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Israel’s silence over chemical weapons only fuels suspicion

Syria, it seems, is not the only country in the Middle East with chemical or biological weapons. Even as a reluctant Syrian President Bashar al-Assad prepares to hand over an inventory of all the CW his regime has, he has leveled accusations that Israel has such weapons as well, even threatening not to become a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention until Israel does the same.

The charges have been met with stony silence from Jerusalem.

What can be said is that Israel is not a signatory to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention that governs biological weapons, nor is it a party to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. (While it signed the CWC when it first was negotiated, Israel chose not to ratify it when it went into effect.) Apart from Syria and Israel only five other countries are not parties to the CWC and, for the most part, they're not a savory lot: North Korea, Myanmar, Angola, Somalia and Egypt.

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While many people believe that Israel possesses nuclear weapons – even though the Jewish state has neither confirmed nor denied the notion – few people think of Israel as having an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. Here too the government is non-committal, but a number of Israeli experts have made it pretty clear the country has pursued and manufactured them and for a very long time.

In April, 1948, a month before the founding of the state and less than three years after the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust, David Ben Gurion, leader of the Jewish community in Palestine, wrote an ominous letter to Ehud Avriel, an operative in Europe who had responsibility for getting Jews to Palestine.

Mr. Ben Gurion, who would become Israel's first prime minister, said he wanted Mr. Avriel to recruit Jewish scientists from Eastern Europe who had special knowledge about biological weapons and could "either increase the capacity to kill masses or to cure masses; both things are important," he wrote. A secret research lab was created within the defence ministry, commanded by Ephraim Katzir, a biochemist who would go on to become the country's fourth president.

In a 1993 interview with an Israeli newspaper, Mr. Katzir acknowledged that his group "planned various activities to get a sense of what chemical and biological weapons are and how we could build a potential should there be a need for such a potential."

Mr. Ben Gurion had recognized that the vulnerable Jewish community, which sought security from any genocidal attacks, needed an ultimate weapon of deterrence.

Avner Cohen, a professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, says Mr. Ben Gurion viewed the A-bomb as such a weapon and sought to develop it. But, realizing that would take time, he wanted a stop-gap weapon. Thus he turned to biological weapons and, later, to chemical weapons, which are seen as more easily directed and controlled.

In the 1950s and 60s, Israeli leaders worried that Egypt, Israel's chief adversary, might resort to using chemical weapons and ramped up their own production of such an arsenal, says Mr. Cohen. Indeed, Egypt used CW in its 1963 war with Yemen, but it never unleashed them against Israel. The suspicion that Israel possessed its own may well have deterred the Egyptians.

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In 1990, when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein threatened to attack Israel with chemical or biological weapons, the Israeli science minister, Yuval Ne'eman, told the New York Times that if such threats are carried out, "we have an excellent response, and that is to threaten Hussein with the same merchandise." It was the clearest public admission ever of Israel's chemical/biological arsenal.

These days, it's doubtful that Israel has a stockpile of such weapons. "While Israel maintains advanced R&D biodefense, and even possibly BW agent production capabilities, most analysts do not believe Israel maintains active production or stockpiles," says the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a WMD watchdog organization.

Today, under new pressure to relinquish its weapons capabilities, Israel is getting mixed advice. Dany Shoham, a former military intelligence analyst now at the Besa Center of Bar Ilan University, told the Times of Israel this week: "So long as Iran and Egypt maintain their [CW] arsenals, Israel should not change its position."

Mr. Cohen, author of a major study of Israel's chemical and biological weapons "strongly doubts" that Israel has deployable weapons in its arsenal at this time. But he argues that if Syria does disarm, Israel would do well to do give up its CW facilities as well.

After all, Mr. Cohen notes, Israel has a nuclear capability; so it "has all the reasons in the world to join the global consensus in abolishing both chemical and biological weapons from the face of the Earth."

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