Tel Aviv, Israel – When US President Barack Obama made his case for military action in Syria in a televised address on Tuesday, he mentioned Israel only fleetingly, as one of several US allies who could be threatened by the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stockpile.
“If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel,” Obama said.
His scant mention of Israel was an acknowledgement, perhaps, that the Israeli government is increasingly uneasy about being linked to a possible US-led attack on Syria.
US officials have warned constantly that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad poses a danger to his neighbour. “Israel is deeply threatened,” Secretary of State John Kerry said earlier on Tuesday, in an online forum sponsored by Google.
Israel’s largest backers in Washington have also pushed this line: Hours before Obama’s speech, the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) dispatched hundreds of activists to meet with members of Congress and urge them to vote “yes”, authorising a US strike on Syria.
All of this stands in stark contrast to the Israeli government itself, which does not oppose a US strike on Syria but has spent weeks trying to say as little as possible on the subject. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu asked his cabinet to keep silent on the issue; Netanyahu himself issued a bland statement saying only that Israel was “calm” ahead of any US military action.
AIPAC is trying to make clear that aiding the rebels can be considered aid to Israel. Who decided that?
Current and former officials here say the government is unhappy that the Obama administration is using Israel to make the case for war.
Earlier this month, Israel’s Channel 2 news quoted unnamed officials who rebuked Kerry for the sort of language he used on Tuesday. “Israel is not a victim. We don’t need America to take care of threats to Israel,” the channel quoted one official as saying.
Security officials worry the constant talk about Israel’s security makes the country look vulnerable. Some diplomats, meanwhile, fear being connected to an unpopular push for another US-led war in the Middle East, because it could complicate efforts to influence US policy towards Iran, a far bigger priority for the Israelis.
“They’re undermining everything the government has tried to do,” said one foreign ministry staffer, who asked to remain anonymous, referring to AIPAC’s work.
AIPAC’s lobbying push started earlier this month, when its leadership asked members to call their representatives in Congress and urge them to support an attack on Syria.
About 250 AIPAC members fanned out across Capitol Hill on Tuesday to make their case in person, the group said. They made a simple argument: A US attack would send a powerful message to Syria’s chief sponsor, Iran, that Obama will also enforce his “red line” on the latter’s nuclear programme. (Israel and many Western governments believe that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran has consistently denied.)
But the Israeli government itself has not made this argument, at least not in public.
|Obama at the 2008 AIPAC policy conference [GALLO/GETTY]|
“The Israel lobby is quite independent, and I don’t think we can give it orders,” said Shmuel Sandler, an analyst at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “But we’re uneasy about it. We want to stay away from this mess as much as possible.”
There may have been limited lobbying efforts in private: Yedioth Ahronoth, a popular local newspaper, reported on Monday that Obama himself called Netanyahu and urged him to personally urge members of Congress to support an attack. Those reports could not be confirmed, though one official said Netanyahu has reached out to members of Congress with whom he has a personal relationship.
A spokesman for the prime minister declined to comment on any matters related to Syria.
Local newspapers have carried several op-eds this week critical of AIPAC’s lobbying efforts. In a column for Maariv, Shalom Yerushalemi argued that the group is “harming Israeli interests” by openly pushing for a US strike.
“AIPAC is trying to make clear that aiding the rebels can be considered aid to Israel. Who decided that?” he wrote on Monday. “We should tell them, simply, ‘stay out of this,'” writing those last words in English for emphasis.
Analysts and policymakers question whether the two “red lines” are even analogous. The White House views Iran’s nuclear programme as a threat to US allies, and worries that it could set off a regional arms race. But the sense among many in Israel is that Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons is fundamentally an internal Syrian issue, unlikely to have many wider effects.
“This is an automatic knee-jerk reaction, because the two situations are artificially similar,” said Oded Eran, a longtime Israeli diplomat. “But one cannot draw any lessons from US action or inaction [in Syria].”
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‘It was a precaution’
Obama acknowledged in his speech that Syria could respond to a US attack by targeting Washington’s allies in the region. Syrian and Iranian officials have made that threat public in recent weeks, warning that Israel would be the “first casualty”.
But their threats attracted little interest in Israel. The debate over striking Syria comes amid the Jewish High Holidays, which began last week with Rosh Hashanah, the new year.
In a televised statement last week, Netanyahu urged Israelis to go ahead with their holiday plans, suggesting the government does not expect Obama to move quickly, nor does it anticipate much in the way of retaliation.
“The citizens of Israel know very well that we are prepared for any possible scenario,” Netanyahu said.
A small number of army reservists were called up in late August, then quickly stood down a week later, after Obama announced plans to seek congressional approval before attacking.
“It was a precaution, but nobody expects a serious response,” said one officer from an elite commando unit who was among those mobilised. “Syria can’t afford to attack us, and neither can Hezbollah.”
Several current and former diplomats and intelligence analysts echoed that thinking, suggesting any response would come from smaller “extreme groups” based in either Syria or Lebanon. The Syrian army, already stretched thin fighting a civil war at home, cannot afford a war with Israel, and Hezbollah wants to avoid the domestic consequences of dragging Lebanon further into conflict.
|Netanyahu speaks at the 2010 AIPAC conference [GALLO/GETTY]|
Indeed, Lebanese media have reported that Hezbollah is unlikely to respond unless US-led strikes are seen as posing a serious threat to Assad, something US officials have stressed will not happen.
An analyst from Israel’s military intelligence division suggested that Hezbollah could retaliate from inside Syria, perhaps by launching rockets at northern Israel. That would give the group an element of deniability and shield it from domestic repercussions.
“What would be the benefit if [Hezbollah] responds to an attack in Syria by attacking Israel?” he asked. “It makes no logical sense.”
Still, even if Israel sees little risk in a US attack on Syria, it also sees little reward. Security officials here see the status quo in Syria, a stalemated civil war, as an acceptable one: It keeps the Syrian army, Hezbollah and Iran bogged down in an intractable conflict, and it avoids the power vacuum that could follow Assad’s ouster.
“This is a limited action that probably will not bring repercussions, so Israelis support this action, but we’re not calling on the US to do anything,” said General Shlomo Brom, a retired military intelligence officer. “We would like to use our ability to affect the US on more important issues, like Iran, and not waste it on Syria.”