Israelis looking at Iran through the prism of Syria

The New York Times reports: Mr. Netanyahu, breaking a week of silence on the Syria situation, echoed his colleagues by saying that Israel’s main concern was how it relates to what it sees as its greatest threat: the potential for Iran to build a nuclear bomb. And in his view, the message seemed to be that Israel needed to be prepared to take care of itself.

“The world needs to make sure that anyone who uses weapons of mass destruction will pay a heavy price for it,” Mr. Netanyahu said Wednesday at the graduation ceremony for a naval program. “The message in Syria will also be heard very well in Iran.”

He cited President Obama’s speech Tuesday, in which he said that Israel could defend itself but also had Washington’s “unshakable support,” and quoted a famous saying of the ancient Jewish scholar Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

“The operational translation of this rule is that Israel should always be able to defend itself and will protect itself by its own strengths against every threat,” Mr. Netanyahu told the crowd. “The state of Israel is today prepared to act with great strength.”

Israel has insisted throughout Syria’s two-and-a-half-year-old civil war that it will not intervene except to protect its border or to prevent the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. There is a stark divide here over whether Mr. Assad’s continued rule is preferable to a victory by Syrian rebel groups, some of whom are allied with Islamic extremists seen as even bigger threats. There is a growing sense that a continuation of the bloody battles may be the best outcome for now.

But Israelis have largely been disappointed by what they describe as Mr. Obama’s indecision — a sharp contrast from their own military secretly striking weapons convoys in Syria that it suspected were bound for Hezbollah several times this year.

Ehud Yaari, a fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is based in Jerusalem, said Israelis were dubious about the diplomacy and “confused at the performance of the president.” There was also a concern that both Syria and Iran might obtain advanced Russian weapons systems as part of the deal after the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on Wednesday that Russia had agreed to give Iran advanced S-300 antiaircraft missiles and build an additional nuclear reactor at the Bushehr nuclear site.

“They got the distinctive feeling that the president was looking for every possible way to avoid acting on the red line which he himself issued,” said Mr. Yaari, a television analyst here with close ties to Israel’s security and intelligence establishment. If Mr. Obama’s “not willing to have a very modest, limited strike on Syria, a punitive strike,” he added, “when we come to that, would he be contemplating a bigger move on Iran?” [Continue reading…]

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