Israeli Critics of Obama Should Ask: Why Hasn't Netanyahu Acted on Syria?

Israeli leaders on the right denounce the world for not stopping Assad; let’s stop suggesting that others step into the line of fire.

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

A brutal civil war has been raging in Syria for over two years now, and Bashar Assad’s regime has systematically violated the laws of war by indiscriminate attacks on civilians and, recently, the use of chemical weapons.

Israeli leaders, especially right-wing politicians and pundits, have in recent days loudly denounced the rest of the world for not lifting a finger to stop the slaughter in Syria and oust Assad. Until not too long ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the defense establishment quietly backed Assad, viewing him as a shield against radical Islam in Syria. Now the mood has changed. Assad has become the new Hitler, and the world is silent, just as it was during the Holocaust. What is to be done?

Haaretz in depth coverage of the crisis in Syria: Jewish leaders wary as White House seeks support for Syria vote in Congress (Chemi Shalev)|| Israel and lobby likely to get embroiled in Congress debate on Syria (Chemi Shalev) || Shalev)Obama informed Netanyahu prior to speech of plans to delay Syria strike (Barak Ravid) || Obama, Syria and the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran || U.S. intervention in Syria - humanitarian action or a new imperialism (Aeyal Gross)

Ostensibly, the solution is clear and simple. Israel has a strong army and a superb air force. If its leaders wanted to, they could easily use it to hit any strategic target in Syria, after years of precise intelligence monitoring and detailed operational planning. According to international reports, the Israel Air Force has already hit several targets in Syria this year, with exemplary precision and with no Israeli losses. Thus our leaders could order the planes to take off; the pilots know the route and the targets.

Yet even after the “red line” was crossed by using chemical weapons to slaughter civilians, the air force is conducting business as usual. No one has ordered it to put a stop to Assad’s murderous rampage by destroying his command posts, air force, armored divisions, missile bases and chemical weapons.

If the call for intervention in Syria stems from moral considerations, as its supporters claim, there’s no doubt that Israel, founded on the ashes of the Holocaust, should set an example for the world and send its air force to land a decisive blow on the “Syrian Hitler’s” SS units. The same strike could also hit the Hezbollah infantry units fighting nearby.

Of course there’s a risk, but it’s clear the United States would give full backing to such an operation and replenish the Israeli army’s ammunition stores. Destroying Syria’s strategic weapons and shattering its army, with international backing, would remove the Syrian threat from Israel for years to come and deprive Iran of an important ally in advance of a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

But the moralistic preachers refuse to go there. “Israel has its own interests, so the Americans must act instead,” say the tut-tutters in the bureaus of the prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff, on the Knesset’s right-wing benches and in rightist media outlets.

And if America doesn’t act, they describe U.S. President Barack Obama as a miserable coward, a dishrag who lacks the guts even to attack the crumbling Assad regime. How, Israelis ask, will such a weakling stand up to the Iranians? The red line that Obama himself drew has been crossed; now what?

But Obama’s Israeli critics should first look in the mirror and ask why Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and air force commander Amir Eshel aren’t doing anything. If, as some maintain, we must not remain silent about what’s happening in Syria, how is it possible that IAF pilots are continuing their daily routine undisturbed?

Even if we didn’t want to activate the air force, we could at least open our border to Syrian refugees, beyond the trickle of seriously wounded already entering. We could lead an international effort to supply gas masks and atropine to Assad’s opponents. We could even publish the information Israeli intelligence has gathered about war crimes in Syria and expose the true face of the Butcher of Damascus to spur international action against him. But none of this has been done.

That Israel has refrained from taking action is understandable and justified. Israel has good reasons to leave its fighter jets in their hangars and focus on protecting its borders instead of intervening in other people’s wars. But those who ignore morality because of their own interests ought to recognize that the Americans, the French, the British and the Germans also have interests, and that they, too, want to take action only when it has a good chance of succeeding – and not just because the missile launches will photograph well and show everybody that Obama is a “real man.”

Those who see an attack on Syria as a kind of test for Obama in advance of a confrontation with Iran, as Netanyahu and Gantz do, must ask themselves what would happen if America launched an operation in Syria and it went awry. America’s undisputed technological superiority over Syria doesn’t guarantee victory under all circumstances. The operation could result in unnecessary civilian deaths, in a successful hit on an American ship (anyone remember the Israel Navy ship Hanit, which Hezbollah nearly sunk off the Lebanese coast in 2006?), or in an escalation that would drag American ground forces into a third Mideast war. If that happened, Obama would find it much harder to mobilize the necessary domestic support and international understanding for an operation against Iran.

Therefore, all the Israeli warmongers ought to display a bit more humility and restraint. Those who aren’t willing to take the risk themselves, and rightly so, shouldn’t send others into the line of fire. And those who want Obama at their side on Iran need to back him now on Syria. For all Obama’s limitations, Israel does not and will not have any other ally.

President Barack Obama gestures during his address to the nation about Syria on Saturday.Credit: AP

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