Israel skeptical about Russian plan; Netanyahu said to be personally lobbying Congress to support attack on Syria

The Times of Israel reports: Details of a deal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control are highly murky, Knesset foreign affairs chief Avigdor Liberman said Tuesday, warning that the plan could potentially serve the interests of the Assad regime.

Speaking to Israel Radio, the head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee said Syrian President Bashar “Assad is winning time and lots of it,” as a result of the Russian plan. Comparing the situation to that of Iran’s nuclear program, he noted that the Syrian leader could use the initiative to “buy time” and stall any real international involvement, military or other.

Liberman, a former foreign minister, warned that Israel was determined not to be dragged into the conflict but would not shy away from retaliating if the country was attacked, no matter who the aggressor may be.

The New York Times reports: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington, plans to dispatch 300 of its members to Capitol Hill on Tuesday as part of a broad campaign to press Congress to back President Obama’s proposed strike on Syria, the group said Monday.

The push by the group, known as Aipac, which included asking its supporters to call members of Congress, came as Israeli newspapers reported Monday that President Obama urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get personally involved in lobbying Congress. The reports said that Mr. Netanyahu had called several members himself.

But while those reports could not be confirmed, the intense push by Aipac and other Jewish and pro-Israel groups put Israel in a bind, after a week of trying to stay on the sidelines of the debate. Mr. Netanyahu’s government strongly supports an American strike to punish President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for his apparent use of chemical weapons, and as a warning to his Iranian patrons. But Israelis are deeply worried about being blamed by a wary American public for another military gambit in the Middle East, or of losing their broad bipartisan support if they land on the wrong side of the vote.

“It is a major dilemma, what Israel should do on the Hill,” a senior Israeli official said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of a dictate from Mr. Netanyahu not to discuss the Syria situation publicly. “We don’t want to be identified with pressing for a strike. This is not for us — we don’t want anybody to think this is for us,” the official said. “But if the president asks us for assistance, who are we to refuse?”

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu, declined to discuss the prime minister’s conversations with Mr. Obama, or to say whether Mr. Netanyahu had indeed called members of Congress, as reported by the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. The Israeli official who spoke anonymously pointed to a Facebook post last week by Michael B. Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, agreeing with President Obama’s argument for attacking Syria, as having given the green light for Aipac to spring into action.

But if Aipac, as an American organization, has a role to play in Washington debates, several Israeli analysts said that any direct involvement by Israeli officials was problematic.

“Israel as Israel should stay away from this campaign,” said Zvi Rafiah, a longtime Israeli diplomat and consultant on American politics. “We should not be the one that pushes the American people to do or not do anything they want or don’t want.”

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