Israeli minister cautiously welcomes Syria chemical arms plan
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A senior Israeli official close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced cautious support on Thursday for a plan to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control.
"I cannot say that we have full faith, but if this Russian proposal ... will really remove the chemical weaponry from Syria, first of all, and will then dismantle it ... then this is a way to end this tragedy and a way to end this threat too," Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said.
Speaking on Israel's Army Radio, Steinitz said implementation of the plan should also require that Moscow "guarantee Syria is cleansed of chemical weaponry".
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are due to meet in Geneva on Thursday to try to agree on a strategy to eliminate the Syrian arsenal.
Wary of appearing to meddle in the big-power struggle over the Syrian civil war that has escalated since President Bashar al-Assad's forces' alleged gas attack near Damascus on Aug 21, Israel has largely avoided public comment.
Netanyahu on Wednesday demanded the Assad government be "stripped of its chemical weapons" but stopped short of specifically endorsing the Russian proposal, which has been accepted by Damascus.
The remarks by Steinitz suggested that Israel would want any consensual decommissioning of Syria's chemical arsenal to be expedited by sending it abroad first.
David Friedman, a former counter-proliferation official with Israel's Defense Ministry, told Reuters that neutralizing the weapons inside Syria could take 1-2 years but that the process could be shortened were they shipped out to Russia, which is better equipped with chemical counter-agents and incinerators.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by John Stonestreet)