In remarks whose content and timing implied criticism of President Barack Obama’s handling of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, and a concern that Israel could not depend on the US to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday declared that nations that use weapons of mass destruction must pay a price, and said that his own actions as leader of the Jewish state revolved around the conviction that ultimately Israel had no one to rely on but itself when facing enemy threats.
Speaking at an Israeli Navy graduation ceremony, Netanyahu cited a 2,000-year-old saying by the Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” And he said this rule “is more relevant than ever these days in guiding me, in my key actions as prime minister.” Its practical application, he said, “is that Israel will always be able to protect itself, and will protect itself, with its own forces, against all threats.”
Netanyahu and the Israeli leadership have been deeply worried that perceived hesitancy and weakness in the US, in responding to the alleged chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that the US says killed 1,429 people in the outskirts of Damascus August 21, may be exploited by Iran to further advance its nuclear program.
Netanyahu made this concern explicit in his speech Wednesday, warning, “The message that is received in Syria will be clearly understood in Iran.”
Amid complex diplomacy to try to resolve the Syria crisis, the prime minister was adamant that “one has to be certain that the Syria regime is disarmed of its chemical weapons. The world needs to ensure that whosoever uses weapons of mass destruction pays a price.”
Netanyahu’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon echoed his theme, stating that, “At the end of the day, we have rely on ourselves, on our forces, on our deterrent capacity.”
At the same event, President Shimon Peres stressed that the Syrian regime could not be trusted. But in sharp contrast to Netanyahu, Peres clearly threw his weight behind Obama-backed, Russia-initiated diplomacy, saying any agreement reached by the US and Russia would ensure the safe disposal of Syria’s WMDs.
“I know both President Obama and President Putin, and I am convinced that if an agreement is reached it will be reliable, explicit and significant,” the president said.
Israel’s Channel 2 news said that, behind the scenes, Jerusalem believed that if diplomacy failed to definitively resolve the crisis surrounding Assad’s chemical weapons, and yet Obama did not resort to military action, Iran would be greatly emboldened.
Another TV News report, on rival Channel 10, said Netanyahu in private had indicated his concern that the Iranians perceive weakness from the US in facing Bashar Assad’s Syria, a far less potent regime than their own. The TV report said Netanyahu was also unhappy that Obama had reached out to Israel and to pro-Israel activists for help in swaying Congress behind military action, only to back away from that course. And finally, it said, Netanyahu was wary that destroying Assad’s chemical stockpiles was a lengthy, complex process, and there was insufficient clarity about how it was to be handled.
Last week, Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, said a plan by Netanyahu to attack Iran in 2012 was canceled due to US objections.
Arab affairs analyst Ehud Yaari noted Wednesday that seven years after Libya agreed to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpiles — which were far smaller than the 1,000 tons he said Assad’s regime held — only 40% of that weaponry had been destroyed.
The process in Syria, said Yaari, would take many years, would require immediate supervision of existing stockpiles by large deployments if forces, the speedy signing and ratification by Syria of the treaty against production and proliferation of chemical weapons, and then the construction of sophisticated facilities to destroy the weaponry.