Israel divided over best course on Syria

September 12, 2013

Israel’s diplomatic and defense establishment appears to be divided over the best course of action to take on Syria, security analysts and former military commanders here said Thursday.

It has been no secret that some of Israel’s political leaders and generals were initially disappointed that President Obama sought congressional approval for missile strikes, saying it showed weakness that would embolden Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and boost Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

An analysis in the Times of Israel, citing unnamed sources, said that Obama’s decision to hit the pause button had “privately horrified” Jerusalem.

But that was 12 days ago. Now, many Israelis have begun to identify some advantages in a Russia-brokered diplomatic deal to secure Assad’s stores of chemical weapons, especially if it succeeds.

“Israel was watching the reaction of the international community, especially the United States, as a kind of test case on how they would react to the Iran situation,” said Oded Eran, former deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

“But now there are more Israelis who are looking at the possible deal between Russia and United States on the chemical arsenal of Syria as an interesting precedent,” Eran said. “If the international community, through the U.S. and Russia, is able to put its hands on, to monitor or collect all the arsenal of Syria, this could be some sort of a precedent concerning Iran.”

Israel maintains that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear weapon, a development it has described as “an existential threat.” Iran says its nuclear program is limited to research and energy production.

Israel Ziv, a retired major general and former head of the Israel Defense Forces’ operations directorate, said that from a strategic standpoint, a U.S. missile strike might not have achieved much and would have posed risks.

“I don’t see anything positive coming from an attack,” Ziv said. “I see more positive results, potentially, on addressing Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles.”

Ziv said it took guts not to attack Syria.

Security analysts added that if the Russian initiative fails and Syria balks, it might make Obama’s case for striking Syria easier to sell.

With regard to Iran, Ziv said that Washington and Tehran are engaged in a kind of psychological warfare and that threats and sanctions from the United States can act as deterrents, if they are backed up by actions.

So, if Syria does allow outsiders to inspect and even decommission its chemical arsenal, “then a political process with results might be turn out to be stronger than attacks alone,” Ziv said.

Benjamin Netanyahu, however, stressed a different message Wednesday when he spoke at a graduation ceremony for Israeli navy cadets.

The Israeli prime minister cited a saying by the Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Netanyahu said the maxim “is more relevant than ever these days in guiding me, in my key actions as prime minister.”

He added, “Israel must always be able to protect itself, and will protect itself, with its own forces, against all threats.”

Netanyahu warned that “the message that is received in Syria will be clearly understood in Iran.”

Shlomo Brom, a retired brigadier general and former chief of the Israel Defense Forces’ strategic planning division, said Thursday that Israel’s initial reaction to Obama’s decision to turn to Congress had been “infantile,” with political and military leaders acting “like a kid that was given a toy, and then it was taken away.”

“There is also complete distrust by Israel of Syria and Russia,” Brom said. “In the Israeli perception, those are the bad guys and you can never trust the bad guys. They are always up to mischief, and this is just a bluff and nothing will come of this new plan.”

But since then, Brom said, he and other analysts have pushed their argument that if the United Nations, at the behest of Russia and United States, can begin to dismantle Syria’s arsenal of chemical arms, “then another state will be giving up their weapons of mass destruction, and another country will have reached the conclusion that these kinds of weapons are not usable.”

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
Ruth Eglash is a correspondent for The Washington Post based Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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