If Israel's paranoid, it has every reason to be
With the US disengaged, the prospect of Russia and Iran drawing closer is alarming
Roger Boyes,The Times of London, September 19, 2013
Across the Middle East today there is a sourness and a sense of abandonment because the old order has been broken and not replaced. It is Israel that feels the disappointment most strongly: the United States, a staunch protector since 1948, seems to be slipping away in its clumsy rush to disengage from the region.
The US-Russian deal to dismantle Bashar Assad's chemical arsenal has made the world more, not less, dangerous for Israel, introducing doubt into its US security guarantees, which until now have been the cornerstone of American policy in the Middle East. By blurring the red line on Syria's use of nerve gas, the Obama Administration has, from the Israeli perspective, hoisted a white flag. It makes no sense, says Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli intelligence minister, to pardon a murderer just because he has turned over his gun.
The Syrian agreement has sent a clear signal to Iran: the US will not engage in major military action against a country developing nuclear or chemical weapons, even if this stock poses a threat to an ally. This suggests the emergence of an Obama doctrine that hands over knotty problems to others and does not just accept the limits of American power, but surrenders it. Syria become a client state of Russia and ultimately a Russian, not an American, problem.
No wonder that the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, is so keen to meet Mr. Obamathis month. Tehran will simulate a readiness to cooperate on Syria while enriching yet more uranium, speeding up work on its heavy water reactor and soft-shuffling towards a bomb. Net result from the past fortnight of force-backed diplomacy: the arsonists, Moscow and Tehran, now run the fire brigade.
Israel is right to be worried. For sure, a Syria shorn of chemical weapons is a good thing for its southern neighbour. There is a legitimate fear, though, that barrels of chemicals could soon be heading for the Hezbollah militias in Lebanon before UN inspectors get to work. More disturbing, the Russians look set to link their role persuading Assad to declare his weapons with a broader push to get Israel to admit to its own nuclear programm. Moscow is arguing for a regional disarmament that could take in Israel — surely a step too far even for the Obama Administration.
US officials complain privately about Israel's lack of trust in Washington. By putting this on display, they say, Israel further undermines American credibility. Israelis themselves admit to chronic over-anxiety about Mr Obama but conclude that paranoia is to be in possession of all the facts. Fact 1: under a weakened Assad, Iranian tutelage over Syria is growing fast. Fact 2: Sinai is becoming dangerously radicalised. Fact 3: Hezbollah units are being strengthened by the Syrian crisis. Fact Four: The US is not helping significantly in any of these spheres, although they all directly threaten Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu will use a trip to the US this month to warn that the Syria formula— threat of force prompts disarmament—won't work when applied to Iran. Will President Obama listen? Almost certainly not. If Israel acts pre-emptively against Iran, it will be acting alone. That is the only sensible reading of US behaviour over the past two years.
Israel's military planners have been gaming such an attack and there have been unusually public spats about it; most generals seem to agree that it would not be simple without US firepower. Yet the Kremlin's enhanced role in the Middle East could well narrow the time frame for action. One trigger for an attack could be if Russia met Iran's request to supply sophisticated S-300 air defence systems. Once they were in place, the physical costs of an attack mounted by Israel alone would rise steeply.
For the Israeli political class an Iranian bomb remains an existential issue. With or without America it has to be stopped. Indeed Israel has been discussing comments by its air force chief Amir Eschel. which reflected how air power should be used in a moral cause. Since these were the public musings of the man who would plan a possible attack on Iran, they were delivered in code.
In the spring of 1944, he said, the Allies had achieved air supremacy over Auschwitz-Birkenau, they had accurate intelligence—and they knew that a trainload of Hungarian Jews was en route to the concentration camp. Politicians decided not to act. Not because they were anti-Semites but because, he said, it was "easier not to bomb than to bomb".
It is harsh to say Mr Obama has been taking the easy road in not striking Syria.Nothing in the Middle East has come easy to him. The region—and above all Israel—would like to know, however, where US policy is heading, because that part of the world has rarely seemed so precarious, so ready to slip into chaos.