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Syria deal shines light on Israeli capabilities

Tuesday - 9/17/2013, 3:34am  ET

FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009 file photo Israeli soldiers wear gas masks as they take part in a home front command army drill simulating a chemical missile attack at an army base near Tel Aviv. The U.S.-Russian plan to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons is drawing some unwanted attention on Israel's own alleged chemical stockpile and could raise pressure on the Jewish state to come clean about its capabilities. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- The U.S.-Russian plan to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons is drawing attention to Israel's own suspected chemical stockpile and could raise pressure on the Jewish state to come clean about its capabilities.

Israel signed the landmark international treaty banning the production or use of chemical weapons two decades ago, but it is among a handful of nations that have never ratified the deal. While foreign experts widely believe that Israel likely possesses a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, Israeli officials refuse to confirm or deny the existence of any such arsenal.

They say the key issue right now is Syria, not Israel.

In a radio interview Monday, former Defense Minister Amir Peretz declined to discuss the country's chemical weapons capabilities but said the international community's attitude toward Israel is "different" from Syria.

"It's clear to everyone that (Israel) is a democratic, responsible regime," he told Israel Radio. "I very much hope and am certain that the international community will not make this a central question and we will maintain the status quo."

Israel has been similarly vague about foreign reports of a nuclear arsenal, a policy of ambiguity aimed at deterring its enemies. But following the weekend deal between the U.S. and Russia to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014, voices have emerged calling on the government to take similar steps.

"I do believe that the Israeli government should be open about this issue, should say what arsenal, if any, it does have and should strive for an international agreement to keep all these kinds of weapons outside of the Middle East," said opposition lawmaker Dov Khenin.

The liberal daily Haaretz wrote in an editorial Monday that the chemical disarmament of Syria gives Israel an opportunity to finally ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention.

"It would be a pity if in the future Israel finds itself in the position of Syria -- forced to sign the convention under international pressure," the newspaper said.

Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Israel could not ratify the treaty in such an uncertain environment. "These things are regional and we're not going to go out there on our own," he said.

There seems to be a consensus among foreign experts that Israel has likely developed an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons over the years.

"Israel's lack of transparency has led to a continued suspicion that a chemical weapons program is in place, although we are unable to confirm this or provide any further details," Emily Chorley, a chemical weapons analyst at IHS Jane's, said in an email.

In a report this month, Foreign Policy magazine published what it said was a secret 1983 CIA document outlining evidence that Israel possessed a chemical weapons stockpile of unknown size, likely developed in the 1970s out of fear its neighbors were acquiring such weapons.

"Several indicators lead us to believe that they have available to them at least persistent and nonpersistent nerve agents, a mustard agent, and several riot-control agents, matched with suitable delivery systems," the document says.

The article's author, military historian Matthew M. Aid, said the nonpersistent agent was almost certainly sarin, the same chemical that the Syrian army is suspected of using in an Aug. 21 attack that allegedly killed more than 1,400 civilians and triggered the international response. It was unclear what the persistent nerve agent might be.

Chemicals are labeled persistent and nonpersistent depending on how long they last.

The document said Israel had possessed special testing equipment since the early 1970s and "possible tests were detected in January 1976." It also said a "probable CW nerve agent production facility and a storage facility" were identified in 1982 in the southern Israeli town of Dimona, home to Israel's secretive nuclear program. It said other weapons production capability was believed to exist in Israel's chemical industry.

If Israel does have an active chemical weapons program, it likely involves the Israel Institute for Biological Research, a secretive facility in the Tel Aviv suburb of Nes Ziona that is under the jurisdiction of the prime minister's office. The facility's website describes itself as a "governmental, applied research institute specializing in the fields of biology, medicinal chemistry and environmental sciences." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office declined comment.

Israel says it has never used chemical weapons on the battlefield, though in one famous incident, Israeli agents attempted to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal by poisoning him in neighboring Jordan. The agents were captured, however, and Israel was forced to turn over the antidote.

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