Gauging Israeli Reaction to the Syrian Crisis

September 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Today Secretary of State Kerry was in Jerusalem offering Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assurances that the United States will insist on full compliance by Bashar Al-Assad's regime. NewsHour Special Correspondent Martin Fletcher reports from Israel on what’s been on the minds of Israelis this week.

MARTIN FLETCHER: For Israel, Syria is really a four letter word – Iran.  That was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s message to new navy officers last week…and to president Obama.

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Speaking of Syria’s chemical weapons he said, quote, the world must make sure that whoever uses weapons of mass destruction pays a price for it. The message that is received in Syria, he said, will be received loudly in Iran.

MARTIN FLETCHER:  Here, every move that president Obama makes on Syria is seen through the prism: can Israel trust Obama to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program?  It’s especially relevant this weekend, the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack against Israel. The American president, back then, ordered a weapons airlift that helped save the Jewish state.

Based on president Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis, how confident are Israeli officials now that he will stop Iran from making a nuclear weapon?  Shimon shiffer is an Israeli political reporter.

SIMON SHIFFER: Policy makers– they are not– going to attack, in public– President Obama.  But–

MARTIN FLETCHER: What do they say in private?

SIMON SHIFFER: In private, they are saying that the lesson from the– way that he dealt with the Syrian issue, it’s a very difficult one for Israel.   And– a lot of– policy makers, ministers, they will tell you in private that, after all, Israel will have to deal– unilaterally– with the– to stop the nuclear effort of Iran to become– a country with a nuclear power.”

MARTIN FLETCHER: In recent weeks, Israeli citizens prepared for a possible American attack on Syria that they feared would provoke a Syrian attack on their country.  Homefront stations gave out thousands of gas masks across the country.  And Israel rushed its iron dome anti-rocket defense systems into place.

There’s Jerusalem in the distance. It was protected by Israel’s iron dome battery right here. But the same day that president Obama went on national TV and accepted the Russian initiative for a diplomatic solution to Syria, the Israelis removed the iron dome from this position. Nothing says more clearly the drop in tension.

At this Tel Aviv storehouse, gas mask handouts have slowed to a trickle.  For now at least, diplomacy has diffused the Syrian crisis.  And there are reports that a new diplomatic initiative could be underway to resolve the Iran nuclear issue peacefully. Also Iran just announced it has cut its stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium in half.

ITAMAR RABINOVICH: There has to be a negotiation. 

MARTIN FLETCHER: Itamar Rabinovich is the former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

ITAMAR RABINOVICH: There has to be a strategy allowing Iran to climb off the tree.  And it could work.  And there could be– a diplomatic solution.  But without the credible threat of military action, the Iranians will not collaborate in a diplomatic solution.”

MARTIN FLETCHER:  But Netanyahu stressed earlier this week, Israel must know how to defend itself.

ITAMAR RABINOVICH: In a way, he’s exacting pressure on Obama, indicating that– if the united states doesn’t do what the united states undertook to do, then Israel might have to do it itself.  That pressure needs to be there.  There has to be an American pressure on Iran.  And there has to be an Israeli pressure on America.