CWC, Vienna, Helsinki…. Three opportunities for Israel to engage

November 19, 2014

Foto Israel WilbertIn the coming days, the Israeli government will have to make decisions on membership in the Chemical Weapons Convention and participation in two potentially ground-breaking conferences: The Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons and the Helsinki Conference on a Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East. In all three cases, it boils down for the Israeli government to a choice between continued isolation or a daring break with past reluctance to engage in international discussions and treaty regimes designed to create a world without weapons of mass destruction. Israel will need to decide whether or not to come out of its self imposed isolation.

The Chemical Weapons Convention
I just got back from Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem where I had the fortune to participate in round table discussions organised by the Israeli Disarmament Movement (IDM) and Green Cross International. The central topic was whether Israel is now ready to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or not. Until recently, the main reason given by government officials not to join the CWC was Syria. After all, how could anyone expect Israel to ratify the Convention as long as Syria was deploying chemical weapons for use explicitly against ‘foreign intervention’.

Since my last visit, about six months ago, that argument has become obsolete. Syria, under tremendous international pressure, acceded to the CWC and disposed of its entire chemical weapons arsenal as well as major precursor chemicals. It did so with international help and at an unprecedented tempo. As a result, there is no strategic threat anymore that warrants a countervailing Israeli chemical weapons capability.

During my most recent visit, I learned that Israel is in no hurry to ratify the CWC. Rather than accepting Syrian accession as an opportunity to make a positive step that would contribute to regional safety and help break Israeli isolation, many Israeli’s now argue that there is no real need for Israel to ratify the CWC as Israel has proven to be a responsible actor. In addition, some indicate that accession to the CWC would put Israel on a slippery slope that could end in pressure to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state. And that, apparently, is still a worst case scenario.

Israel’s unwillingness to ratify the CWC keeps it in a small group of countries that stand in the way of full universalisation of the CWC – a small group that is only getting smaller. By now, only Angola, Egypt, Myanmar, North Korea, South-Sudan and Israel are outside the Convention. Of those six, Angola and Myanmar have already indicated the intent to join and are taking steps to make it happen. The troubled young state of South-Sudan is in no position currently to contemplate joining the CWC, but it is widely assumed that once the domestic turmoil is overcome, South-Sudan will seek rapid accession to the CWC. That leaves Israel in the uncomfortable company of North Korea and Egypt – the only three states willingly and knowingly defying the global consensus that chemical weapons have no place in the 21st century.

Egypt shares at least part of the blame here. Egypt has no chemical weapons nor the intent to get them, but it has made accession to the CWC dependent on Israel’s willingness to accede to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). The Egyptian choice to use the threat of chemical weapons as a sort of bargaining chip in a tit-for-tat disarmament game with Israel is reflective of the deep frustration felt in Egypt (and much of the Arab world) about Israel’s choice to not engage with any international weapons of mass destruction arms control regimes and its apparent ability to do so without serious diplomatic consequences. Still, it seems a cynical thing to do, to use chemical weapons as bargaining chips. There is also no indication that the strategy works at all.

Israel is quickly running out of arguments against ratifying the CWC. The strategic threat is gone and the Syrian case shows how the use of chemical weapons has become universally unacceptable. There simply is no place for the use – or threat of use – of such a disgusting weapon.

CWC universalisation is a worthy objective in itself, 100 years after the first use of chemical weapons in the First World War. Israeli ratification is part of a larger picture as well. Currently, a last, almost desperate attempt is ongoing to get all the countries of the Middle East region to participate in the first regional conference on how to create a regional zone free of weapons of mass destruction (and their delivery systems). Ever since the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the ‘Conveners’ (Russia, the UN Secretary General, the UK and the US) have tried to set up this Conference initially promising to deliver it before the end of 2012. Finnish facilitator Jaakko Laajava must be the most travelled man of this decade, traversing the Middle East to negotiate at least the most rudimentary understanding between Iran, Israel and the Arab League nations in the region. So far, he has not succeeded in getting the parties to agree on a conference agenda. At the same time, some in the region argue that the preparatory meetings that were held in Glion and Geneva, Switzerland have been an achievement in their own right. But it is not enough. If the conveners do not manage to have a first real conference before the upcoming NPT Review Conference, the Arab nations especially will be distraught. A region free of weapons of mass destruction was part of grand deal that not only helped reach agreement on the indefinite extension of the NPT, but may also have been the justification for some states to join the treaty regime in the first place.

So the pressure is on to deliver before the end of April next year. Some believe that the conveners are pushing for a conference regardless of its chances of success. From their perspective, any conference is better than no conference at all. Israel has participated in preparatory meetings, but it has not yet agreed to an agenda. Israel’s problem – but also its trump card in many respects – is that the conference is planned as part of the NPT regime, to which Israel is not party. Why – Israelis wonder – should we feel pressured to participate in any plan that we were not part of nor need to take responsibility for? Listening to Israelis, there seems little reason to be positive about the chance that a conference will materialise between now and April 2015 in Helsinki that will qualify as ‘meaningful progress’.

Finally, Israel is invited to participate in yet another conference. On December 8 and 9, representatives of more than 150 countries gather in Vienna for the 3rd Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (HINW). Israel has not participated in previous conferences, just like the NPT recognised nuclear armed states and few would have expected Israel to suddenly accept the invitation this time around if it weren’t for the surprise announcement that the US will join. Without a doubt, Israeli participation would be welcomed by the Austrian hosts as well as by many of Israel’s allies and partners who believe that HINW offers a chance for Israel to show commitment to international discussions on important arms control issues. And it would allow Israel to demonstrate that it will not be deterred by recent tensions. With or without Israeli diplomatic participation, at least one Israeli Knesset member will attend.

CWC, Helsinki, Vienna – all three provide Israel with options to diminish some of the isolation the country experiences in international relations. Joining the CWC means joining the global consensus that chemical weapons have no place and reducing the risk of the use of chemical weapons. Going to Helsinki would show Israel’s intent to engage in meaningful debate on security concerns that matter to its neighbours and to Israel alike. And surely, Israel has nothing to lose from joining a fact based discussion on the impacts of a weapons system in Vienna. In fact, it would reaffirm Israel’s importance in multilateral discussions on nuclear weapons.

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