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Syria’s admission on chemical weapons a concern for Israel

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Protesters outside the Russian em-bassy in Tel Aviv demonstrate Aug. 30 against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. [Flash90 photo]

On the same day that the U.S. and Russia agreed to a deal stipulating that Syria must remove or destroy its chemical weapons stockpile by mid-2014, Israelis were happy to spend Saturday’s 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War in synagogue and not on the battlefield or in safe rooms with gas masks.

Yet Israelis’ long-term outlook on the situation in Syria isn’t as rosy.

“Israelis are relieved in the short term but concerned in the long term,” Mitchell Barak, an Israeli political pollster and director of Keevoon Research, told JNS.org.

“Right now, they don’t have to get their gas masks ready, and it doesn’t look like there is going to be war in the region right now, but we still have a long-term problem,” he said.

The long-term threat for Israel, according to Barak, is that Syria officially possesses chemical weapons. Syria in August deployed chemical weapons in a bloody, two-year civil war, but the fear is that those weapons could one day be turned on the Jewish state, either by the Syrian government or by other radical groups that may get their hands on them.

“Syria has now admitted to having chemical weapons. Up until now, they were denying it. Now they’re admitting it. And that doesn’t sit well with Israelis,” Barak said.

Syria’s usage and public admission of possessing chemical weapons has garnered newfound outrage from members of the international community, yet Israel has long been aware of sophisticated weapons movements and developments by its northern neighbour.

Numerous experts have cited Syria as being a likely destination for Iraqi weaponry, evacuated prior to and during the Second Gulf War.

Israel takes weapons movements in its neighbourhood very seriously, considering any sophisticated weaponry in the region to be an existential threat.

The Israeli government has admitted to launching a successful air strike on a nuclear reactor in Syria in late 2007. More recently, Israel is believed to be behind an airstrike on a convoy of anti-aircraft weapons moving from southern Syria toward Lebanon.

“Israel has gone into Syria four times in the last few years to take out threats,” Barak said.

As a result, many Israelis were welcoming the idea that the United States may have unilaterally succeeded in removing the Syrian weapons threat, while Israeli warplanes remained glued to their bases.

On the other hand, many Israelis hold the oft-stated position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel can and must defend itself, by itself. The fear is that foreign military intervention can create region-wide instability and a potential host of worst-case scenarios, including a multi-front confrontation between Israel and several of its neighbours.

“We can only rely on ourselves, but Israel has a problem going at it alone in certain instances, because there will similarly be repercussions toward Israel,” Barak said.

While a U.S. strike on Syrian targets may have succeeded in eliminating the weapons cache, Israelis were bracing for the potential fallout. Both Syria and Iran insisted that any U.S. strike would result in punitive attacks on Israel. And Hezbollah, which had dispatched militants from Lebanon to fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad, was likely to shift its attention back toward its favourite longtime target, Israel.

According to Barak, allowing Russia to be the guarantor of a known stockpile of weapons of mass destruction just to the north of Israel’s border is not necessarily reassuring. 

“The problem for Israelis is that they don’t completely trust the Russians,” Barak said.

“Israelis believed that the United States had what it takes to take care of the situation. Israelis are not confident that the current solution will take care of the problem,” he said.

Addressing a memorial ceremony for Israeli soldiers killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War on Sunday, Netanyahu said, “We hope the understandings reached between the United States and Russia regarding the Syrian chemical weapons will yield results.”

Netanyahu called for “the complete destruction of all of the chemical weapons stockpiles that the Syrian regime has used against its own people.”

Israelis and other key U.S. allies are concerned that the U.S. is losing credibility and deterrence in the region, by not acting on its threat of military intervention if Syria were to deploy chemical weapons – a stated “red line” of U.S. President Barack Obama.

At the same time, many in Israel have questioned why the use of chemical weapons represented the crossing of a red line when the murder of more than 100,000 Syrian citizens over the past two years with conventional weapons did not. Similarly, Israelis are wondering where the red lines lie with regard to Iran’s illicit nuclear program – an even greater existential threat to Israel.

In an Israel Hayom poll that was published Sept. 13, a day before the U.S. and Russia agreed to the chemical weapons deal, a majority of Israeli Jews – 66.7 per cent – characterized Obama’s handling of the Syria crisis as “not successful.” Meanwhile, 65.3 per cent said that given Obama’s conduct regarding Syria, he would not be able to successfully deal with the Iranian nuclear program.

Netanyahu said Sept. 15 that it’s “incumbent on the efforts of the international community to stop Iran’s nuclear armament.” He said that as is the case for the Syria crisis, for Iran “it is not words but actions that will determine the outcome.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also made his latest visit to Israel last week in an attempt to convince Israeli officials that the Russian-proposed chemical weapons plan represents a strategic victory and that American deterrence remains in effect should Iran advance its nuclear ambitions.

Additionally, Kerry planned to monitor the progress of jump-started Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiations, which have largely been taken out of the spotlight by Syria.

According to Barak, most Israelis have been ignoring the current U.S.-backed negotiations due to a lack of confidence the initiative will bring about a change in the status quo, following two decades of failed attempts. The 20th anniversary of the 1993 Oslo accords was Sept. 13.

“Israelis over the last number of years are just skeptical when it comes to the peace process. Most Israelis want peace, but are skeptical that peace will come through this process. There have been a lot of false starts, and a lot of crying wolf,” Barak told JNS.org.

“I think most Israelis believe that there are more urgent and pressing matters in the Middle East right now than between Israelis and Palestinians. Compared to everything else going on in the region, there’s no urgent need to solve this problem,” the pollster said.

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