Israel’s president and one of his would-be successors on Monday both gave public backing to US President Barack Obama’s decision to seek Congressional authorization for an American-led strike at the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad over its use of chemical weapons.
President Shimon Peres told Army Radio that he was “certain that the United States will respond on Syria” for crossing Obama’s self-styled red line and killing what US Secretary of State John Kerry has said were more than 1,400 Syrians with the carefully planned use of sarin gas in attacks on eastern Damascus on August 21.
Peres defended Obama from criticisms that his eleventh-hour change of heart — opting Saturday to seek approval from Congress for an attack, when he had been planning an immediate strike until the previous day — showed hesitancy or confusion. “Weighing how to proceed is not the same as stuttering,” Peres said in an hour-long Rosh Hashana interview with the radio station. “Better to analyse before the event rather than after it.”
Looking more broadly at Syria, Peres said, “There is no one Syria anymore. Syria as it was is no longer. Assad cannot unite Syria, there are three or four countries in one.”
The president then offered an unstinting endorsement of Obama where Israel’s well-being is concerned, declaring, “I trust him on everything that affects Israel.” He said he did not believe Obama “will allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. I also don’t believe the Russians want that. It’s a complex issue but no-one wants to allow nuclear weapons.”
Likud Knesset member Reuven Rivlin, a former Knesset speaker, previous presidential candidate and would-be Peres successor, also said Obama was entitled to consult Congress before authorizing military strikes on Syria.
“It is [Obama's] right to weigh the considerations, but Israel must entrust its fate to itself,” Rivlin said in an interview with Israel Radio. He added that Obama could also seek congressional approval in the event of a possible strike on Iran, so Israel ought to learn from this incident.
Reports on Sunday and Monday noted that the White House alerted Israel ahead of time to Obama’s turnaround, with Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel briefing Israeli leaders. Haaretz reported Monday that Obama telephoned Netanyahu on Saturday four hours ahead of his White House Rose Garden statement — both so that Israel could adjust its security planning accordingly, and in order to prevent a wave of public criticism of the move from Israeli leaders. There was no confirmation of this report.
Few Israeli public figures have spoken out since Obama changed his mind Saturday and decided to go to Congress for approval of a strike. Labor’s leader Shelly Yachimovich praised Obama’s handling of the Syria crisis later Saturday, while several members of the right-wing Jewish Home Party slammed him for the delay.
“In Tehran, they’re opening the champagne, and switching into a higher gear en route to nuclear weapons,” the Jewish Home’s Housing Minister Uri Ariel said in a Facebook post on Sunday. “Facing real dangers, no one in the world will stand with us.” On Army Radio Sunday, Ariel further declared that “one doesn’t need to wait for tens of thousands more children to die in order to intervene.” He said Assad was a “murderous rabbit, and he needs to be taken care off, already.”
Netanyahu slammed Ariel for those comments at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, telling him that issuing personal attacks on Obama did not help Israel’s “national security.”
In an implied critique of Obama, former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu), now the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, later Sunday lamented what he called the world’s “unprecedented” inactivity in the face of Assad’s brutality. “One hundred thousand people have been slaughtered in a country called Syria, and the world just keeps talking.” Liberman said numerous players were trying to draw Israel into the Syria conflict and that Israel was well-prepared. “We have all the answers. We know where Damascus, Brussels and Moscow are, and where Beirut’s Dahieh neighborhood (a Hezbollah stronghold) is, too.”
Officials in Jerusalem are concerned that the delay of more than a week before Congress meets for a vote could open up other avenues for Syria, including a possible transfer of its chemical weapons to Russia in an attempt to avoid a US strike, according to a report on Israel Radio Monday.
Kerry on Sunday said the US now has evidence of sarin gas use in Syria, adding that the “case is building” for a military attack.