Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Aides say the meetings focused on coordinating Israeli and US policy aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons
Netanyahu arrives at the UN Photo: Reuters
WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spent over four hours in meetings with top Obama administration officials on Monday, including Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and special envoy to the Middle East peace process Martin Indyk.
US President Barack Obama participated in Netanyahu’s meeting with Biden.
As expected, aides said the meetings focused on coordinating Israeli and US policy aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, as well as on the ongoing crisis in Syria and negotiations with the Palestinians.
A senior State Department official said that Netanyahu’s bilateral meeting with Kerry focused “primarily on the ongoing final-status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians and how the United States, in its facilitating role, can continue to help these talks succeed.”
Biden said his meeting with the prime minister and the president lasted for twoand- a-half hours at the White House.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the secretary conveyed that on Iran’s nuclear program, “no deal is better than a bad deal, and that’s what our bar will be.”
In a briefing with reporters, Psaki also said that Israel had been in “close contact” with the US over the arrest of Ali Mansouri, an alleged Iranian spy who was arrested casing the US embassy in Tel Aviv.
“I’m not going to characterize the timeline of when we did or didn’t, just that we knew about it before it was public,” Psaki said.
In the evening, Netanyahu met with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, who will be a pivotal voice in an upcoming debate over whether to tighten sanctions on Iran through the coming P5+1 negotiations.
Netanyahu is calling on the White House to continue its sanctions regimen despite a new diplomatic effort from the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, which has so far resulted in the first direct contact between the two nations’ leaders in over three decades.
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
OK, if it's Monday, it must be skunk-at-the-garden-party time.
There are two main reasons to doubt the possibility of an Iran-U.S. rapprochement, an idea that gained new life after Iran's charm offensive at the United Nations last week and a phone call between the presidents of the two countries on Sept. 27. The first is general to the Middle East, the second is specific to Iran.
Think about it: Every great, complicated effort meant to bring peace or democracy or tranquility to the Middle East somehow goes off the rails. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process? A 20-year failure. The remaking of Iraq? Also broadly a failure. The effort to bring about an end to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria? Failure. The entire Arab Spring? At the very least, a promise unfulfilled, and a bitter failure in many countries. The war to defeat Islamist terrorism? So far, a failure, despite intermittent tactical success.The general reason is easy to understand, and all-encompassing: Nothing at all works in the Middle East, so why should the U.S. find success convincing Iran to give up its nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions?
Since nothing works in a zero-sum region where politics is defined by fanatics, I don’t feel particularly optimistic about the current effort. I used to be more of an optimist, by the way, but this is what happens over time. It wouldn’t be surprising, by next spring, if we saw the White House acquiesce to congressional demands for harsher sanctions on the Iranian regime, after several rounds of mostly fruitless negotiations.
The second reason is specific to Iran's actions last week. Many people are forgetting that Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran and the commander of Operation Offensive Charm, is a moderate only in comparison to his predecessor, the unhinged Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani has been a superior soldier for Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a defender of the regime, and an anti-American propagandist for much of his professional life. (Not often mentioned during last week’s love-in was Rouhani’s post-Sept. 11 commentary, in which he blamed the attacks on the “wrongs and mistakes of American policies,” and argued that the U.S. Air Force shot down Flight 93, which crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside.)
There's no proof yet that Rouhani's ultimate goals for Iran are different than those of the hardliners. Let’s look at what he didn't do at the UN last week: He not only refused to comply with the many Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran cease all uranium-enrichment activities, he also refused to endorse the idea that Iran is obligated to pay any attention to the Security Council's wishes. (Remember, the many resolutions demanding that Iran cease enrichment passed with the unanimous approval of the five permanent members.)
Until proven otherwise, there's no reason to think that Rouhani, who is acting on Khamenei's behalf, is ready to shut down his country's nuclear program, despite airy statements to the contrary. The Iranian leadership wants to maintain its ability to produce nuclear weapons while at the same time convincing the West to lift sanctions. So far, Rouhani’s difference is one of style, not of substance.
Americans are easily charmed by smiling clerics, and Rouhani understands this. In 2007, he said, "We should talk carefully so as not to provoke the enemy, we should not give them any excuses."
Who is the enemy? The U.S. is the enemy. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Steven Ditto, Rouhani wrote in 2003: “The fundamental principle in Iran's relations with America -- our entire focus -- is national strength. Strength in politics, culture, economics, and defense -- especially in the field of advanced technology -- is the basis for the preservation and overall development of the System, and will force the enemy to surrender.”
Ditto, who has read much of Rouhani's voluminous output, says the quotation "encapsulates the overwhelming impression gleaned from Rouhani's history and writings: his identity as a revolutionary ideologue and defender of the Iranian `System.'" Ditto argues that Rouhani is simply a cleverer tactician than some of his colleagues. “What separates Rouhani from traditional ideologues, however -- and what fuels perceptions of him as a `reformist' -- is his belief that certain kinds of political and social reform can facilitate the defense, upkeep, and legitimization of the Iranian regime.”
In other words, a pleasant phone call with the president of his chief adversary -- and the prospect of extended negotiations -- are legitimate if they help advance the goals of the regime.
"In light of this background, there will be no moral, political, or intellectual meeting of minds between Rouhani and the West," Ditto writes. "In an unusually candid May campaign briefing with Iranian expatriates, he claimed that while he does not wish to see an `increase in tensions' with the United States, he has no desire to see a `decrease' in them either: `Today, we cannot say that we want to eliminate the tension between us and the United States... We should be aware that we can have interactions even with the enemy in such a manner that the grade of its enmity would be decreased, and secondly, its enmity would not be effective.'"
President Barack Obama seems somewhat enthusiastic about the possibility of real rapprochement with Iran. But Gary Samore, who was until recently Obama's chief adviser on Iranian nuclear issues, does not. When I spoke to him this morning, he was acerbic: "The Iranians are going to try to see how far they can get on charm alone."
That, for now, is the game.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Published: September 26, 2013
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran told the United Nations on Thursday that “no nation should possess nuclear weapons,” and that Israel should join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as Iran did long ago, as part of a grander plan to create a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
It was Mr. Rouhani’s second major speech this week at the United Nations, where he has been engaged in a near-breathless series of appearances and interviews with the Western news media. He appears to want to send the message that he is a reasonable, practical leader who differs from his bombastic predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and who wants urgently to solve Iran’s protracted disputes with the West, most notably the nuclear issue.
Israel, which regards Iran as an existential threat, has repeatedly warned that it may take military action to strike at Iran’s uranium enrichment centers and other nuclear facilities that the Israelis say are part of an Iranian scheme to build a weapon.
The Iranians have frequently pointed out that they have publicly renounced nuclear arms and that — unlike Israel — Iran is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear monitor. The Iranians also have countered that Israel is believed to already have an arsenal of nuclear weapons, which it refuses to confirm or deny.
According to the Arms Control Association, a nonproliferation group in Washington,Israel is suspected of having 100 to 200 nuclear warheads. Israel has said it will “not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East.”
Mr. Rouhani said in his speech on Thursday that the total elimination of nuclear weapons should be the goal, particularly in his part of the world.
“Almost four decades of international efforts to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East have regrettably failed,” Mr. Rouhani said in a translated version of his speech, furnished by Iran’s United Nations Mission.
“Urgent practical steps toward the establishment of such a zone are necessary,” he said. “Israel, the only nonparty to the nonproliferation treaty in this region, should join thereto without any further delay. Accordingly, all nuclear activities in the region should be subject to the I.A.E.A. comprehensive safeguards.”
Mr. Rouhani said nothing about Iran’s own dispute with the I.A.E.A., which wants access to some restricted military sites in the country to verify that Iran’s nuclear intentions are benign. He also made no reference to Iran’s stalled negotiations with the so-called P5-plus-one countries, the permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — plus Germany, on the larger dispute over uranium enrichment.
He said in the speech that the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East would “constitute a contribution to the objective of nuclear disarmament” and called for a conference to establish such a zone, “without any further delay, with the participation of all countries in the region to avoid unwanted consequences.”
Mr. Rouhani commended Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for convening the conference. “No nation should possess nuclear weapons; since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons, as you, Mr. Secretary General, have rightly put it,” he said.
Monday, September 23, 2013
Armed Kenyan police outside the Westgate mall in Nairobi. Photograph: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images
Israel has taken the leading role among foreign countries in aiding and advising Kenyan forces after al-Shabaab Islamist extremists attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, according to security and intelligence sources.
A host of other countries have also offered help, including Britain, which has resident MI6 officers in Kenya and special forces training their counterparts in the country.
Metropolitan police anti-terrorist officers are in Kenya to try to monitor the activities of suspects including Samantha Lewthwaite, the widow of the 7/7 London suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay.
The CIA also has officers in Kenya. However, counter-terrorist officials pointed to Israel as the country that has built up extremely close security co-operation as well as commercial ties with Kenya over more than a decade.
Israeli officials kept a public silence about possible involvement in the mall standoff. However, a defence ministry official told the Guardian that a team from Israel's elite counter-terrorism unit had assisted the Kenyan authorities in handling the hostage crisis.
An Israeli border police unit known as Yamam is specially trained in civilian hostage rescue operations.
An Israeli army spokeswoman responded to questions on Israeli involvement with a formula previously used with reference to covert Israeli activities, such as recent air strikes in Syria. "We don't comment on foreign reports," she said.
Reuters news agency quoted an Israeli security source as saying Israeli advisers were helping Kenya with the "negotiating strategy" to help end the siege.
"There are Israeli advisers helping with the negotiating strategy, but no Israelis involved in any imminent storming operation," said the source, who asked not to be identified.
The Israeli foreign ministry said later four of its nationals were in the mall at the time of the attack, and that two fled while two others were rescued. One was lightly wounded, treated and released. The upmarket Westgate shopping complex is part Israeli-owned.
In London on Monday, the defence secretary, Philip Hammond, chaired a meeting of the government's Cobra emergencies committee, as David Cameron cut short a visit to Balmoral to chair a second meeting later in the day.
Downing Street said the prime minister – who has spoken to the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta – offered help in terms of "policing, intelligence collaboration and other related kinds" of assistance.
UK staff from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia travelled to assist local officials with the efforts in Nairobi and a rapid deployment team was sent from London, the Foreign Office said.
There was no confirmation of any Britons being among those who carried out or planned the Kenya attack, though UK-based individuals, at one time estimated to number 50, have gone to Somalia to join al-Shabaab, the terror group believed to be behind the atrocity.
Intelligence sources said it was clear the attack had been carefully planned over a long period with the help of a network of al-Shabaab sympathisers in Kenya.
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, offered his support to the government and said: "Those who carried out this attack will be condemned across the globe. The cold-blooded killing of innocent women, children and men is as despicable as it is shocking."
Friday, September 20, 2013
"One shouldn't be taken in by Rouhani's deceptive words," PMO warns while urging to intensify sanctions against Tehran.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Photo: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post
Jerusalem urged the world on Thursday not to be fooled by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s smiles and to intensify sanctions against the regime until he takes concrete steps toward dismantling Tehran’s nuclear program.
“One should not be taken in by Rouhani’s deceptive words,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement. “The same Rouhani boasted in the past how he deceived the international community with nuclear talks, even as Iran was continuing with its nuclear program.”
The Prime Minister’s Office comments followed the Iranian president’s two-part interview with NBC on Wednesday and Thursday that aired just before he is to fly to the US and address the UN General Assembly.
Rouhani said Iran was not seeking war, and slammed Israel for bringing “instability” to the Middle East and for questioning his government’s intentions toward nuclear arms.
He called Israel “an occupier, a usurper government that does injustice to the people of the region,” and said it “has brought instability to the region with its war-mongering policies.”
The Prime Minister’s Office ridiculed Rouhani for accusing Israel of causing instability in the region at a time when Iran was sending people into Syria to slaughter innocent civilians, and was supporting terrorism around the world.
Rouhani said during the first part of the interview that Iran would never develop nuclear weapons and that he had “complete authority” to negotiate a nuclear deal with the United States and other Western powers.
The Iranian leader, who took office in August, reiterated that stance when asked about recent comments by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu questioning his motives and calling him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
“We have clearly stated that we are not in pursuit of nuclear weapons and will not be,” Rouhani told NBC.
The Prime Minister’s Office dismissed this as “spin” designed to ensure that the “centrifuges continue to spin,” and said the International Atomic Energy Agency had determined otherwise.
“Only a combination of stopping uranium enrichment, removing all enriched uranium, dismantling the nuclear facility at Qom and stopping the plutonium track will constitute a real halt to the nuclear program,” the PMO said.
“Until these four steps are taken, the international community needs to intensify the pressure on Iran.
“The test is not Rouhani’s words, but rather the Iranian regime’s actions. Even while Rouhani was being interviewed, Iran was moving forward energetically with its nuclear program,” it said.
Rouhani’s regime is trying to cut a deal with the international community whereby it will give up an insignificant part of its nuclear program but retain and further fortify its ability to quickly develop nuclear arms at a time of its choosing, the Prime Minister’s Office said.
According to one Israeli official, Rouhani was long on smiles but short on substance during the interview, not saying yes or no when asked whether Israel should be wiped off the map, and not responding directly when asked whether, like his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he believed the Holocaust was a myth. Asked about the Holocaust directly, Rouhani replied, “What is important to Iran is that countries, people in the region grow closer and prevent aggression and injustice.”
The Prime Minister’s Office responded to his comment on the Holocaust saying “one doesn’t need to be a historian to recognize the existence of the Holocaust, one need only be human.”
The interview was the latest of moves by Rouhani – which included a recent letter exchange with US President Barack Obama – aimed at improving relations with the West.
The White House said on Thursday that the president is open to direct talks between Iran and the US, but only if Tehran is serious about getting rid of its nuclear weapons program.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that Rouhani delivered some positive- sounding rhetoric in the NBC interview but “actions are more important than words.”
When Obama first ran for president in 2008, he said he would hold direct negotiations with Iran under certain conditions.
Carney said Obama still holds that position.
Obama, according to Carney, would be willing to have bilateral negotiations provided the Iranians were serious about addressing the international community’s insistence that Tehran give up its nuclear weapons program.
“That is the position we hold today,” Carney said.
With both Rouhani and Obama attending the UN General Assembly next week, speculation has grown that the two leaders might have an encounter of some type. Carney said no meeting is scheduled.
It would be a significant contact – no American president has met a top Iranian leader since the 1979 overthrow of the shah and the taking of American hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Thursday, September 19, 2013
By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA | Tue Sep 17, 2013 2:33pm EDT
(Reuters) - The United States said on Tuesday an Arab push to single out Israel for criticism over its assumed nuclear arsenal would hurt diplomatic efforts to ban weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
Frustrated over the postponement of an international conference on ridding the region of atomic arms, Arab states have proposed a resolution at a U.N. nuclear agency meeting expressing concern about "Israeli nuclear capabilities".
The non-binding text submitted for the first time since 2010 to this week's member meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency calls on Israel to join a global anti-nuclear weapons pact and place its atomic facilities under IAEA monitoring.
Israel is widely believed to possess the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, drawing frequent Arab and Iranian condemnation. It has never acknowledged having atomic weapons.
U.S. and Israeli officials - who see Iran's atomic activity as the main proliferation threat - have said a nuclear arms-free zone in the Middle East could not be a reality until there was broad Arab-Israeli peace and Iran curbed its program.
Washington is committed to working toward a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems, the U.S. envoy to the IAEA said.
But the Arab resolution "does not advance our shared goal of progress toward a WMD-free zone in the Middle East," Ambassador Joseph Macmanus said in a comment emailed to Reuters.
"Instead, it undermines efforts at constructive dialogue toward that common objective," Macmanus added.
Israel and the United States accuse Iran of covertly seeking a nuclear arms capability, something the Islamic state denies.
Iran this week said Israel's nuclear activities "seriously threaten regional peace and security".
World powers agreed in 2010 to an Egyptian plan for an international meeting to lay the groundwork for creating a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
But the United States, one of the big powers to co-sponsor the meeting, said late last year it would not take place as planned last December and did not suggest a new date.
Arab diplomats said they refrained from putting forward their resolution on Israel at the 2011 and 2012 IAEA meetings to boost the chances of the Middle East conference taking place last year but that this had had no effect. A vote on the text may take place on Thursday, one envoy said.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Russian state television RU24 in Damascus in this September 12, 2013 handout photo by Syria's national news agency SANA.
Credit: Reuters/SANA/Handout via Reuters
JERUSALEM | Tue Sep 17, 2013 9:38am EDT
(Reuters) - Israel wants to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad toppled, its ambassador to the United States said on Tuesday, in a shift from its non-committal public stance on its neighbor's civil war.
Even Assad's defeat by al Qaeda-aligned rebels would be preferable to Damascus's current alliance with Israel's arch-foe Iran, Ambassador Michael Oren said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post.
His comments marked a move in Israel's public position on Syria's two-and-1/2-year-old war.
Though old enemies, a stable stand-off has endured between the two countries during Assad's rule and at times Israel had pursued peace talks with him in hope of divorcing Syria from Tehran and Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had long avoided openly calling for the Syrian president's fall. Some Israeli officials now worry that radical Sunni Islamist insurgents fighting Assad will eventually turn their guns on the Jewish state.
But with Assad under U.S.-led condemnation for his forces' alleged chemical attack on a rebel district of Damascus on August 21, Oren said Israel's message was that he must go.
"We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren't backed byIran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran," Oren said in the interview, excerpted on Tuesday before its full publication on Friday.
Assad's overthrow would also weaken the alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, Oren said.
"The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc," he said.
Oren said that other anti-Assad rebels were less radical than the Islamists.
Israel believes around one in 10 Syrian rebels are Sunni militants sworn to its destruction. Assad's Alawite sect is closer to the rival Shi'ite Islam of Iran and Hezbollah.
Oren, a Netanyahu confidant, did not say in the interview whether or how Israel was promoting Assad's fall.
Netanyahu casts Iran's disputed nuclear drive as the main menace to Israel and world stability.
Israel, which is widely assumed to have the region's sole atomic arsenal, has played down any direct Syrian threat to it but is concerned that a weak Western policy towards Assad could encourage Iran.
The Israelis have conferred closely with Washington as it first threatened military reprisals over the Damascus gas attack and then struck a deal with Russia for placing Syria's chemical weapons under international control.
Netanyahu has urged Syria be stripped of such arms, while insisting that his government was not getting involved in Assad's feud with the rebels.
(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)
Thursday, September 12, 2013
Atef Safadi/European Pressphoto Agency
An Israeli soldier in the Golan Heights, near the Syrian border, on Wednesday. Israelis were concerned what message Iran might take from a diplomatic push.
Published: September 11, 2013
JERUSALEM — In tallying winners and losers from the unexpected turn toward a potential diplomatic resolution of the crisis over Syria’s chemical weapons, Israel lands squarely in the question-mark column.
The prospect of a Syria free of chemical weapons would be a great relief to Israel, a neighbor long seen as the main target for Syria’s arsenal, built up over decades. Further, many Israeli experts said Wednesday, the deal presented by Russia, in which Syria would relinquish its stockpile of such weapons, could become Exhibit A for how a credible military threat by the United States — something Israel’s leaders have ardently urged against Iran’s nuclear program — could force the hand of a reluctant and adversarial government.
But there was also pessimism in Israel that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, would actually fulfill his promise to turn over and ultimately destroy his chemical stockpile. Instead, many analysts worried that Mr. Assad, his Iranian patrons and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah would emerge strengthened, and that the main upshot of the episode would be a sense of American wavering on involvement in the Middle East.
“When the Iranians see this, they don’t fear a military threat,” Tzachi Hanegbi, an Israeli lawmaker with security expertise who is close to the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told Israel Radio. “To the contrary, they feel the international coalition is weak and stuttering and not enough of a reason to give up their nuclear program.”
Dan Gillerman, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said the message to Iran was that “America’s allies cannot rely on it, that its enemies can do what they want and nothing will happen to them.” Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s former foreign minister and Mr. Netanyahu’s political partner, reacted to the developments with what has become practically a mantra here, “We rely only on ourselves.”
Mr. Netanyahu, breaking a week of silence on the Syria situation, echoed his colleagues by saying that Israel’s main concern was how it relates to what it sees as its greatest threat: the potential for Iran to build a nuclear bomb. And in his view, the message seemed to be that Israel needed to be prepared to take care of itself.
“The world needs to make sure that anyone who uses weapons of mass destruction will pay a heavy price for it,” Mr. Netanyahu said Wednesday at the graduation ceremony for a naval program. “The message in Syria will also be heard very well in Iran.”
He cited President Obama’s speech Tuesday, in which he said that Israel could defend itself but also had Washington’s “unshakable support,” and quoted a famous saying of the ancient Jewish scholar Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
“The operational translation of this rule is that Israel should always be able to defend itself and will protect itself by its own strengths against every threat,” Mr. Netanyahu told the crowd. “The state of Israel is today prepared to act with great strength.”
Israel has insisted throughout Syria’s two-and-a-half-year-old civil war that it will not intervene except to protect its border or to prevent the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. There is a stark divide here over whether Mr. Assad’s continued rule is preferable to a victory by Syrian rebel groups, some of whom are allied with Islamic extremists seen as even bigger threats. There is a growing sense that a continuation of the bloody battles may be the best outcome for now.
But Israelis have largely been disappointed by what they describe as Mr. Obama’s indecision — a sharp contrast from their own military secretly striking weapons convoysin Syria that it suspected were bound for Hezbollah several times this year.
Ehud Yaari, a fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is based in Jerusalem, said Israelis were dubious about the diplomacy and “confused at the performance of the president.” There was also a concern that both Syria and Iran might obtain advanced Russian weapons systems as part of the deal after the Russian newspaperKommersant reported on Wednesday that Russia had agreed to give Iran advanced S-300 antiaircraft missiles and build an additional nuclear reactor at the Bushehr nuclear site.
“They got the distinctive feeling that the president was looking for every possible way to avoid acting on the red line which he himself issued,” said Mr. Yaari, a television analyst here with close ties to Israel’s security and intelligence establishment. If Mr. Obama’s “not willing to have a very modest, limited strike on Syria, a punitive strike,” he added, “when we come to that, would he be contemplating a bigger move on Iran?”
But Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said it was wrong to “draw a simplistic parallel” between Syria and Iran, which the United States has vowed to prevent from developing a nuclear bomb and which is seen as not only as a threat to Israel but a problem for the world.
“The place of Syria and the place of Iran among U.S. national security priorities are very different,” Mr. Spyer said. “If Iran is No. 1 on the list, and Syria is No. 25, you wouldn’t expect the same amount of attention to No. 25 as you would at No. 1.”
Still, Mr. Spyer said he expected that Mr. Assad would turn the Russian plan into an “epic, mammoth filibuster,” and that Israel would probably be left facing an antagonistic nation to the north still harboring chemical weapons as well as an Iran emboldened by a “sense that the West squirms about making statements and then tries not to fulfill them without looking stupid.”
One upside for Israel is that it will not be blamed in America, as many here worried in recent days, for another unpopular military engagement in the Middle East. And if some analysts view the diplomatic proposal as a sign of Washington’s weakness, others say it allows Mr. Obama to avoid what would be a far more humiliating defeat in Congress.
“As one person put it to me, this could be something that could work, and it could also be a way to save face for the administration,” said Matthew Levitt, the author of a new book on Hezbollah, who has been consulting with many senior Israeli security officials. “The question is, do we hold everybody’s feet to the fire and make sure something happens in the near term, and do we do things to rebuild credibility about our longstanding position, whether with Syria or Iran, that when we say things, we mean it.”
A version of this article appears in print on September 12, 2013, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Backing of Russian Plan Leaves a Wary Israel Focusing on Self-Reliance.
Monday, September 9, 2013
Probably not. But here’s how Israel is preparing, just in case.
IsIsraelis receive gas mask kits at a distribution point in Tel Aviv in late August. (Nir Elias/Reuters)
Deliberate neutrality and ambiguity have thus far governed Israel’s reaction to the Syrian civil war, but America’s deliberations over whether to strike Assad have revealed its true stance.
“We take no part in Syria’s civil war; but if attacked, we’ll react, and react fiercely,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of the gas attacks.
Israel has, however, intervened in Syria. The Jewish state deployed strikes in July against Syrian missile convoys destined for one its principal enemies on its northern border, the Lebanese-based Hezbollah.
Netanyahu and his administration have remained mum on their four unilateral missile attacks since Syria fractured into civil war. The oft-quoted line from the film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly neatly encapsulates Israel’s approach: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”
This helps explain the kind of unusual discipline that Netanyahu expects from his cabinet to avoid leaks about strategy regarding Syria and the U.S. response. Public announcements have been limited to Netanyahu and his defense establishment, a surprising restriction for a typically fairly open cabinet.
The Syrian crisis is palpable in Israel, to the degree that people are risking their positions to proclaim the seriousness of the situation. It reached a breaking point when the right-wing housing minister, Uri Ariel, deviated from Netanyahu’s gag order. Perceiving President Obama as dithering on action in Syria, he told Army Radio that “one doesn’t need to wait for tens of thousands more to die in order to intervene.” Netanyahu charged Ariel with endangering Israel’s “national security.”
The savagery of Assad’s alleged multiple deployments of chemical weapons against his own people sent shock waves through Israel. If he’s willing to use deadly nerve agents against his own population, the thinking there goes, what would prevent him from poisoning Israelis that live in a country he has declared at war with Syria? Demand at gas-mask distribution centers increased fourfold in the aftermath of the attack.
Then there is the question of U.S. military strikes. Will any counterattack plan from the Assad regime include an attack on Israel?
The lack of retaliation to the four Israeli breaches of Syrian airspace suggests a low-risk proposition that Assad would issue an order to launch missiles at Israel. It is worth recalling that, in the absence of full-blown war, Assad took no action in 2007 after Israel bombed a nuclear power installation in northeastern Syria.
Predicting outcomes in the Middle East is risky: The astonishingly fast-moving events in the region could dramatically change the calculus. One high-ranking Syrian official declared, “If Damascus is attacked, Tel Aviv will burn.” At the same time, a leading Israeli defense expert Michael Herzog, an international fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote, “a major Syrian military response against Israel is unlikely” using Israeli assessments of the situation. Netanyahu has voiced a similar prognosis, saying there is “low probability that Israel will become involved in what is happening in Syria.”
Should Israel find a reason to respond, it will most likely be because of attacks from the Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, Assad’s main life-support system (in addition to Iran). According to the Saudi media outlet Okaz, Hezbollah will strike Israel“after receiving a specific order [to do so] from Iran.” The Hezbollah-affiliated press has reported the deployment of combatants from Lebanon to Syria ahead of potential U.S. strikes, and some estimates show between 1,500 - 10,000 Hezbollah fighters already in Syria.
There have even been reports that Hezbollah plans to attack Israel from Syrian territory to avoid damage to Lebanon. Given Hezbollah’s arsenal of as many as100,000 rockets in its southern Lebanon base, Israel’s defense forces have deployed a missile interception system in several cities, counting on Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries and the Patriot and Arrow 3 anti-ballistic missile batteries to protect civilians. For the first-time in Jerusalem’s history, an operational missile defense system was positioned.
A limited numbers of reservists have also been called to duty in preparation for attack.
Israel has told the Lebanese government time and again that it will be held accountable for Hezbollah attacks on Israel, but Hezbollah is the de factokingmaker of Lebanese coalition politics. The enormously complex chess game unfolding in the region could mean that Israel may target both Lebanon and Syria if Hezbollah engages in warfare with the Jewish state.
But then, Israel may not need to target anyone. Both Assad and Hezbollah are stumbling, and a new battle with Israel will almost certainly diminish their military ability. Israel may not be required to talk or shoot if they sit back and allow Assad and his backers to attempt to fight with increasingly depleted supplies.
Friday, September 6, 2013
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
Israeli soldiers conducted a military exercise in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, near the border with Syria.
Published: September 5, 2013
JERUSALEM — President Obama’s position on Syria — punish President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons without seeking to force him from power — has been called “half-pregnant” by critics at home and abroad who prefer a more decisive American intervention to end Syria’s civil war.
But Mr. Obama’s limited strike proposal has one crucial foreign ally: Israel.
Israeli officials have consistently made the case that enforcing Mr. Obama’s narrow “red line” on Syria is essential to halting the nuclear ambitions of Israel’s archenemy, Iran. More quietly, Israelis have increasingly argued that the best outcome for Syria’s two-and-a-half-year-old civil war, at least for the moment, is no outcome.
For Jerusalem, the status quo, horrific as it may be from a humanitarian perspective, seems preferable to either a victory by Mr. Assad’s government and his Iranian backers or a strengthening of rebel groups, increasingly dominated by Sunni jihadis.
“This is a playoff situation in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win — we’ll settle for a tie,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.”
The synergy between the Israeli and American positions, while not explicitly articulated by the leaders of either country, could be a critical source of support as Mr. Obama seeks Congressional approval for surgical strikes in Syria. Some Republicans have pushed him to intervene more assertively to tip the balance in the Syrian conflict, while other politicians from both parties are loath to involve the United States in another Middle Eastern conflict on any terms.
But Israel’s national security concerns have broad, bipartisan support in Washington, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby in Washington, weighed in Tuesday in support of Mr. Obama’s approach. The group’s statement said nothing, however, about the preferred outcome of the civil war, instead saying that America must “send a forceful message” to Iran and Hezbollah and “take a firm stand that the world’s most dangerous regimes cannot obtain and use the most dangerous weapons.”
After years of upheaval in the Middle East and tension between Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the two leaders are now largely in sync on how to handle not just Syria, but also Egypt. Mr. Obama has not withheld American aid to Egypt after the military-backed ouster of the elected Islamist government, while Israel strongly backs the Egyptian military as a source of stability.
On Syria, in fact, Israel pioneered the kind of limited strike Mr. Obama is now proposing: four times this year, it has bombed convoys of advanced weapons it suspected were being transferred to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that Israel considers a major threat.
It has otherwise been content to watch the current stalemate in Syria pull in what it considers a range of enemies: not only the Syrian Army and Iran, but also Hezbollah, which has thousands of fighters engaged on the battlefronts in Syria, and Sunni Islamists aligned against them.
Though Syria and Israel have technically been at war for more than 40 years, the conflict in Syria is now viewed mainly through the prism of Iran. A prolonged conflict is perceived as hurting Iran, which finances Mr. Assad’s war effort. Whether Mr. Obama follows through on his promise to retaliate for the use of chemical weapons is a test of his commitment, ultimately, to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb — as long as the retaliation does not become a full-scale intervention in Syria.
“If it’s Iran-first policy, then any diversion to Syria is not fruitful,” said Aluf Benn, editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “From the Israeli point of view, the worst scenario is mission-creep in Syria and America gets entangled in a third war in the Middle East, which paralyzes its ability to strike Iran and limits Israel’s ability to strike Iran as well.”
This spring, when an Israeli official called for an international response to what he said were earlier Syrian chemical attacks, he was muzzled and reprimanded for appearing to pressure the White House. Now, said Eyal Zisser, a historian at Tel Aviv University who specializes in the region, “it’s clear that Israel does not want to appear as somebody that is pushing the United States for a deep involvement.”
There are significant differences between Israel and the United States on Syria. There was widespread criticism here of Mr. Obama’s decision to delay responding to the chemical attack, with the quote “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk” from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” becoming a common refrain. One Israeli dentist even took out a large newspaper ad promoting his implant services with a picture of Mr. Obama captioned, “He doesn’t have teeth?”
There has also been a broader debate about how best to respond to the war in Syria.
When the uprising began, many here saw Mr. Assad, who like his predecessor and father had maintained quiet on the border, as “the devil you know,” and therefore preferable to the rebels, some of whom were aligned with Al Qaeda or Sunni militants like the Palestinian Hamas faction.
As the death toll has mounted, more Israelis joined a camp led by Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, who argues that the devil you know is, actually, a devil who should be ousted sooner rather than later.
That split remains. But as hopes have dimmed for the emergence of a moderate, secular rebel force that might forge democratic change and even constructive dialogue with Israel, a third approach has gained traction: Let the bad guys burn themselves out.
“The perpetuation of the conflict is absolutely serving Israel’s interest,” said Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, was one of several experts who said this view differs from the callous “let them all kill each other” shrug popular here during the long-running Iran-Iraq war. Rather, Ms. Wittes said, the reasoning behind a strike that would not significantly change the Syrian landscape is that the West needs more time to prop up opposition forces it finds more palatable and prepare them for future governing.
She cited dangers for Israel if the conflict continues to drag on, including more efforts to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, instability in Lebanon and pressure on Jordan.
Despite those threats, Matthew Levitt, who studies the region at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Jerusalem and Washington essentially agree that “right now, there’s no good way for this war to end.”
Israeli leaders “want Assad to be punished; they’d like it to be punishing enough that it actually makes a difference in the war but not so much that it completely takes him out,” Mr. Levitt said. “The Israelis do not think the status quo is tenable either, but they think the status quo right now is better than the war ending tomorrow, because the war ending tomorrow could be much worse. There’s got to be a tomorrow, day-after plan.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: