Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks yesterday about his country needing to rely on its resources to protect itself against potential threats broke no new ground. At another time, his comments might be considered mere boilerplate material since it has been an article of faith for all Israeli leaders dating back to David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, that if Zionism means anything, it is that the Jewish state must depend on no one but itself on security matters. But coming as it did the day after President Obama’s shocking retreat on Syria, the statement was highlighted in a New York Times article and got major play in the Israeli media. The juxtaposition of the U.S. accepting a dubious Russian proposal that would ensure there would be no Western attack on the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons with the Netanyahu statement left many wondering whether Jerusalem thinks it is now on its own when it comes to other threats, such as those from a nuclear Iran. While it would be an exaggeration to claim Washington has completely abandoned Israel, no amount of White House spin about Obama’s zigzag course on Syria changes the fact that his fumbling has left the Middle East a far more dangerous place than it already was.
The reality after the Syria back-down is one in which the prestige and influence of the United States has declined. The president’s inability to make up his mind has not only gotten Bashar Assad off the hook and convinced Vladimir Putin that there is hope for his long-cherished dream of rebuilding the old Soviet empire. It has also made it difficult to envision the U.S. taking on the even more daunting task of a military confrontation with Iran. Since there is no reason to believe further diplomatic outreach to Tehran will be any more fruitful than past efforts, that leaves Israelis with the unpleasant thought that if Iran is to be prevented from going nuclear by force, then they will have to do it themselves. Under those circumstances, what choice is Netanyahu left with other than to try to send a signal of his own to the ayatollahs?
As the New York Times reported:
“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.”
In fact Israel has already applied this principle in Syria repeatedly, striking at weapons convoys they feared might be payoffs from Assad to the Hezbollah terrorists in return for the latter’s efforts to boost his side in his country’s civil war. Israel also knocked out Syria’s nuclear reactor back in 2007 over the objections of the Bush administration, a decision that, in retrospect, seems even wiser now than it did then.
However, the current tangle in Syria illustrates both the mutual interests of the U.S. and Israel as well as their differences. While President Obama has been calling for the fall of the Assad regime for years, Israel has no favorite in the confusing fighting in Syria. But the Jewish state and its American friends are invested in the idea of a strong America as a force for stability in the Middle East. That’s why AIPAC and other elements of the pro-Israel community were drawn into the debate on Syria. They were not so much concerned with helping the rebels or punishing Assad (though many sympathize with that effort) as they were with ensuring that a Congress that is increasingly under the influence of isolationist elements didn’t trash American credibility.
Obama’s surrender to the Russians left Israel to ponder a new balance of power in the region in which the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance is stronger than ever and aided by a more assertive Russia, a point that, as I wrote yesterday, was emphasized by the announcement that Putin has approved the sale of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran.
Despite Israel’s boasts, its armed forces are nowhere near as capable of dealing a crippling blow to Iran as the United States. Moreover, so long as President Obama is pursuing yet another diplomatic initiative with Iran based on the false perception that its new President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate, there is no chance that Israel would attack on its own. That may put any potential strike on hold until long after the Iranians have made it even more difficult to attack their nuclear facilities.
The upshot of all this is not so much that Israel is on its own—something Netanyahu may have already known last year when he was urging Obama to adopt “red lines” on Iran—but that it is essentially helpless to act on that fact. A weaker United States led by a president who is incapable of acting decisively isn’t just a problem for Israel. But right now it looks as if it means there may be no viable option for heading off the threat of a nuclear Iran before it is too late to do anything about it.