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Israel's Warning on Syria's WMD Awaits Assad's Reply

As Prime Minister Netanyahu feels his way toward a new coalition that will put the civic agenda first, security challenges refuse to go away.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

After Sunday's flurry of both verbal and physical activity, Monday produced a lull in Israeli moves on its northern front. This lull doesn't necessarily attest to a lowering of tensions; the basic worry - the possibility that the Assad regime's worsening position in Syria could lead to chemical weapons being transferred from Damascus to Hezbollah - remains intact. But it seems Israel thinks its moves had the intended effect: A clear warning was sent to the relevant parties and the international community about the significance of such a transfer from Israel's standpoint. What remains to be seen is whether this warning alone will suffice to prevent it.

The Israeli statements were heard loud and clear overseas, receiving relatively widespread coverage in the foreign media. Nevertheless, drawing a red line has ramifications that go beyond the threat to Assad and Hezbollah. If Israel holds back and doesn't carry out its threat in the case of such a weapons transfer, as has happened several times in recent years, it will be seen as weak. But if it decides to attack, it risks - in the worst-case scenario - a military confrontation with Syria and Hezbollah.

In contrast, the Iranian threat to come to Assad's aid if Syria is attacked seems less convincing. It's doubtful Iran wants a clash with Israel just now, while it is still discussing the future of its nuclear program with the Western powers.

Russia flexes muscles

Russia is also following events in Syria closely. Last week, Russia began a large-scale naval exercise in the eastern Mediterranean, which will end today. In an article on the website of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Moscow, wrote that the Russians are describing this exercise as the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It includes 23 vessels and, unusually, is being commanded directly by the Russian military chief of staff. Based on public statements made by Moscow, Magen concluded that the exercise is aimed at deterring outside intervention in Syria.

The worsening situation in Syria coincides with a turbulent week throughout the Middle East. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood government is facing what seems like its most serious challenge since Mohammed Morsi won the presidential election more than half a year ago - a wave of particularly violent demonstrations. Iraq is witnessing an intifada that is unusually bloody even by the standards of a country used to bloodshed, against the background of renewed Sunni-Shi'ite conflict. Even Jordan saw stormy demonstrations recently over its parliamentary elections results.

All these events show that the enormous upheaval in the Arab world is still going on, with no connection, obviously, to the results of Israel's recent election. But at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is feeling his way toward a new coalition that will put the civic agenda first and foremost, the diplomatic and security challenges refuse to conveniently go away.

These trends will apparently influence Netanyahu's choice for the crucial post of defense minister. The number of ministers with experience in security is expected to decline in the next cabinet with the departure of Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and, apparently, Ehud Barak (who said in an interview with CNN this weekend that he plans to leave politics for "at least five years").

What does this mean for Yair Lapid? On Sunday, Netanyahu made a rather crude attempt to link the security dangers with the need to form a new government quickly. Three different political columnists in the Friday editions of both Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth quoted at length from an anonymous outgoing cabinet minister who warned Lapid to lock Netanyahu into a detailed, binding agreement before joining the coalition. It seems this warning has only been reinforced by the strategic situation: Under such circumstances, the question of what status Lapid will have and what weight his positions will carry on diplomatic and security issues - and not only on the social issues that were his focus before the election - has become all the more important.

Syrian refugees search for their belongings at a burnt tent at the Al-Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, January 28, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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