Syria's Move To Join Chemical Treaty Puts Pressure On Israel

World leaders meeting at the United Nations in New York this week face potentially dramatic changes to arms control in the Middle East. Syria may give up chemical weapons. Iran is signaling it could negotiate with the West over its nuclear plans. How might this affect Israel, and its own weapons programs?

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World leaders are convening in New York this week for the United Nations' General Assembly. And among other things, they're facing some potentially dramatic changes in arms control in the Middle East. Syria might give up it chemical weapons. Iran is signaling that it might negotiate with the West over its nuclear plans. From Jerusalem, NPR's Emily Harris looks at how this might affect Israel and its own weapons programs.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The day after Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart signed the draft agreement to get rid of Syria's chemical weapons, Kerry flew to Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the deal.

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BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The world needs to ensure that radical regimes don't have weapons of mass destruction because, as we've learned once again in Syria, if rogue regimes have weapons of mass destruction, they will use them.

HARRIS: But even before the draft was negotiated, Israeli media were asking: Might we be next? Israel signed the chemical weapons convention on January 13, 1993, the very first day it was possible to do so. But Israel never ratified the treaty, so isn't bound by its rules.

Israeli political analyst Akiva Eldar says Syria's move to join the chemical treaty put pressure on Israel.

AKIVA ELDAR: Now people are asking: Why didn't you ratify it? You signed, you joined the convention. But if you have nothing to hide, why do you avoid ratifying it?

HARRIS: In a recent statement, the Foreign Ministry said any potential discussion of ratifying the treaty, would have to consider real chemical weapons threats Israel faces in the region. Information about what weapons Israel may have comes in dribs and drabs. Foreign Policy magazine recently published a CIA document that says in the early '80s, the U.S. believed Israel had access to nerve agents and ways to use them.

In 1990, an Israeli minister said that if Saddam Hussein threatened Israel with chemical weapons, Israel would return the threat with the same merchandise. Two years later, an Israeli cargo plane crashed in the Netherlands. Israel eventually confirmed an ingredient that can be used to make sarin gas was on board.

Arms control expert Eitan Barack says one reason Israel might not want to ratify the chemical weapons convention, is that then it would have to do what Syria is being pressed to do: reveal details of any chemical weapons research or development.

EITAN BARACK: You should explain what you have, what you get, from whom. It could be highly embarrassing. And then, don't forget that some segment of the population are second generation of the Nazi gas chamber. So they could react differently.

HARRIS: Barack keeps a cross-bow in the corner of his office, a couple of defused landmines on his desk, and the entire text of the Chemical Weapons Convention, in English and Hebrew, on his bookshelf. While domestic embarrassment may be one thing, he says the main reason Israel wouldn't want to sign the chemical weapons treaty, is that it hasn't signed other major weapons treaties either.

BARACK: They won't say it, of course. No official will say it to you. Israel's concern will be what we call the slippery slope. You join one treaty and then pressure will start to the next treaty.

HARRIS: In particular, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT. Israel has never acknowledged having nuclear weapons, but estimates in recent reports suggest the country has scores of warheads. Last week, Russia said Syria developed chemical weapons in part because of Israel's nuclear program, and suggested that if one goes, the other should too.

Now with Iran making overtures to the U.S., Israeli political analyst Akiva Eldar expects this issue won't go away.

ELDAR: Iran will eventually ask the Americans: Why do you turn a blind eye to the fact that Israel refuses to sign the NPT.

HARRIS: Israel has consistently used a strategy of neither confirmation nor denial of having any weapons of mass destruction. Ambiguity, analysts here say, may be a more effective deterrent than treaties for now.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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