In first meeting, security cabinet discusses Syrian threat

Ministers divided on intervention in the increasingly volatile civil war, and what it might mean concerning Iran

Benjamin Netanyahu (center), arriving at a Cabinet meeting in March 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu (center), arriving at a Cabinet meeting in March 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened the security cabinet for the first time Sunday night to weigh in on the increasingly chaotic situation in neighboring Syria.

Since the formation of the new government, the top ministers assembled a number of times to provide intelligence briefings to cabinet newcomers, including Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Economics Minister Naftali Bennett and Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, but Sunday’s meeting was the first in which the security cabinet discussed policy.

On Sunday, the cabinet met for four hours to discuss the two-year-old civil war in Syria and possible responses to developments that could harm Israeli interests in the neighboring state. The primary topic of discussion was the range of scenarios the “day after” Syrian President Bashar Assad steps down, Channel 2 news reported.

According to the report, the security cabinet disagreed regarding which was greater, the danger of inaction in Syria — and the message that passivity would send to Iran — or the danger of trying to force American military intervention.

Last week, US President Barack Obama said that if Syria was in fact using chemical weapons against rebel forces, a claim that Israel has made but Syrian officials have denied, that would change the “calculus” of US involvement in the conflict.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon have both stated that if the US failed to act on Syrian nonconventional weapons, Iran was liable to feel more freedom to continue developing its own nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, Minister of International Relations Yuval Steinitz has said that Israel must not try to force Obama’s hand in Syria, as it had no way of knowing how that would end.

The report also stated that experts are divided regarding what to expect from Assad should he be forced from power. Some expressed concern that he would transfer chemical weapons at his disposal to Hezbollah, or, as an act of desperation, launch them at Israel.

According to the Ma’ariv daily, Israel’s intelligence services are divided on the question of which presents a greater threat to Israel — the Assad regime or rebel forces who seek to oust him.

One intelligence official reportedly said that toppling Assad could deal a mortal blow to the Iran-Syria-Hebzollah axis. Should he be deposed, Assad may be unable to transfer his weapons to Hezbollah.

Other intelligence sources posited, however, that ousting Assad would lead to complete chaos in Syria and, with the disintegration of a central government in Damascus, rebel groups may turn their attention to attacking Israeli targets.

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