Senior Israeli Team in Washington as U.S. Prepares for Possible Syria Attack

High-level Israeli delegation prepares for scenarios in wake of chemical attack; talks with U.S. officials will also focus on Iran's nuclear program, Hezbollah and Iran's role in the Syria crisis.

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Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

A high-level Israeli delegation headed by National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror arrived in Washington on Monday for political and security talks with senior U.S. officials. The meeting was planned a few weeks ago, but gained special importance and urgency in light of events in Syria and U.S. preparations for a possible attack there.

A senior official noted that the talks were expected to deal mostly with events in Syria and repercussions of the Assad regime’s evident use of chemical weapons last Wednesday in an attack that killed as many as 1,000 or more people. The talks carry particular importance in light of the possibility that the U.S., Britain and other Western states may launch a military strike against the Syrian regime in response. Presumably, the talks were to center on coordinating positions and a joint preparation for a possible escalation in Syria following an American military strike.

In addition to the Syrian issue, the talks were expected to focus on the Iranian nuclear program and preparations by the U.S. and the other five world powers to begin a dialogue with Iran over the coming weeks. In addition, the talks will address the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in the Syrian crisis.

A senior Israeli official said Amidror was joined by Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the diplomatic security department at the Defense Ministry; Nimrod Shefer, head of the Israel Defense Forces planning department; Itai Baron, head of the research division in Military Intelligence; Jeremy Issacharoff, head of the strategy department in the Foreign Ministry, and senior officials from the Shin Bet. Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren, soon to retire from his position, will also join the talks.

On the American side, the talks are coordinated by National Security Adviser Susan Rice. She will be joined by senior officials from the White House National Security Council, State Department, Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro also arrived in Washington to take part in the diplomatic-security dialogue.

Condemnations, but no offers of help

The talks slated to open last night are part of a regular dialogue between Israel and the United States, and whose sessions take place once every few months. The dialogue began in 2009 after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first visit to the White House after his re-election. Over the years, and particularly in light of events in Egypt and Syria, the discussions came to include other issues.

The joint working team’s last talks took place in November 2012 when a delegation headed by Amidror visited Washington. A few months earlier, in July 2012, former White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon visited Israel at the head of a delegation of senior U.S. officials. This is the first session of talks since the new government was formed in Israel and since Rice took up her position.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened the diplomatic-security cabinet yesterday to discuss the situation in Syria. The discussion followed harsh condemnations by Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett of the slaughter in Syria and the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians.

But despite these condemnations, the meeting did not address the question of what Israel could do to help Syrian civilians, such as offering humanitarian aid or opening the border on the Golan Heights to refugees. Rather, the ministers were briefed on what Israel had heard from U.S. officials during conversations between Ya’alon and his American counterpart, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and between IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his American counterpart, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.

A senior Israeli official said the main conclusion from the discussion was that Israel should “keep a low profile” and not let itself be dragged into events in Syria. The official said much of the meeting was devoted to various scenarios of escalation that could develop if America strikes the Assad regime, and which could result in Israel being dragged into the Syrian war against its will.

“The defense establishment’s assessment is that the likelihood of a Syrian response against Israel following an American attack is low,” the senior official said. “Nevertheless, when something like this starts, you don’t know how it’s liable to develop, and therefore we need to be ready and set policy in advance.”

Livni, left, sitting next to Netanyahu,in meeting with Kerry in Jerusalem, on June 29, 2013. Credit: AP

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