Israeli Policy on the Chemical Weapons Convention

An article by by Gerald M. Steinberg, Director, Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Project, Bar Ilan University
November 1, 2000

Weapon Program: 

  • Chemical

This article appeared in Synthesis, published by the Organization for the
Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, The Hague, November 2000 (pp. 29-31)

Israel's approach to global arms control treaties reflects a number of complex factors -- extreme geographic vulnerability, the Middle East threat environment, skepticism regarding the potential contribution of these treaties to contribute to security and stability (illustrated in the case of Iraq), as well as a strong interest in reducing the threats posed by weapons of mass destruction. These factors are particularly pronounced in Israel's refusal to relinquish its ambiguous existential nuclear deterrent option by joining the NPT.[1] At the same time, Israel signed and is planning to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, demonstrating an interest in pursuing arms limitation when this is consistent with national security interests.

Israeli policy is also reflected in the participation in the multilateral working group on Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) that began after the 1991 Gulf War and the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference. A number of the major states in the region, including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, as well as a number of North African and Gulf States, participated in this process, (although key states, including Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Libya did not participate.) However, the ACRS meetings stopped in 1994, in part, reflecting the lack of progress in the overall Middle East peace process, but also due to basic disagreements between Egypt and Israel over agendas and approaches, including the NPT.[2]

The Israeli policy with respect to the CWC has been consistent with the cautious approach to global arms control regimes. The importance of chemical weapons limitations was highlighted by the proliferation of chemical weapons beginning in the 1970s. Iraq's extensive use of chemical agents during the war with Iran, were an important factor in the development of the CWC, and the Middle East remains a key area of concern.

The treaty was opened for signature in January 1993, and entered into force in April 1997 (180 days after the deposit of the 65th instrument of ratification). In the Middle East, the CWC received a mixed reception. Israel was among the first to sign, but the Egyptian government attempted to persuade all the Arab states to reject the treaty, linking this to Israeli acceptance of the NPT. In addition to Egypt, other key states, including Syria and Libya, have adopted this policy, but others, such as Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and Oman have signed and ratified the agreement. Many reports indicate that large chemical weapons arsenals are maintained by many states in the region, including Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Libya, and the threat remains.[3]

The Israeli government's decision to sign the treaty in January 1993 marked a major departure from Israel's traditional policies, which gave preference to regional treaties, based on mutual inspection. In the wake of the 1991 Madrid peace conference and the Gulf War, Israel began to reconsider its policy on arms control, including, as noted, the agreement to participate in the ACRS working group. 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 in Israel. The U.S. government also 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 participation by Israel in 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.

Although Israel was among the first signatories of the CWC, quick ratification did not follow. Contributing factors include changes in the regional security situation, Israeli domestic political changes, questions regarding the effectiveness of the CWC and the impact on the chemical industry, and the unresolved debate over the efficacy of renouncing the deterrent value of a CW option.

In 1993, the Israeli government in power at the time, led by Prime Minister Rabin and Foreign Minister Peres, was very optimistic about the chances of creating a "New Middle East", with a strong element of regional security. However, by 1995, the optimism had faded. The activities of the ACRS 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.[4] With uncertainty about whether the United States would ratify the CWC, the Israelis postponed making a decision on ratification. After the U.S. ratified the CWC in 1997, the Netanyahu government began to consider the issue again, but was faced with different priorities and a very crowded agenda.

In 1997, following the treaty's entry into force and the establishment of the OPCW, the question of Israeli ratification of the CWC reemerged as a priority on the foreign policy agenda. As a result, a high-level security committee of the Cabinet, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Mordechai, and Ministers Natan Sharansky and Ariel Sharon, met to re-examine the issue.

The Committee considered arguments for and against ratification.[5] The key factor in support of ratification was and remains 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 perceived threat to Israel posed by Iraqi and Iranian 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, proponents argue that Israel would become part of the global arms control process, with the political benefits of being members of this "club", while, as result of this CBM, the international pressure to change its position on the NPT would decrease. (Opponents argue the impact would be the reverse, and that once Israel is part of the CWC, pressure to accede to the NPT would actually increase, particularly if Egypt and Syria ratified the CWC.) 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 (all of whom are reported to possess large CW arsenals) also sign and ratify the CWC, (which is seen as highly unlikely) and the regime is very effective, the threat to Israel will remain. As former Defense Mordechai noted in 1998, "I think that we have to wait and see how things develop. The problem is that some of the states in the region are not signing, and there is no way of inspecting those who are [not signing]. We had discussions in the cabinet, and we decided to postpone decisions for a certain period. We will discuss it again."[6]

In addition, the Israeli evaluation of the ability of the CWC regime to verify the prohibitions and prevent or deter violations remains skeptical, based on the experience with Iraq and Iran. In the case of Iraq, almost ten years of highly intrusive inspections, Saddam Hussein has been able to hide and protect CW, BW, nuclear and missile facilities and materials. Despite the efforts of UNSCOM, the international community failed to insure that Iraq would be disarmed, and sanctions have gradually eroded. Iran is also a source of concern, and despite the internal political changes, its leaders maintain an extremist policy with respect to Israel. This hostility, along with the development and testing of ballistic missiles, and support for terrorist activities, remains a major source of instability in the region, and Iran's actions regarding CW are watched closely. After Iran deposited the instruments of ratification for the Chemical Weapons Convention in November 1997, its declaration was late, and its contents were not officially revealed. In November 1998, Iranian ambassador Mohammad Alborzi made a major presentation at the 3rd Conference of States Parties (CSP) to the CWC in The Hague. He admitted that Iran had sought to develop the deadly weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, but claimed that "Following the establishment of the cease fire (in July 1998), the decision to develop chemical weapons capabilities was reversed and the process was terminated.." He also repeated complaints that the U.S. and other state parties have imposed limitations on access to technologies and materials that might be used in producing chemical weapons, even to CWC signatories, which, in turn, was seen as an effort to maintain or even enhance a CW capability.[7] Given its past and current policies with respect to Israel, Iranian membership on the OPCW Executive Council and the OPCW's courses in Iran did not help to increase the credibility of the regime, in Israeli eyes.

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 that Israel does not possess a biological weapons 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 ratifies the CWC, it would lose the ambiguity regarding a chemical deterrent.

In addition, there are concerns 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 problemby 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.

In 1998, the prospects for Israeli ratification diminished with the collapse of the U.N. Special Commission responsible for monitoring the destruction of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. These events showed that even themost intrusive inspection and verification system ever implemented was unable to insure that prohibited weapons would not be developed. In this period, increased concern regarding possible Iraqi CW or BW attacks on Israel in response to an American attack on Iraq highlighted the uncertainty of the deterrence requirements.

In summary, the prospects for Israeli ratification of the CWC remain uncertain. No firm decision has been made, the ratification option remains open, and pressures for this step will increase as the date for sanctions imposed on non-signatories draws closer.

[1] See Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998)

[2] Joel Peters, Pathways to Peace: The Multilateral Arab-Israeli Talks (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1996); and Bruce W. Jentleson, "The Middle East Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) Talks: Progress, Problems, Prospects," (University of California: Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation), Policy Paper No. 26, 1996.

[3] See Dany Shoham, "Chemical and Biological Weapons in Egypt," Nonproliferation Review, 5:3, Spring-Summer 1998; BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Danny Shoham, Chemical Weapons in Egypt and Syria, Security and Policy Studies, No. 21, January 1995 (Hebrew); Anthony H. Cordesman, "The Military Balance in the Middle East: an Executive Summary," (University of California: Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation), Policy Paper No. 49, March 1999.

[4] Gerald M. Steinberg, "The 1995 NPT Extension and Review Conference and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process," NonProliferation Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall 1996.

[5] Steve Rodan, "Israel is in dilemma over ratifying CWC," Jerusalem Post, July 23, 1997

[6] Ze'ev Schiff, "An interview with Yitzhak Mordechai," Ha'aretz Daily, April 16, 1998, <>.

[7] Statement By H.E. Ambassador Mohammad R. Alborzi Director General of the MFA., The Hague, Netherlands, November, 16-20, 1998.