WASHINGTON — As Congress began to debate US military involvement in Syria, Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren released Israel’s first official position statement on the subject Tuesday night. At a subsequent event, he dismissed those critics who argue that the US should not retaliate for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons because it would put Israel in danger.
Shortly after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded a lengthy session debating the approval of a retaliatory strike, Oren released an official statement in which he said that “Israel agrees with President Obama that the use of chemical weapons is a ‘heinous act’ for which the Assad regime must be held accountable and for which there must be ‘international consequences.’ Israel further agrees with the President that the use of chemical weapons promotes the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and encourages ‘governments who would choose to build nuclear arms.’”
In his statement, Oren quoted Obama’s exact language to emphasize Jerusalem’s support for the American president’s position.
An hour after releasing the statement, the outgoing ambassador told major donors at a Jewish National Fund (JNF) event, “I’ve heard it suggested that a reason why the US should not act in Syria is fear of retribution against Israel. In response, I say unequivocally that Israel can defend itself and will respond forcefully to any aggression by Syria.”
Oren told the US audience that Israel’s positions on Syria have been longstanding. With respect to supporting the Syrian opposition, he said, “the only thing we suggest is to have it carefully vetted.”
Oren added that “even regarding the jihadist opposition, we prefer the bad guys who aren’t backed by Iran over those who are.”
As Assad’s fortunes have fluctuated in the face of opposition groups, some of which are believed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, the Syrian leader has become increasingly reliant for support on the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah.
Oren emphasized that even before the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Israel believed that Assad should be removed from power. He described the dictator as “a prohibitively dangerous, destabilizing factor” in the region, and noted that while “Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, was vicious, his son is both vicious and unpredictable.”
Oren’s comments came as the Obama administration is trying to secure Congressional and popular support for a retaliatory strike in response to a chemical attack on August 21 that the US believes killed over 1,400 Syrians.
Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, both likely GOP candidates in the 2016 presidential primaries, oppose the administration’s call for military action against Assad.
During Tuesday’s Senate hearing, Paul pushed US Secretary of State John Kerry on the consequences for Israel if Syria were to retaliate for the proposed American strike.
“I can make it crystal clear to you Israel will be less safe unless the US takes this action,” Kerry responded.
Kerry, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Patrick Dempsey, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will be back on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Although Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) threw his support behind the president on Tuesday, Republican lawmakers are far from unified on the subject. Boehner’s endorsement may have upped the administration’s likelihood of getting its resolution through the Republican-controlled House, but the House GOP caucus has proven hard-to-control for Boehner on a number of key controversial issues.
In the week before Congress is in session, key committees are debating a White House resolution that would allow for limited engagement in Syria. If the House passes a version of the resolution this week, the House and Senate resolutions would enter a process of reconciliation to make them congruent before a final vote, which is expected early next week.