The Israeli political and security leadership is privately horrified by President Barack Obama’s 11th-hour turnaround on striking Syria — a decision he took alone, after he had sent his Secretary of State John Kerry to speak out passionately and urgently in favor of military action. It is now fearful that, in the end, domestic politics or global diplomacy will ultimately lead the US to hold its fire altogether.
It is worried, furthermore, at the ever-deeper perception of Obama’s America in the Middle East as weak, hesitant and confused — most especially in the view of the region’s most radical forces, notably including Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran.
And it is profoundly concerned that the president has set a precedent, in seeking an authorization from Congress that he had no legal requirement to seek — and that Congress was not loudly demanding — that may complicate, delay or even rule out credible action to thwart a challenge that dwarfs Assad’s chemical weapons capability: Iran’s drive to nuclear weapons.
Israel’s Channel 2 reported Sunday night that, once Obama had zigzagged to his decision not to strike for now, the White House contacted Israel’s leadership to convey the news. The goal, successfully achieved, was to ensure that there would be no avalanche of publicly aired criticism of the president by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers. Only the hawkish minister of housing, Uri Ariel, defied the prime minister’s restraining order, complaining bitterly in an Army Radio interview Sunday morning that Assad was a cowardly murderer “who needs to be taken care of, already.” Ariel thus earned himself a dressing-down by Netanyahu, who told him at the Cabinet table that personally attacking the president of the United States did not serve Israel’s “security interests.”
But privately, Israel’s silently appalled political and security leaderships have no doubt that Obama’s last-minute change of heart harms Israel’s security interests far more critically than any marginal minister’s inconvenient outburst possibly could.
Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are reported to have briefed Israel’s leaders to the effect that Obama’s firm intention remains to strike back at Assad for what Kerry said Friday was the carefully planned August 21 use of chemical weapons to kill over 1,400 of his own Syrian people.
The Israeli leadership wants to believe that this is the case. The notion that the US would turn its back on the toxic crimes of a murderous dictator, whom Kerry bracketed Sunday with Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein, is too dire to consider in an Israel facing more than one hostile regime relentlessly seeking to exploit any military and moral weakness in order to expedite the Jewish state’s demise.
Though dutifully silent in public, Jerusalem has quickly internalized the damage already done — by the sight of an uncertain president, all too plainly wary of grappling with a regime that has gradually escalated its use of poison gas to mass murder its own people; a regime, moreover, that can do relatively little damage to the United States, and whose threats Israel’s leadership and most of its people were taking in their stride.
At the very least, Obama has given Assad more time to ensure that any eventual strike causes a minimum of damage, and to claim initial victory in facing down the United States. At the very least, too, Obama has led the Iranians to believe that presidential promises to prevent them attaining nuclear weapons need not necessarily be taken at face value.
If a formidable strike does ultimately come, some of that damage can yet be undone, the Israeli leadership believes. American military intervention can yet be significant — in deterring Assad from ongoing use of chemical weapons, and bolstering American influence and credibility in the region.
But if Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who will be hosting the G20 later this week, inserts himself into the equation, and Obama is distracted by endless machinations ostensibly designed to see Assad stripped of his chemical weapons, machinations that ultimately are sure to lead nowhere, the damage will only deepen. If there is no strike, the United States — hitherto Israel’s only dependable military ally — will be definitively perceived in these parts as a paper tiger, with dire implications for its regional interests. And for Israel.
Jerusalem is worried, too, of a direct line between requesting Congressional approval for military action against Syria — a relatively straightforward target — and feeling compelled to honor the precedent, should the imperative arise, by requesting Congressional approval for military action against Iran — a far more potent enemy, where legislators’ worries about the US being dragged deep into regional conflict would be far more resonant.
Israel remains hopeful that, to put it bluntly, Obama’s America will yet remember that it is, well, America. The alternative, it rather seems, is something the leadership in Jerusalem finds too awful to so much as contemplate just yet.