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No More Exemptions

Why Israel can no longer afford to rebuff global norms pertaining to weapons of mass destruction.


In a revealing recent exchange, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his outgoing national security advisor, former general Ya’akov Amidror, offered two competing visions of Israel’s future and its self-image.

On Nov. 3, Netanyahu articulated what he calls the most important question facing Israeli leaders: "How do we make certain that the most challenged and threatened state on the face of the earth not only continues to survive but continues to defend itself, to build up its strength, to prosper, and to ensure its future?" His answer is self-reliance — or as he put it, "[I]n the end, the thread of our existence depends on us and we will not let it be cut by anyone."

Earlier that day, Amidror struck a decidedly different tone during his farewell before the Israeli cabinet. The former head of research for military intelligence highlighted the potential international backlash against Israel if the current round of peace talks with the Palestinians were to fail. He cited the European Union directives passed this summer, which forbid doing business with Israeli institutions in territory seized in 1967, as an example of how Israel would be treated if it were perceived as being evasive or inflexible on the Palestinian issue. In other words, whereas Netanyahu emphasized Israel’s autonomy, as conservative Israeli politicians often do, Amidror worried that Israel’s growing international isolation could undermine its security.

In that vein, Amidror, known previously for his right-wing views on foreign policy, also touched on an area long-considered taboo in Israel: namely, the country’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). While welcoming the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program, he worried that process could lead to international demands that Israel acknowledge and ultimately get rid of its own "unconventional weapons." For decades, Israel has maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity, whereby it refuses to discuss whether or not it has nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. But as Amidror’s comments showed, that may no longer be viable.

From its birth in 1948, Israel found itself under threat. To protect itself, Israel acquired chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in the hope that they would shield the fragile enterprise of building a Jewish homeland in the midst of a hostile region. WMD were viewed as the guarantor of Israeli survival — the embodiment of the commitment to never allow another holocaust. Ambiguity was the policy that allowed Israel to keep these weapons; as long as they were invisible, many other international players were ready to grant Israel’s weapons a special exception to the norms against them.

Israeli security officials have long considered strategic ambiguity — amimut in Hebrew — a shrewd and singular achievement. Israeli President Shimon Peres, the founding father of the Israeli nuclear project, often credits himself with "inventing" amimut (a claim that is at best half-true) and describes how an off-the-cuff, improvised response to President John F. Kennedy’s query about Israel’s nuclear program in 1962 turned into Israel’s nuclear ambiguity policy. Since then, whenever Israeli officials have been asked whether the country has nuclear weapons, they say that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. And they evade the subject of chemical and biological weapons altogether. The late Ze’ev Schiff, Israel’s legendary dean of national security journalism, said once that whoever devised the strategy of nuclear ambiguity deserves Israel’s highest national award.

However, in the wake of Syria’s agreeing to dismantle its chemical weapons and its ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Israeli cabinet, chaired by Netanyahu, met last month to reevaluate Israel’s current stance on the CWC. (Israel has signed the treaty, which bans the use and possession of chemical weapons, but in keeping with the policy of ambiguity, it has not ratified it.) Netanyahu and his defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, insisted that Israel should maintain the present policy, but some senior defense officials argued that "in view of Syria’s agreement to disarm itself of chemical weapons, Israel should ratify the treaty," according to Haaretz. That opposition represents a small but significant step away from ambiguity.

While support for the policy of nuclear non-acknowledgement remains near-universal in Israel, some people question why Israel should play dumb when asked about chemical and biological weapons it no longer has. (It is believed that, while Israel had an active chemical weapons program in the distant past, it has not had an operational arsenal for some time. It is doubtful whether Israel ever weaponized and deployed biological agents.) Even Peres appears open to relaxing the grip of ambiguity on Israel’s strategic posture, if only on the issue of chemical weapons. When French television recently asked him if Israel currently possesses chemical weapons, Peres responded, "I don’t think that Israel hangs on chemical weapons," which, though cryptic, is closer to a "no" than any Israeli official has given to date.

The seemingly successful international effort (so far) to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program has not only given Israel an opportunity to reassess its stance on the CWC, but it also undermines the logic of wholesale strategic ambiguity. Ambiguity derives much of its staying power from the deeply held perception that Israel must possess WMD, the ultimate symbol of self-reliance, as an insurance policy — but Israel cannot openly admit it. But so far, the Syria case has been a demonstration of how diplomacy and multilateralism can tangibly improve Israel’s national security. The early weeks of the international effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program, the largest and most integrated such program in the region, also appears to reinforce the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. Namely, if you use them, you lose them.

Moreover, the prospect of dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program, and the ratification of the CWC by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, spotlights an uncomfortable reality: By refusing to accede to international nonproliferation treaties, Israel finds itself in increasingly unsavory company. Israel is one of four states with nuclear weapons that have either not signed or withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the others being India, North Korea, and Pakistan); Israel is one of six states that have not ratified the CWC (others include Angola, Egypt, Myanmar, and North Korea); and Israel is the only prominent state that hasn’t signed the Biological Weapons Convention. Strategic ambiguity, in short, has become an anachronism that is unbecoming of a vibrant, liberal democracy.

Meanwhile, the argument used by some in Israel to justify the country’s exceptional posture on strategic issues — that Israel deserves a certain exemption from international norms due to the national trauma of the
Holocaust and unique threat to the country’s existence — has become increasingly unpersuasive. That a wealthy, technologically advanced democracy, with the most dominant military by far in its region, nuclear weapons, and the unflinching support of the United States, should have a sweeping exemption from important global norms no longer makes sense. Israel now finds itself in the position of Goliath, rather than David. And an exceptionalist policy that once was seen as responsible now appears increasingly at odds with Israel’s own national-security challenges. The current nuclear negotiations with Iran are a case in point — Israel insists on holding Iran to standards of full transparency on its nuclear program that it would never accept itself.

The policy and conduct of strategic ambiguity has become a growing irritant, if not a burden, for Israel and its ally, the United States, and lags behind the political realities in the Middle East and around the world. It is not only antiquated — it is antithetical to Israel’s own interests and reflects an old mindset embodied in Netanyahu’s comments about the centrality of self-reliance and autonomy. What was once essential and beneficial has now become a handicap.

If Netanyahu’s mindset prevails, Israel would effectively abandon the founding Zionist dream of normalcy. Through its own insecurities, it would trap itself in a constant state of siege. If Israel insists on policies that imply an exemption from norms of international conduct, it will inevitably lead to further isolation and insulation. It would, tragically, turn Israel further into a Spartan ghetto that the early Zionist patriarchs would abhor.

Avner Cohen is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and a global fellow with the Wilson Center. He is the author of Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain With the Bomb. Twitter: @avnercohen123

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