Israelis cautious about U.S.-Russia deal on Syria’s chemical weapons

Israel reacted cautiously Sunday to a U.S.-Russian accord to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons by mid- 2014, with some Israeli officials questioning whether the deal could be carried out while analysts said the result was preferable to a limited military strike that would have left Syria’s chemical arsenal largely intact.

Secretary of State John Kerry made a short stop here to brief Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the agreement, which was reached Saturday. It calls for the complete destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities by the middle of 2014.

Speaking at a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Netanyahu said that the understandings on Syria’s chemical weapons “will be judged by their results: the complete destruction of all the chemical weapons stocks that the Syrian regime has used against its citizens.”

In later remarks after meeting with Kerry, Netanyahu asserted that “what the past few days have shown is something that I’ve been saying for quite some time: that if diplomacy has any chance to work, it must be coupled with a credible military threat.”

“What is true of Syria is true of Iran,” he added, alluding to what Israeli officials say is the message sent to Iran’s leaders about their nuclear development program by Western actions.

Kerry said that “diplomacy has always been the preferred path of the president of the United States, and I think any peace loving nation’s preferred choice, but make no mistake, we’ve taken no options off the table.”

He added that “President Obama has been absolutely clear about the remainder of the potential of the use of force” if there Syria does not comply with was Saturday’s accord.

Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence who heads the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said that the case of Syria had demonstrated to Iran that the United States and other Western countries are hesitant to use force. Still, the cooperation of the United States and Russia on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons had underlined international concerns about such arms, Yadlin said.

“The illegitimacy of weapons of mass destruction, chemical and especially nuclear, has become clearer, and an issue to be dealt with by the superpowers,” Yadlin told Israel Radio. “Under a credible military threat there is a greater chance of reaching a political solution to the Iranian nuclear program if it is really proven that such an agreement between the U.S. and Russia succeeds in Syria.”

Some Israeli politicians said that Syrian president Bashar Assad, who had not previously acknowledged possession of chemical weapons, could not be trusted to provide a complete inventory of those arms and later hand them over to international inspectors for destruction or removal.

Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said that Assad could try to hide weapons by next year’s deadline, which Steinitz said was too far off. “We know Assad,” he said. “All kinds of things could happen.”

Avigor Lieberman, a close ally of Netanyahu and chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, said the first test would be the chemical weapons inventory Syria is required to submit in a week. Lieberman told Army Radio that Israel could compare the list to its own intelligence data on such weapons to determine whether Assad’s “intentions are serious or it is just a deception.”

Emily Landau, director of the arms control program at the Institute for National Security Studies, said that from Israel’s perspective the chemical weapons deal was preferable to a limited and targeted punitive military strike that would not come close to doing away with Syria’s chemical arsenal.

She also differed with Netanyahu’s suggestion that Washington’s climb-down from using military force underlined Israel’s need to defend itself in future confrontations, including with Iran.

“I don’t think Iran has reason to be happy or complacent about this result,” Landau said of the chemical weapons agreement. “The real dynamic is that the United States made this an issue that the international community could not ignore. I don’t see how this deal would lead one to the conclusion that we can only depend on ourselves.”