceived impact of ratification on Israel’s status with respect to the Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are also linked to this question.

The decision to sign the CWC was a significant departure from previous Israeli policy, which had emphasized regional arms control frameworks, while avoiding involvement in global arms control agreements, specifically the NPT. However, in the wake of the 1991 Madrid peace process and the Gulf War, Israel began reconsider its policy on arms control. The Madrid Conference led to the creation of five multilateral working groups, including one on arms control and regional security (ACRS). Participation in this working group required the Israeli government to develop positions on a wide range of arms control issues.

In addition, the Iraqi use of chemical weapons, the threat of CW attacks on Israel during the Gulf War, and the proliferation of these weapons in the region increased the threat perception. At the same time, the U.S. government pressed Israel to sign the CWC, and the close political relationship between the United States and Israel was a factor in the 1993 decision. Although many government and military policy makers remained skeptical, others, including the late Prime Minister Rabin, viewed the net results of signing the CWC as a net benefit. As a result, Israel also became more involved in the activities of the Conference on Disarmament, becoming a full member in 1997, and more pro-active in regional arms control efforts, including ACRS.

However, after the treaty was signed, its visibility on the security agenda in the region declined. The proceedings of the arms control and regional security working group were frozen in the wake of the debate prior to the 1995 NPT Extension Conference and the impasse over Egyptian demands regarding Israeli policy. With uncertainty about whether the United States would ratify the CWC, the Israelis postponed consideration of the issue. After U.S. ratification in 1997, a new government under Netanyahu had been elected, with different priorities and a very crowded agenda.

However, a decision on ratification of the CWC has reemerged as a priority on the Israeli foreign policy agenda following the treaty’s entry into force and the establishment of the Organization for the Prohibition of Conventional Weapons (OPCW), which is responsible for implementing and verifying compliance. As a result, a high-level cabinet committee was formed to reexamine the issue.

The Committee has been presented with persuasive arguments for and against ratification. The key factor in support of ratification is economic: the sanctions that will be imposed on non-signatories beginning in the year 2000 are expected to be very costly. Israel is an advanced industrial country with a high level of interdependence with respect to the economies of other developed states. The loss of access to both suppliers and markets in the OECD countries would be very expensive for Israel.

A second factor favoring ratification focuses on the primary purpose of the CWC -- to limit the threat posed by the proliferation of chemical weapons. In the wake of the Gulf War and the threat to Israel posed by Iraqi CW capabilities, as well as the Egyptian, Syrian, and Libyan stockpiles, supporters of ratification argue that Israel should participate in any effort to reduce the threat of chemical weapons in the region. The CWC’s highly intrusive verification mechanism is an indication that in contrast to other global arms limitation systems, the verification in this case will be more reliable. As the range of states in the region that accept the provisions of the CWC expands, the remaining holdouts, primarily Egypt, Syria, and Libya, will face greater pressure that might eventually induce them to sign and ratify as well. Third, by ratifying the treaty, Israel becomes part of the global arms control process, with the political benefits of being members of this "club," while the international pressure to change its position on the NPT would decrease. Fourth, ratification would lead to increased involvement in cooperative efforts to develop defenses against chemical weapons.

There are also, however, strong arguments in opposition to Israeli ratification of the CWC. The first is the expectation of the critics that the verification regime will be ineffective and signatories such as Iran will be able to violate the CWC. Even with comprehensive verification, unless Egypt, Syria and Libya also sign and ratify the CWC (which is seen as highly unlikely,) the threat to Israel will remain.

Opponents of ratification also argue that the perception that Israel may respond to a chemical attack by using similar weapons is seen as an important factor in deterrence. If Israel ratifies the CWC (and assuming no BW capability), it would then only be able to respond to a CW attack with a nuclear strike or a massive conventional attack. From this perspective, the former is perceived as not credible because it is disproportionate, while the latter is considered too weak for deterrence purposes. If Israel were not ratify the CWC, it would lose the ambiguity about its capability and willingness to employ chemical weapons.

In addition, opponents of ratification are concerned about the possibility that the highly intrusive challenge inspections will be abused and exploited by other states in the region, such as Iran, to gather intelligence about Israel’s nuclear and other military facilities. Although the United States has addressed this problem by specifying the terms under which challenge inspections can be undertaken on its territory, Israel would lack the leverage of the U.S. vis a vis the OPCW. Regarding sanctions, opponents of ratification argue that the economic costs of remaining out of the CWC system are overestimated and that sanctions are unlikely to be imposed.

Although the internal debates currently seem to favor ratification by a narrow margin, the eventual resolution to the situation in Iraq will have an important effect on the outcome. The prospects for ratification will diminish if the U.N. Special Commission collapses and Saddam Hussein remains in power with his weapons of mass destruction capabilities intact. This would constitute a failure of the intrusive inspection and sanctions system, and mark a major setback for remaining hopes of the possible evolution of regional security systems and mutual limitations in some agreed areas. Also, increased concern regarding possible Iraqi CW or BW attacks on Israel in response to an American attack on Iraq have highlighted the uncertainty of the deterrence requirements.

Gerald Steinberg is a Professor of Political Studies and directs the program on Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Research at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. His research focuses on Israeli and Middle Eastern foreign and defense policy, arms control, and proliferation. He also participates in the "track two" discussions of the multilateral working group on regional security and arms control and the Mediterranean Dialogue activities of the OSCE and WEU.

Rapporteur: Rafael Bonoan

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