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
By Dan Williams
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.
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.
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:
Many of the United States’ most influential pro-Israel and Jewish groups on Tuesday backed the Obama administration’s call for military action in Syria, putting strong momentum behind the effort to persuade reluctant lawmakers to authorize a strike against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The stances mark a new phase in the debate over how to respond to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, setting in motion a robust lobbying effort on Capitol Hill — powered in part by the memory of the Holocaust and how the Nazis gassed Jews.
After a period of conspicuous silence on the issue, major groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called for bipartisan consensus Tuesday around the use of force.
“Those who perpetuate such acts of wanton murder must know that they cannot do so with impunity,” the conference, which represents 52 national Jewish agencies, said in a statement. “Those who possess or seek weapons of mass destruction, particularly Iran and Hezbollah, must see that there is accountability.”
In its own strongly worded statement, AIPAC said that not taking action would weaken the United States and its ability to prevent the use of unconventional weapons.
“Simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass,” the group said.
The statements came after days of intense discussions among activists about whether to play a role in the Syria debate. Some remain worried that a military strike is being cast as a move to protect Israel’s interests rather than an action to defend U.S. credibility.
“There is a desire to not make this about Israel,” said one pro-Israel advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the politics of the situation. “When the administration argues to members of Congress that we should do this for Israel’s sake, that has caused deep discomfort in the Jewish community, regardless of where they stand. Israel didn’t ask the U.S. to do this.”
But some prominent Jewish leaders said a moral imperative, rooted in the experience of the Holocaust, demanded a strong response.
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, participated in a call organized by the Conference of Presidents on Tuesday and said there was a clear consensus to step forward.
“To see innocent people being gassed invokes that special historical memory and sensitivity,” he said. “And when the president says it is in the national security interests of our country to stand up against such heinous violations of international norms, I think both things play very strongly in the psyche of the Jewish community.”
“This isn’t a Jewish issue; this is a humanitarian issue,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center’s founder and dean.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, an international association of conservative rabbis, said she expects that many rabbis will address the Syrian massacre in their sermons on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins Wednesday evening.
“For the Jewish community to see people being gassed by their own leaders is something that is a horror to us, and to which we are pledged should never happen again,” she said.
The U.S. response carries significant implications for Israel. Many Israel supporters worry that a reluctance to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons could weaken the U.S. ability to contain Iran’s nuclear program. The expansion of Syria’s civil war also has heightened Israeli concerns about the direct impact of the conflict, analysts said.
“As the Syrian crisis has grown in scale, it’s become more important to Israel — with the Assad regime moving closer to Iran, the archenemy of Israel, and the rise of jihadi groups also bent on Syria’s destruction, which have been popping up in areas adjacent to Israel,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
AIPAC is one of the strongest levers of influence on Capitol Hill, with ties to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. In August, the American Israel Educational Foundation, AIPAC’s charitable affiliate, sponsored two trips of House members to Israel — one for 37 Democrats and the other for 26 Republicans.
On Tuesday, the group organized a conference call with top rabbinical allies to provide information about how to discuss the issue with their congregants, and sent a letter to its members asking for their help in persuading lawmakers to back Obama’s request to use force.
“We believe that Congress’ failure to grant the President this authority would be interpreted as a sign of American weakness, and cast doubt about whether America will act to carry out its commitments in the Middle East — including the President’s and Congress’ pledge to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” AIPAC President Michael Kassen wrote.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said he remains in the “deeply skeptical category.” Himes, who represents New York suburbs such as Stamford and Greenwich, said calls and e-mails from his district are running overwhelmingly against a military strike.
“There’s no question that the majority of my colleagues are very, very concerned about the impact of our decision on Israel, and that’s not a simple black-and-white issue,” he said. “What if we attack and Hezbollah launches an attack against Israel? I think there’s some complexity here. But it’s also true that plenty of pro-Israel groups have built deep relationships on the Hill, so I’m sure their points of view will be considered.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.
Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Published September 03, 2013
Israel has acknowledged conducting a joint missile test with the United States in the Mediterranean Sea on Tuesday, responding to reports that Russian radar had detected a missile launch in the area.
The Israeli Defense Ministry confirmed to Reuters that the test was conducted at approximately 9:15 a.m. local time (2:15 a.m. ET) Tuesday, about the same time that Russia's Interfax news agency reported that the launch was detected by a radar station at Armavir, near the Black Sea.
Russia's state-owned news agency RIA said radar detected two ballistic 'objects' that were fired from the central Mediterranean Sea. Originally, a spokeswoman for the Israeli military told Reuters that Israel was "not aware of such an event having occurred." However, approximately an hour later, Israel acknowledged that it fired an upgraded Sparrow missile from an Israeli warplane in a launch meant to test the country's Arrow anti-missile system.
“This is the first flight out test of this new version of the Sparrow, and was conducted at Israeli test range over the Mediterranean sea,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement, according to The Times of Israel. “All the elements of the system performed according to their operational configuration."
The Sparrow is a medium-range guided missile that can be launched either from the surface or the air to hit aerial targets, according to the manufacturer.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said the test was performed together with the U.S. Defense Department. The missile was launched and followed its planned trajectory, while the U.S.-funded Arrow missile defense system successfully detected and tracked the target, the ministry said.
U.S. officials told Fox News that the missile launch was a preplanned test and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency may have played a role, but senior Pentagon leadership was unaware of plans to test part of the missile defense system on Tuesday.
The officials added that only one missile was fired into the Mediterranean.
Arrow designer Uzi Rabin told Reuters that tests of the system are usually planned "long in advance" and go unnoticed.
"What apparently made the difference today is the high state of tension over Syria and Russia's unusual vigilance," he said.
Initial speculation that Syria was the target of the missiles proved premature after the Russian embassy in Damascus reported no explosions or sign of a missile attack in the Syrian capital, according to the Itar-Tass news agency. An RIA source in Damascus had reported that objects fell into the sea.
On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his country's missile defense systems a "wall of iron," according to Reuters.
"These things give us the power to protect ourselves, and anyone who considers harming us would do best not to," he said during a speech.
The report of the missile test is likely to further increase tensions in the region as President Barack Obama is due to arrive in Russia Tuesday for the G20 summit. The U.S. and Russia have clashed over the proper course of action in the wake of a reported chemical attack by forces loyal to Syria President Bashar Assad last month. On Monday, Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the evidence of the attack presented by the U.S. and its allies was "utterly unconvincing."
A defense ministry official has also criticized the United States for deploying warships so close to the Syria coast. At least three U.S. ships are already in the eastern Mediterranean, while the USS Nimitz carrier group, which includes four destroyers, has been moved from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. In response, Interfax reported on Monday that Russia would be sending a reconnaissance ship to the eastern Mediterranean.
Chance of Syrian strike "low," but draft approved as precaution; IDF deployed air defenses around the country.
Israeli soldiers evacuate a mock victim during a drill simulating a chemical attack May, 2013. Photo: REUTERS
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called on Israelis to carry on with their daily routines Wednesday in light of a possible US strike on Syria, even as the security cabinet approved a limited call-up of reservists in vital military capacities.
The dual message of “stay calm but be prepared,” one government official said, reflected the continued assessments in Jerusalem that there was a “low probability” that Syria would actually strike Israel, but also reflected the government’s responsibility to prepare for all sorts of scenarios, “no matter how unlikely.”
The IDF deployed air defenses around the country on Wednesday and called up a few hundred reserve soldiers ahead of the expected American strike, but these measures are basic precautionary ones, and the chances of a Syrian retributive attack on Israel remain low, a senior military source stressed.
“We have a clear responsibility to prepare the army for all possibilities.
We took a number of decisions to prepare ourselves for a scenario we hope will not materialize,” he added.
As part of the preparations, the IAF deployed Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries in Haifa, Ashkelon and Eilat, and is set to place additional batteries in the northern regions of Amakim and Safed.
“We’ll take additional decisions down the line about placing Iron Dome batteries in northern areas, and possibly further south,” the military source said.
Patriot and Arrow 3 anti-ballistic missile batteries, which are deployed at all times, have also been moved around the country.
As of Wednesday evening, a few hundred reservists had been ordered to report for IAF duty – including Iron Dome operators – as well as for Military Intelligence and Home Front Command roles.
“We can expand the call-up if necessary. But this is not a widespread call-up,” the army source emphasized.
The IDF’s overall state of readiness is at normal, he said.
“We’ll only change this when the US begins operating in Syria. There are no special orders from the IDF’s Operations Branch, other than orders for front-line units to be prepared for the possibility of a cancellation of weekend leave,” the source stated.
He added that “naturally forces that are on the northern front lines, particularly on the Golan Heights, will be on high alert over the weekend.”
The Home Front Command, too, has urged members of the public to continue their lives as usual. It reported receiving 20,000 calls to its hot lines in the past day, causing the lines to crash.
“We’ve had far higher call numbers in the past. We will upgrade the phone lines,” the source said.
Similarly distribution centers for gas masks have been experiencing a surge of visits from concerned citizens, and extra staff will be sent to handle the increase in activities.
The army source speculated that the timing of the US strike would depend on a few variables, such as the exit of UN chemical weapons inspectors from Syria. According to his assessment, the strike will occur sometime around this weekend.
“The public should know that the chances of Syrian retribution against Israel are low,” he repeated, calling for calm.
Asked about IDF assessments regarding the chances of rocket fire from smaller terrorist organizations like Islamic Jihad in Gaza, which reportedly threatened to respond to a Syria strike by firing on Israel, he said there was “no indication they decided to [carry out their threats]. But the possibility of attacks by terror groups in Gaza and Sinai is also being factored in.”
The “low probability” estimation is due in part to Israeli assessments that Syrian President Bashar Assad is cognizant of messages Jerusalem has delivered, which make clear that an attack on Israel would ignite a counter-attack that would bring his regime down.
Following the security cabinet meeting in which ministers approved the limited callup of reservists, Netanyahu issued his statement that Israelis need not alter their daily routine.
The ministers made the decision after hearing briefings from IDF Chief of Staff Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz and senior Defense Ministry officials.
“The IDF is ready to defend against any threat and prepared to respond severely against any attempt to harm Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu said in his post-meeting statement.
Security officials said Jerusalem and Washington were in close contact, and that the US would likely give Israel a few hours’ notice before launching any type of attack.
After the meeting, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said at an economics conference that the deliberations in the cabinet had taken place in a “reasoned and responsible” manner.
The “bottom line,” he said, was that Israel was preparing and taking the appropriate measures, but doing so in a responsible way that would neither sow panic nor lead to unwanted escalation.
“We need to prepare,” he said, “but we also need to maintain the daily routine.”
Ya’alon repeated a message he and Netanyahu have expressed numerous times since the start of the week: that Israel was not “trigger happy,” but that anyone in the region who might think this was the time to “challenge” Israel would be met with its full force.
He said what was taking place in Syria was part of a once-in-a-century historical development.
“We are not involved or interfering,” he made clear.
“The Syrians crossed the red line the US set out, of not using chemical weapons against civilians. The pictures are horrible. Humanity cannot tolerate this reality, but we are not the ones dealing with this. Rather, it is being done by the West, led by the US.”
Over the last two days, and in an effort to keep tight control of the messages coming out of Jerusalem, Netanyahu and Ya’alon were the only ministers speaking publicly about the situation in Syria.
In addition, both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry are doing their utmost to broadcast a “business as usual” atmosphere, denying that they are on any kind of emergency footing.
At the same time, the Foreign Ministry canceled a conference scheduled to take place in Jerusalem early next week for ambassadors in some 20 key capitals around the world. One ministry official explained that the move to postpone the conference stemmed from a decision that at this time the ambassadors were needed in their embassies.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Delegation headed by National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror in Washington as US plans its response to Damascus attack
By TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF August 27, 2013, 6:37 am 4
US National Security Advisor Susan Rice (photo credit: AP/Craig Ruttle/File)
A delegation of Israeli officials met with US National Security Adviser Susan Rice in Washington on Monday afternoon to discuss the latest developments in Syria and Egypt, as the Obama administration planned its response to a chemical attack near Damascus.
The Israeli team was headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outgoing National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror.
A statement issued by the White House noted that the officials also discussed Iran and other regional issues, and that the meeting was part of a series of regular discussions within the framework of the good relations between the two countries. But the meeting comes at a time when Israel finds itself facing an increased threat.
A senior Syrian official on Monday issued a first direct warning that if attacked, his country would retaliate against Israel. Khalaf Muftah, a senior Baath Party official who used to serve as Syria’s assistant information minister, said in a radio interview that Damascus would consider Israel “behind the [Western] aggression and [it] will therefore come under fire.”
“We have strategic weapons and we’re capable of responding,” he said. “Normally the strategic weapons are aimed at Israel.”
Muftah concluded with a warning that “If the US or Israel make the mistake of taking advantage of the chemical issue… the region will go up in flames… that will affect security not only in the region but across the world.”
His words were echoed by Iranian officials, who on Monday shrugged off the threat of a US attack on its close ally Syria, but said that if such a strike were to take place, Israel would suffer.
“[The Americans] are incapable of starting a new war in the region, because of their lacking economic capabilities and their lack of morale,” said Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Republican Guards’ elite Basij force.
“No military attack will be waged against Syria,” said Hossein Sheikholeslam, a member of Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly. “Yet, if such an incident takes place, which is impossible, the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria.”
Israeli military officials have indicated they believe it unlikely that Syria would target Israel if the US or others intervened, but Israel has reportedly been taking security precautions just in case.
The Obama administration on Monday toughened its criticism of Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use, with Secretary of State John Kerry cutting short his vacation to deliver a scathing indictment of the Assad regime. It was the first time the US said unequivocally that the Syrian government was behind a devastating attack that killed hundreds last week.
In an address at the State Department (read the full speech here), Kerry said that chemical attacks were “inexcusable” and “undeniable,” that they defied “the code of morality” and should “shock the conscience of the world.” He called the killing of innocent women and children a “moral obscenity” and reiterated — in what appeared to be a direct threat to the Assad regime — that there must be accountability for the use of such weapons.
In an apparent jab at Russia, which has been insisting that the West does not have sufficient evidence of chemical weapons use to justify an attack on Syria, Kerry said that anyone who thought the evidence of a chemical attack was “contrived” or fabricated “must check their moral conscience.”
Also on Monday, the US State Department canceled a meeting with Russian officials about setting up an international conference to find a political resolution to the Syrian crisis, scheduled for this week. A senior State Department official said Monday the meeting between Undersecretary Wendy Sherman and US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford with their Russian counterparts was postponed.
Friday, August 23, 2013
One of the projectiles downed by Iron Dome; northerners told to remain near bomb shelters; IDF denies reports it retaliated, doesn’t expect attack to lead to wider conflagration; Netanyahu: ‘Anyone who harms us… should know we’ll harm them’
A fragment of one of four rockets fired from Lebanon into northern Israel, Thursday, August 22, 2013 (photo credit: Kobi Snir/Flash90)
Lebanese media reported that the IDF promptly retaliated, attacking targets in south Lebanon, but the army denied those reports.
An Israeli Iron Dome battery intercepted one of the rockets. Israeli TV aired footage of minor damage caused by a fragment from the rocket that fell on the outskirts of a town outside Nahariya. Another rocket fell in a town near Acre, causing damage to several houses.
Three residents were treated for shock.
Lebanese media reported that two volleys of rockets had been fired from a Palestinian refugee camp near the Lebanese town of Tyre. There was an attempt to fire a third volley, but the missiles fell short of the border.The IDF said four makeshift rocket launchers had been located east of Tyre.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al-Qaeda-inspired group based in Lebanon, claimed responsibility for the attack in a post on the Twitter account of Sirajuddin Zurayqat, a prominent Islamic militant leader. Zurayqat said the rockets were capable of flying 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, putting the Israeli city of Haifa in its range. The group, designated a terrorist organization by the US, has claimed responsibility for past rocket attacks on Israel.
The official Lebanese news agency reported Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles circling in the area, while a Hezbollah-affiliated station said IAF jets were executing sorties throughout the south of the country.
IDF sources said they regarded the incident — a little after 4 p.m. — as a one-off attack by a jihadist group rather than the beginning of a wider campaign. Northern residents were initially told to go to bomb shelters; the army later called on them to remain close to the shelters but otherwise go back to their normal routines.
The specific location of the rocket falls was not publicized, by order of the military censor, in order to avoid assisting cells firing rockets at Israel in hitting targets in future attacks.
A resident of Kibbutz Evron, near Nahariya, told Ynet that the alarm sounded after “two booms” were heard, and that the residents quickly moved into bomb shelters.
“I heard booms,” Yan, a resident of Nahariya, told Channel 2. “Everyone is in the bomb shelters.”
He said that residents hadn’t heard alarms for seven years — since the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
“I was on the phone to my grandma” when the alarms rang out. “I put down the phone and went down to the shelter,” Yan said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the army was “employing diverse means, both defensive and preemptive measures,” in order to ensure Israelis’ security. “Anyone who harms us, who tries to harm us, should know that we will harm them,” Netanyahu said in a videotaped statement.
There were reports Wednesday in Lebanon that Israeli helicopters had circled in the south of the country.
There were several reports in the past year of attempts to fire rocketsinto Israel from southern Lebanon. In November, during Israel’s brief round of fighting with Hamas in Gaza, Lebanese army forces operating in the town of Marjayoun, about 10 kilometers north of the border, found and disarmed several rockets aimed at Israel.
Damage from a rocket that fell near Nahariya, Thursday, August 22, 2013 (photo credit: Channel 2)
Rockets are a key tactic of the Lebanese Hezbollah and other terror groups on Israel’s northern and southern borders.
Thousands of projectiles fell on Israel during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, and Hezbollah has since stockpiled tens of thousands of rockets it has said will be launched at Israeli cities in future fighting.
Israel last week deployed a sixth Iron Dome battery north of Tel Aviv, with an eye to the missile threat from the north.
The anti-missile system is a keystone of Israel’s air defense array and successfully intercepted hundreds of short- and medium-range missiles shot at Israeli cities during the conflagration in Gaza in November.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
By YASSER OKBI, REUTERS
An adviser to interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour said Monday that it is natural that Israel, like Cairo, wants a stable security situation maintained in Egypt because Jerusalem understands that any deterioration of stability in the country "is liable to influence the entire region."
Speaking in an interview with Russia al-Youm, an Arabic-language Russian media outlet, Mustafa Hijazi said that "Israel is naturally following the events, as a regional neighbor, and wants to be assured, because what's happening right now in Egypt is important to all in the region."
Hijazi stated that many countries want to harm Egypt, but "fascism will not defeat us. He contended that Egypt was facing "violence in the name of religion."
Hijazi attacked the Muslim Brotherhood, stating that the group bears the responsibility "for every drop of blood being shed in the country."
He referred to the Brotherhood as "an extremist enemy of the Egyptian people" that is engaging in terrorist activity in order to get its way.
Hijazi vowed that "victory" over the Muslim Brotherhood would come soon.
Meanwhile, Egypt's public prosecutor ordered on Monday the detention of deposed President Mohamed Morsi for 15 days pending an investigation into allegations he participated in "violent acts", state news agency MENA said.
On Thursday, Egyptian judicial authorities extended Morsi's detention period for 30 days in a separate case.
Morsi, who was overthrown by the army on July 3, is being held at an undisclosed location on allegations of murder and spying. The new case centers on protests that took place in front of the presidential palace last December, MENA said.