Pro-Israel Community Taking Cautious Line on Syria

Though critical of Obama’s indecisiveness, worries remain

Netanyahu, Obama / AP
August 30, 2013

Pro-Israel officials are taking a cautious stance as the Obama administration contemplates a potential strike on Syria, tempering their support for military action with concern about the potential repercussions for the Jewish state.

Pro-Israel leaders have quietly expressed frustration at what they say is the administration’s indecisive stance.

They warned American indecision is perceived in the region as a sign of weakness and could imperil Israel, which is most likely to bear the brunt of Syria’s expected retaliation.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s allies in Iran have already promised that Israel would be the "first victim" of any U.S. strike.

"We're witnessing a dangerous alliance of the isolationist Right led by [Kentucky Sen.] Rand Paul with the anti-military Left pulling the Democratic Party away from leadership on global security," said Steven Rosen, formerly a top official at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation’s leading pro-Israel group.

"No one has more to lose if America is weakened than the Jewish people and Israel," Rosen said. "If countries like Iran, Russia, and Syria see that the American giant has gone to sleep, the storm will gather very soon. A strike against Assad’s air force and air defenses will restore America's deterrence and leave that coalition much weakened."

Other pro-Israel groups have staked out more moderate ground.

Christians United for Israel (CUFI) has discussed the conflict in moral terms.

"In the coming days, the United States may take military action against Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons," CUFI wrote in a Wednesday email blast to supporters. "Whether or not you support such action, the one thing we can all agree on is that the use of chemical weapons against civilians is a war crime which must not be ignored.  Silence is not an option."

Israelis are hunkering down for war while Obama and Congress discuss a potential strike, said CUFI executive director David Brog.

"The chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps threatened that Israel will be destroyed if the United States dares to strike Syria," Brog said. "Whatever one's position on the merits of U.S. military action in Syria, we can all agree that we face a far easier decision today than we would if the Iranians issuing such threats could back them up with nuclear weapons."

Brog pointed out that the Israeli government itself has stayed largely silent about the U.S. political debate.

"They have not issued so much as a word of pressure or even advice," Brog said. "They are willing to accept what we decide will best protect our interests.  This is what we mean when we call Israel a frontline ally.  We have no other friend like this anywhere in the world."

Israel suffers when the United States dithers, said Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that works closely with Israeli officials.

"From what I see in Israel's stance is that the credibility of the U.S. is at stake," said Badran. "And the way the president has handled this supposed strike and the messaging around it does very little to restore U.S. credibility, certainly not vis-a-vis Iran."

Senior leaders in Tehran are closely watching the way Obama reacts to Syria, Badran said.

"In fact, if anything, this strike, if it happens, seems more like a minor sideshow along the way to Geneva II, where Iran may very well be invited to the table," he said, referring to planned Middle East peace talks on Syria.

"In other words, not only does it not threaten the [Syrian] regime nor is it geared to accelerate its downfall—something the White House has shouted out loud—but also it may end up working to its advantage, and Iran's, if the purpose of it all is Geneva."

Other pro-Israel officials who agreed to speak only on background criticized the administration for spending years cozying up to the Assad regime.

"Just like the rest of the public, American friends of Israel are outraged by the Assad regime's atrocities but wary about the repercussions of military action," one senior pro-Israel official told the Free Beacon. "As far as the policy debate goes: it would be rude to remind the administration that its top foreign diplomat was for many years the leading advocate for becoming friendly with the Assad family."

Secretary of State John Kerry, for instance, "condescendingly instructed Israel to cede the Golan Heights to Syria and he kneecapped [former President George W.] Bush’s efforts to isolate Assad, which might have weakened the regime and prevented the murder of 100,000 people," the official said. "Other than ‘I told you so,’ there's not much to say."

Assad's reported use of chemical weapons requires the U.S. to respond, said one former State Department official who now works with a pro-Israel organization

"A world in which the world's leading sponsors of terrorists can use weapons of mass destruction without consequence, is a true nightmare, and a threat to American interests and those of our allies," said the source. "Not acting to decisively would be a terrible failure of leadership and would create a power vacuum that those who mean us and our friends harm would be sure to exploit."

Obama’s decision will have ramifications across the region, others said.

"Given the president's declaration that the use of chemical weapons would be a ‘red line,’ the US must act meaningfully now that they have in fact been used," said one former senior congressional staffer who worked closely with the pro-Israel community.

"The failure to back up these words would send an unmistakable message to Middle Eastern dictators: Do what you want, kill as many civilians as you want, develop whatever weapons you see fit—the United States under its present leadership is capable of talk but not action," said the source.

Other pro-Israel insiders expressed frustration at what they said is the Obama administration’s lack of preparedness.

"A freshman [international relations] major could’ve seen this coming—especially after Assad’s first use of chemical weapons," said one Middle East expert who lived in the region and worked closely with Israeli officials. "It seems like every time the red phone rings at the White House, the Administration is caught flatfooted."