Syria deal brings renewed attention to Israel’s chemical weapons program

The Wall Street Journal reports: The joint U.S. Russian push to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons is starting to have ripple effects, focusing attention on the suspected arsenal of Israel.

By forcing Syria to admit to its stockpiles of the weapons of mass destruction and take tentative steps toward their elimination, Washington and Moscow could coax Syria’s neighbors into eventually following suit, said Western and Arab diplomats.

But a frequent complaint among Arab countries in the region—that Israel has an undeclared but presumed nuclear-weapons program—has already resurfaced.

Syria’s government has hinted that it could raise Israel’s suspected arsenal of nuclear and other weapons as an international issue and potentially a precondition for Damascus moving ahead on the destruction of what the U.S. estimates is at least 1,000 tons of chemical agents.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that Syria’s program was only necessary as a defense against Israel’s vastly superior firepower.

“It’s well known that Syria has a certain arsenal of chemical weapons and the Syrians always viewed that as an alternative [response] to Israel’s nuclear weapons,” he said Tuesday.

This position could place the Obama administration in a diplomatic corner. The U.S. has held to a decades-old policy of neither publicly acknowledging nor denying Israel’s capabilities, which are believed to include nuclear warheads.

It also could undermine the White House’s efforts to counter weapons proliferation and contain Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. has repeatedly stated that American efforts to reduce its own weapons stockpiles, and those of its allies, diminished the needs of other countries to seek atomic bombs.

“The main danger of WMD is the Israel nuclear arsenal,” Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Ja’afari, told reporters on Thursday. [Continue reading…]

In a lengthy report for Foreign Policy, Matthew Aid this week revealed the contents of a 1983 CIA intelligence estimate on Israel’s chemical weapons program. The estimate has not been declassified but was unearthed at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California where it was found having been stapled to an innocuous unclassified report.

According to the 1983 intelligence estimate, "Israel, finding itself surrounded by frontline Arab states with budding CW [chemical weapons] capabilities, became increasingly conscious of its vulnerability to chemical attack. Its sensitivities were galvanized by the capture of large quantities of Soviet CW-related equipment during both the 1967 Arab-Israeli and the 1973 Yom Kippur wars. As a result, Israel undertook a program of chemical warfare preparations in both offensive and protective areas."

Israeli concerns about Egypt and other Arab states possessing chemical weapons were legitimate. Documents discovered at the National Archives confirm that the Egyptian military had possessed a large stockpile of mustard gas since the early 1960s and had demonstrated that it was not afraid to use these weapons. A declassified May 23, 1967 intelligence assessment found at the National Archives reveals that Egyptian forces first began using mustard gas bombs against Saudi-backed royalist rebel forces in what was then known as North Yemen as early as 1963. According to a January 15, 1968 CIA report, U.S. intelligence learned in early 1967 that Egyptian Soviet-made Tu-16 bombers had dropped bombs filled with nerve agents on rebel positions in Yemen, marking the first time that nerve agents had ever been used in combat. And according to a May 20, 1967 top secret White House memorandum found at the National Archives, the Israelis sent Washington an intelligence report stating that Israeli intelligence had observed "canisters of [poison] gas" with Egyptian troops stationed along the Israeli border in the Sinai Peninsula.

The 1983 CIA estimate reveals that U.S. intelligence first became aware of Israeli chemical weapons-testing activities in the early 1970s, when intelligence sources reported the existence of chemical weapons test grids, which are specially instrumented testing grounds used to measure the range and effectiveness of different chemical agents, particularly nerve agents, in simulated situations and in varying climatic conditions. It is almost certain that these testing grids were located in the arid and sparsely populated Negev Desert, in southern Israel.

But the CIA assessment suggests that the Israelis accelerated their research and development work on chemical weapons following the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. According to the report, U.S. intelligence detected "possible tests" of Israeli chemical weapons in January 1976, which, again, almost certainly took place somewhere in the Negev Desert. A former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer whom I interviewed recalled that at about this time, the National Security Agency captured communications showing that Israeli air force fighter-bombers operating from Hatzerim Air Base outside the city of Beersheba in southern Israel had been detected conducting simulated low-level chemical weapons delivery missions at a bombing range in the Negev Desert.

The U.S. intelligence community was paying an extraordinary amount of attention to Israel in the 1970s, according to a retired CIA analyst I spoke with who studied the region at the time. The possible January 1976 Israeli chemical weapons test occurred a little more than two years after the end of the 1973 war, an event that had shocked the Israeli political and military establishment because it demonstrated for the first time that the Arab armies were now capable of going toe-to-toe on the battlefield with the Israeli military.

To complicate things further, in January 1976 the long-simmering civil war in Lebanon was beginning to heat up. And the CIA was increasingly concerned about the growing volume of evidence, much of it coming from human intelligence sources inside Israel, indicating that the Israeli nuclear weapons stockpile was growing both in size and raw megatonnage. At the same time that all this was happening, the Israeli "chemical weapons" test mentioned in CIA document occurred. It increased the already-heightened level of concern within the U.S. intelligence community about what the Israelis were up to.

In March 1976, two months after the Israeli test in question, a number of newspapers in the U.S. published stories which quoted CIA officials to the effect that Israel possessed a number of nuclear weapons. The leak was based on an authorized off-the-record briefing of newspaper reporters by a senior CIA official in Washington, who intimated to the reporters that Israel was also involved in other activities involving weapons of mass destruction, but refused to say anything further on the subject. The CIA official was likely referring to the agency’s belief that the Israelis may have conducted a chemical weapons test in January 1976. According to a declassified State Department cable, Israeli foreign minister Yigal Allon called in the U.S. ambassador to Israel and registered a strong protest about the story, reiterating the official Israeli government position that Israel did not possess nuclear weapons. After the protest, all further public mention of Israeli WMD activities ceased and the whole subject was quickly and quietly forgotten.

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2 thoughts on “Syria deal brings renewed attention to Israel’s chemical weapons program

  1. Norman

    Well now, this seems quite reasonable. If Israel doesn’t have W.M.D.’s , then perhaps PEACE might finely come to the M.E. After all, if the bully on the beach is constrained, but we all know from past experience, that this is just a pipe dream. Israel give up its “Bomb & Poison Gas”. Never happen unless they unleash it upon the world in its “Death Wish” scenario. After all, if they can’t be the chosen one[s], then no one else can be either.

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