U.S. President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden as he makes a statement about Syria
With VP Joe Biden beside him, President Obama makes his statement about Syria. Photo by AP
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U.S. President Barack Obama called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday and informed him that he planned to delay what seemed like an imminent attack on Syria, ahead of his speech at the White House to that regard.

Obama also told Netanyahu that he would relegate the matter to Congress, and ask for a congressional vote on any military action.

Senior Israeli officials who asked to remain nameless stated that the phone call took place roughly four hours before Obama's speech.

In contrast to phone calls made to other world leaders, the White House decided to keep this specific call between Netanyahu and Obama a secret, and not make any announcements to the press. The Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem also made no mention of the phone call. White House and the PMO responded to Haaretz inquiries with the same answer: "No comment."

Senior Israeli officials stated that the talk between Obama and Netanyahu was aimed at coordinating both states' next moves regarding Syria. Roughly two weeks ago, senior U.S. government officials promised their Israeli counterparts that Israel would be notified hours in advance of any possible attack on Syria, so as to provide ample time for Israeli defense preparations against possible missile fire from Damascus.

The Israel Defense Forces has been on high alert over the past few days, especially the air force and air defenses. The political-security cabinet has also approved the drafting of about 1,000 reservists to beef up the critical arrays in the intelligence department, the Home Front Command, and the units responsible for the Arrow missiles and Iron Dome arrays.

Obama wanted to inform Netanyahu of his decision to delay the attack partially to allow Israel to make its security and military preparations accordingly.

According to reports in the American media, Obama decided to postpone the strike and ask for Congressional approval on Friday night after a tete-a-tete with White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, also advised Obama that the efficacy of a strike in Syria would not be compromised if it were put off by a few days or even a month. A few hours later, Obama phoned Netanyahu to inform him of his decision.

A senior Israeli official said Obama’s conversation with Netanyahu shows how closely coordinated the two countries are on the Syrian issue. However, it may be assumed that one of Obama’s reasons for the phone call was to keep Netanyahu in the picture and keep him from publicly criticizing Obama’s decision to delay the strike. 

The call from Obama was the main reason Netanyahu took Housing Minister Uri Ariel to task during Sunday’s cabinet meeting. About an hour before the meeting, during an interview on Army Radio, Ariel harshly criticized Obama for hesitating on the matter of a strike against Syria.

“You don’t have to wait until tens of thousands more children die before intervening in Syria,” Ariel said. “When you throw gas at the population, it means you know you’re going to murder thousands of women, children indiscriminately. [Assad] is a murderous coward. Take him out."

Netanyahu was furious over the remarks because over the past few days he had instructed ministers not to express themselves publicly at all about Syria. Netanyahu is concerned that Israeli statements in favor of a strike in Syria will be seen as an Israeli attempt to push the United States into war.  Many elements in the United States now accuse Israel and the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC in Washington of pushing the United Sates into war with Iraq. Netanyahu himself is perceived in Washington as coaxing the United States to go to war against Iran.

At the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, after the photographers left the room, Netanyahu told the ministers that the crisis over the use of chemical weapons in Syria was still at its height and very sensitive. “We are managing the situation responsibly and with good judgment; there is no place for individual statements. There is central, responsible and careful management here and that is how a responsible government acts. And so I am asking you to continue to act responsibly.”

Netanyahu also told the ministers that he was asking them “not to behave with poor judgment and irresponsibly vis-à-vis our ally the United States, to win a moment’s headline.” Netanyahu said that such conduct was essential for the security of all Israelis and that Israel will continue to defend itself and continue to maintain its strategic ties. “You were elected to serve the citizens of Israel from the government and such statements do not serve the citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu said, referring to Ariel’s interview.