JERUSALEM – Israeli leaders expressed cautious hope Sunday about a U.S.-Russia agreement that would require Syria to identify and eliminate its chemical weapons by mid-2014, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the region to discuss the deal.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel hoped the plan would lead to the “complete destruction” of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal and would push the world to stop Iran, Syria’s close ally, from developing nuclear weapons. Israel believes that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and has identified the international community’s response to the Syrian crisis as a “test case” for Iran. Iran denies the charge.
“This test of results also applies to the international community’s diplomatic efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear armament,” Netanyahu said. “Words will not decide, only actions and results. In any instance, Israel must be ready to defend itself, by itself, against any threat, and this ability and readiness is more important today than ever.”
U.S. and Russian officials reached an ambitious agreement over the weekend calling for an inventory of Syria’s chemical weapons program within one week. International inspectors are to be on the ground by November to assess Syrian weapons sites, and all components of the chemical weapons program are to be removed from the country or destroyed by mid-2014. The Syrian government has yet to comment publicly on the agreement.
Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomed the deal, saying that Syrian President Bashar Assad “has no choice but to accept the commitment” and that the possibility of U.S. military action if the plan fails should “teach a lesson” to Iran.
Kerry was making a brief stopover in Jerusalem Sunday to brief Netanyahu on the plan, as well as to discuss U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Ahead of Kerry’s arrival, some Israeli politicians voiced skepticism, saying Assad cannot be trusted.
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said the plan was more “substantive” than earlier proposals, but warned the agreement’s deadline was not speedy enough and Assad could try to hide weapons.
“We know Assad. All kinds of things could happen,” he said, adding that an agreement on chemical weapons should not absolve Assad of punishment for the acts he has committed against the Syrian people.
Avigdor Lieberman, chair of parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, told Army Radio that Israel would compare its own intelligence assessments of Syria’s weapons to the inventory Syria submits, which the plan requires him to do in a week.
“After we see the list of what Assad has handed over in a week, we can know if his intentions are serious of if it is just deception,” Lieberman said.