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Obama, Syria and the Prospect of an Israeli Attack on Iran

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s lonely sense of mission regarding Tehran’s nuclear program has surely been strengthened by the U.S. president’s surprising speech.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The main consideration facing U.S. President Barack Obama in reaching his surprise decision to postpone the attack on Syria was actually Iran, the New York Times reported.

Obama is convinced he will need Congress in the future if he decides to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities, and therefore was not interested in bypassing the Senate and House for now in making a decision about Syria.

Haaretz in depth coverage of the crisis in Syria: :Israel and lobby likely to get embroiled in Congress debate on Syria (Chemi Shalev) || Obama informed Netanyahu prior to speech of plans to delay Syria strike (Barak Ravid) || Obama seeking Western legitimacy, but Arabs perceive him as weak (Amos Harel) || U.S. intervention in Syria - humanitarian action or a new imperialism (Aeyal Gross)

The last-minute change in Obama's approach could well have stemmed from a combination of strategic, political and moral considerations, but it seems the mention of the Iranian connection in the leak to The Times was intended for additional purposes. If in the end Obama chooses the military option against Syria, he will need broad support from pro-Israel elements in both parties of Congress to gather the necessary votes. The Iranian card is an important justification to enlist support for his efforts on Syria. Given the absence of an international coalition to support the attack, Obama reached the conclusion that he needs political support at home - and constitutional justification - to act militarily in Syria.

But Obama's decision to delay the attack on Syria at the last minute was received as very bad news by a different coalition: the alliance, which can be called "dovish" on the Iranian issue, among the senior officials in Israel’s defense establishment. According to a long list of reports, three times - in the summer and fall in 2010, 2011 and 2012 - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Defense Minister Ehud Barak tried to push forward a decision on a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran, despite American objections. In each of those cases, an internal opposition stopped them.

This opposition included senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces, including those from the Air Force and Military Intelligence, the Mossad and Shin Bet security service and ministers from the inner cabinet at the time: Moshe Ya'alon, Benny Begin and Dan Meridor. The scheduled replacement of the heads of the various defense institutions did not help Netanyahu. Their heirs continued to stick to the same positions. Netanyahu and Barak did not succeed in enlisting enough strength to overcome the broad resistance and lead an attack on Iran.

The opposition camp raised a long list of claims to delay the strike. Some cast doubt on Israel's ability to effectively act by itself to remove the nuclear threat; others argued that the time was still not ripe to act and all the alternatives had not yet been tried. But the central claim made by all related to the special relationship with the United States. An operation that was opposed to American interests, it was claimed, would mortally damage the administration's support for the Israeli government, especially as there was still a reasonable chance that Obama, given his pointed promise to prevent, not just contain, Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, would act himself if and when he could no longer put it off.

In recent months, it seemed as if the option of an independent Israeli attack on Iran was slipping away from Netanyahu. A relative moderate was elected as president, Ayatolah Hassan Rohani, whose declarations have strengthened the will of the international community to fully exploit the diplomatic channel with Tehran. Also, instead of Barak, Moshe Ya'alon now sits in the defense minister's office, and he was one of the leaders of the faction against a unilateral attack on Iran. Furthermore, Netanyahu's new partners in the government, in particular Finance Minister Yair Lapid, have different political agendas, with which a strike on Iran would only interfere.

Watching Obama zigzag

Publically Netanyahu is very careful not to embarrass the Americans over the decision on Syria, and even reprimanded Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel, who insulted Obama despite explicit warnings from the prime minister. But from following Netanyahu's previous declarations on the Iranian issue, it is possible to surmise with confidence that since Saturday night, when Obama announced he was turning to Congress, the prime minister is burning with even more faith than usual in two fundamental assumptions with which he returned to the Prime Minister's Office in 2009: First, that only he, out of everyone, understands the Iranian threat properly, the dangers and global forces involved in it. And second, that only Israel, lead by him, can in the end remove the Iranian nuclear threat because it is impossible to trust any other nation to do it. The problem, from the Israeli perspective, with Obama's decision to postpone the attack on Syria is not in the decision itself - which Israel is not going to get involved in - but in the hesitant, zigzagging approach the U.S. president took to the Syrian challenge before making his speech. In various forums, Netanyahu has said the United States' actions in Syria are being watched and analyzed in Tehran.

The decision on whether Israel will attack Iran on its own seems to have been put off until next year, after an additional round or two of nuclear talks between Tehran and the powers are exhausted. Even if these contacts fail, a bitter conflict is expected at the heights of the Israeli government - and it is not at all clear if it will end in favor of those wanting to strike Iran. But if in the end Netanyahu does order such an attack, despite the objections domestic and foreign, it is likely that Saturday night, August 31, 2013, will be remembered as a critical juncture on the road to his decision.

President Barack Obama, left, puts his hand on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they walk out together following their joint news conference in Jerusalem, Israel,Wednesday, March 20, 2013.Credit: AP

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