Israel’s initial, Pavlovian response to President Barack Obama’s surprising decision to attack Syria only after receiving congressional approval was disappointment, scorn and derision. This was not the official response, of course, but was whispered in the corridors of power.
“Ultimately, there’s nothing to be done,” I was told on Aug. 31 by a senior assistant to a high-level, right-wing minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. “Barack Obama is a flower child. He grew up as a flower child, he was elected as a flower child and he acts like a flower child. The problem is,” added the fellow, “that he can allow himself to behave like a flower child, but meanwhile we are stuck here in the midst of the jungle.”
It should be emphasized that Israel’s official response was restrained and measured. Prime Minister Netanyahu forbade the government’s ministers from expressing themselves on this subject. Only two ministers violated this embargo: the ultra-right-wing Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, who is viewed in Netanyahu’s milieu as a “wild card” over which they have no control, and Minister of Housing and Construction Uri Ariel, one of the most right-wing elements in the government (and member of Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi Party).
Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz admitted, in briefing sessions held on Sept. 1, that Obama’s announcement had taken Israel by surprise, but he did not express a word of disappointment or criticism. “America works slowly. That is its nature,” a high-level military source said this week. “We must respect and understand this. It could be that Obama’s decision will emerge, in a historical perspective, as the right thing to do. It may very well be that congressional approval will provide the legitimacy for a real operation and not just a type of declaratory act. It could be that this insistence on working methodically and obtaining the proper backup is exactly what will strengthen Obama and sharpen the message aimed at Syria, and even more important, vis-à-vis Iran.”
On Sept. 2, Israeli President Shimon Peres emerged with a public, sweeping endorsement of Obama’s decision. He had heard the whispers in the corridors and the smatterings of hints of criticism against Obama in Israel. Peres knows how irresponsible such acts can be. He knows how deeply America’s embroilment in the unnecessary war in Iraq entangled Israel. So he did what a responsible Israeli president is supposed to do: He gave Obama the respect and the time he deserves. Those close to the president say that Israel must not be perceived as dragging America into unnecessary wars, and this is absolutely correct.
And Netanyahu? He is in a quandary. On the one hand, he feels like telling anyone willing to listen, “I told you so.” What does this mean? It means that there is no one we can rely on but our father in heaven (as the verse from the Jewish prayer book goes), or in other words, on the Israeli air force planes in the skies over Damascus or Tehran.
Another interpretation is “one who sleeps with dogs, wakes up with fleas.” And also, if Obama isn’t capable of raising a little dust in Damascus in response to the slaughter of thousands of Syrians by gas, how can we expect him to confront an Iran that’s going nuclear? If he blinks now, how will he stand up to the real evil incarnate on Judgment Day? This is what Netanyahu wants to think. This is what is most convenient for him to think — because Netanyahu is the total of all his paranoid fears — and as a modern prophet of the second Jewish Holocaust (God forbid), he has the wonderful opportunity here to prove that sometimes paranoids are actually being persecuted.
But Netanyahu is not stupid. He has learned a thing or two about Barack Obama. President Obama updated him before his speech on the night of Aug. 31, and afterward also explained his rationale. Obama calmed Netanyahu and explained that there is no connection between his behavior vis-à-vis Syria and his efforts to stop Iran. America has no interest in becoming embroiled in the Syrian civil war, Obama said. Between the lines, I suspect that he’s hinting that Israel also has no interest in seeing America ensnarled in another superfluous civil war. The main effort was, and remains, Iran. Obama promises that with regards to this issue there is no change, no softening, and no intention of blinking or foot-dragging.
Did Obama’s elucidations calm Netanyahu’s fears? In his head, yes. In his gut, no. Netanyahu is never calm, especially with regard to these kinds of issues. After all, without Iran and Syria, there would be no Bibi. People in the Israeli political system wonder what Netanyahu would do if one fine day, the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Hosseini Khamenei, were to announce that he was dismantling his nuclear program, selling the uranium, closing down the reactors and transforming the centrifuges into flower pots. On that day, so they say in Israel, existential danger would be lifted from the State of Israel and replaced by existential danger to Netanyahu’s regime, which was built on stoking the public’s fears and worries about an on-duty, revolving Iran-like threat, be it actually from Iran or some other enemy country. So, Bibi is torn. He wants to believe Obama, but he is a suspicious person, a haunted man of little faith, so he elects to wait patiently for the results.
The Israeli defense system waits with tense silence. Last Friday, Aug. 30, after the speech delivered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, a state of high alert was declared in Israel. The assessment was that the Syrian operation would be executed over the weekend.
All six operational Iron Dome batteries in Israel’s hands were deployed, two of them in Gush Dan (in the Tel Aviv area); all the Arrow and Patriot anti-ballistic missile batteries were also deployed; the intelligence network was reinforced, as were the Home Front Command and the air force. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) advanced its armored forces on the Golan Heights to observation posts and stationed them in readiness for whatever the future might bring. The intelligence assessment regarding the probability that Assad would retaliate by firing on Israel was “low,” and even lower regarding the odds that he would dare launch a missile with a chemical warhead on Israel.
President Obama’s speech in which he announced that he would turn to Congress struck the IDF like a thunderbolt. The IDF’s assessment had been that Obama had crossed the Rubicon and that the lot had been cast. Yes, there was a certain disappointment in the IDF, but it was not connected to the congressional process that Obama had chosen but to logistical considerations. Obama’s decision meant that the Israeli defense system must remain ready for action and on alert throughout the rapidly approaching Jewish High Holidays: the Jewish New Year falls on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Sept. 4–6; Yom Kippur falls a week later, Sept. 13–14; and then Sukkot follows, Sept. 18–26.
Such a long, tense period of waiting is not healthy for anyone’s nerves, certainly not in the Middle East of 2013. In any event, IDF sources expressed great satisfaction at the high level of coordination with the American forces. Relations between Generals Gantz and Martin E. Dempsey are classified as “excellent”; intelligence cooperation is perfect and has been at a record, all-time high for a long period. Life would be beautiful — if only Israel weren’t surrounded by so many problematic neighbors.
The IDF did not respond to reports that Israel had provided the vital intelligence information used to make the determination that Assad’s regime was behind the gassing of Syrian civilians. It limited itself to the vague statement in a briefing by an IDF spokesperson that “Israel and the United States cooperate on intelligence issues and are coordinated down to the last detail, with regard to intelligence.” In the operational sphere, it seems, they are somewhat less coordinated.
Ben Caspit is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit