Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to ask British Prime Minister David Cameron during their meeting Wednesday in London to be extremely cautious about arming the Syrian rebels, a senior Israeli official has said.
Netanyahu will tell Cameron that because there are known to be global jihad elements among the rebels, it is very important to carefully vet a rebel group’s intentions before supplying it with weapons.
Netanyahu flew to London on Tuesday to attend the funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, on Wednesday. He is scheduled to meet tonight with Cameron and with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who will also attend the funeral.
On the funeral’s sidelines Netanyahu is expected to have short conversations with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
France and Britain are leading an effort to get the European Union to remove its arms embargo on Syria, which blocks sending military aid to the rebels. The weapons embargo expires at the beginning of next month and the British and French are pressing not to extend it. The British have even threatened to veto an extension, which would scuttle the embargo since extending it requires the approval of all 27 EU member states.
A senior Israeli official said Jerusalem does not categorically object to Western nations arming the Syrian rebels, given that states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already arming extremist Islamic rebel groups in Syria. But, he said, Israel fears that Western military aid will be dispatched overly hastily, before the exact identity of the recipients is clarified.
Israeli apprehensions also stem from the fact that the rebels aren’t merely requesting rifles and ammunition but also sophisticated weaponry such as anti-tank missiles and shoulder-borne anti-aircraft missiles.
The rebels claim that without these weapons they will have difficulty defeating the armed forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Israel fears, however, that should the weapons supplied to the rebels by the EU fall into the hands of rebel groups identified with Al-Qaida, they may later be used against Israel Defense Forces troops on the Golan Heights or against Israeli aircraft.
Within the EU a large group of states, led by Germany and Austria, opposes arming the Syrian rebels. Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, who visited Israel last week, told Netanyahu that arming the rebels was liable to lead to Austria withdrawing its soldiers from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force that patrols the Syrian-Israeli border on the Golan Heights.
Austrian soldiers are the primary armed component of the UN observer force. In addition to the Syrian issue, Netanyahu is expected to raise the Iranian issue with Cameron, Harper and the other world leaders he meets.
At Tuesday’s traditional Independence Day reception for the foreign diplomatic corps at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said the world is not doing enough to stop the Iranian nuclear program. He pointed to the dangers posed by rogue states with nuclear weapons, as recently seen in the Korean Peninsula. “We have also seen that heavy sanctions are not always effective against a sufficiently determined regime. Therefore, we have an obligation to ensure that this will not happen again. If Iran achieves nuclear weapons, it will change the world,” Netanyahu said.