Israel quietly on war footing

August 30, 2013
Sarah Benton

Israel’s silent preparations
1) +972: Gas mask panic in Israel ahead of potential Syria attack;
2) JPost: PM, Gantz stress Syria message: Israel not involved, but will respond severely if necessary ;
3) BBC: Syria: Waiting for gas masks – and the worst – in Tel Aviv;
4) Politico: Israel lobby silent on Syria, Anna Palmer asks why the normally vociferous Israel lobby has been silent on Syria;
5) Commentary: Syria and Israel Lobby Conspiracy Theories,Jonathan Tobin argues the Politico article, above, wrongly assumes Israel is at the heart of every conflict;

Gas mask panic in Israel ahead of potential Syria attack: This is what the Tel Aviv distribution center looked like today (Thursday). Thousands of Israelis waited in line for hours in gas mask distribution centers following the news of a likely American attack on Syria. The army has informed the government that there are only enough gas masks for 60 percent of Israel’s citizens, and none for refugees, asylum seekers and other non-citizens. +972, August 29, 2013. Photo by Active Stills.

PM, Gantz stress Syria message: Israel not involved, but will respond severely if necessary

Gantz: “It is clear to every leader in the region that the price will be heavy and the losses of the enemy will be stinging and difficult.”

By Herb Keinon, Yaakov Lappin, J Post
August 29, 2013

Refusing to be drawn into a public screaming match with Syria and Iran, Israel’s leaders on Thursday ignored apocalyptic threats and repeated the mantra voiced continually since Sunday: Israel is not involved in the Syrian crisis but will respond fiercely if attacked.

Before holding another round of security cabinet consultations in Tel Aviv about the situation in Syria, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on camera and in his own voice what his office has been saying in his name throughout the week.

“At present there is no need to change daily routines,” he said. “Despite the low assessment regarding Israel’s involvement in what is going on in Syria, we decided to deploy Iron Dome batteries as well as our other intercept systems. We are not involved in the civil war in Syria. But I would like to reiterate, if anyone tries to harm Israel’s citizens, the IDF will respond with great strength.”

His carefully crafted words, the only remarks voiced by any government minister on Thursday about Syria, were designed to send two messages: one to the Israeli public, and one to Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.

Netanyahu’s remarks came a few hours after Maj.-Gen. Muhammed Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, said a US strike on Syria would lead to the “imminent destruction” of Israel.

The theme of Netanyahu’s comments were expanded upon later in remarks IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz made at a ceremony for the fallen sailors of the Israeli navy.

Addressing the growing regional tensions, Gantz said, “The IDF is at the start of challenging days. We have no part in the events taking place nearby to us. But in the event that fire is directed in Israel’s direction, it’s clear to every leader in our region and in the whole world that the price [for the attacker] will be heavy and the losses of the enemy will be stinging and difficult.”

“We’ve analyzed the various implications from every possible development… and we are prepared for every scenario,” he said. “Our capabilities to gather [intelligence] and to attack are most advanced, and our defenses – in the air, sea and land – are ready and staffed by the best of our soldiers and commanders, conscripts and reserves.”

Gantz told the Israeli public that it can continue to live securely in its daily routine and prepare for the High Holy Days, “with the knowledge that the IDF is there to protect them – determined, strong and ready as always. When the waves around us are stormy, IDF soldiers and their commanders are all the stable anchor on which we can trust, even in the most intense of storms.”

President Shimon Peres, speaking at a meeting at the Jerusalem District Police headquarters, dismissed the threats that leaders of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah are directing toward Israel. These threats, he said, were “intended to create panic.

Israel is experienced enough [in these situations] so as not to not be drawn into false propaganda.”

Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.

Syria: Waiting for gas masks – and the worst – in Tel Aviv

By Richard Galpin, BBC News, Tel Aviv
August 29, 2013

The temperature is hitting 35C (95F) and the queues outside the gas mask distribution centre in Tel Aviv – the only one in the region – are moving painfully slow.

Some people have been waiting six hours for the masks they fear may be needed if the US and its allies bomb Syria.

Empty water bottles and cigarette packets lie on the ground nearby and a man selling frozen drinks says he’s sold 300 since the morning.

At the front of the queue an official pushes open the heavy glass door, shouts out a name and hands over a clutch of boxes containing the gas masks to a woman relieved the ordeal is finally over.

Others push forward, holding up their identity cards, hoping the official will write down their names and put them next in line.

While tempers fray and frustrations show, there is no sense of panic here.

Retaliation fears
But there is fear that either the Syrian military or Hezbollah in southern Lebanon could attack Israel in retaliation for Western air strikes.

And the worst-case scenario is that chemical weapons are used in any of these retaliatory attacks.

“It’s frightening for me and my baby,” says a woman named Yulia as she waits in a special queue for people with young children.

Her baby is just three-months-old.

“It’s also frightening because my husband could be called in for the military reserve. The repercussions for us could be really, really bad.”

There have been long queues at all the distribution centres across Israel over the past few days. Ten thousand masks were handed out on Thursday alone.

According to senior Labour Party politician and former minister Isaac Herzog, the population’s fears are driven by the assumption that Syria has a large stock of chemical weapons which could be wielded against Israel.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said his country would defend itself against any aggression
“There is pressure now [on stocks of gas masks] because… my Syrian opposition sources say [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad has 3,000 tonnes of sarin gas,” Mr Herzog says. “That’s an enormous quantity.”

While his is a much higher figure than most other estimates, Syria is believed to have the fourth-largest stocks of chemical weapons in the world, making this a particularly worrying time for Israelis with children.

“Being a wife, and a mother, and having a family here, this is very unnerving,” says Taire Shraga, a marketing director based in Jerusalem.

“My daughter doesn’t even have a safe room in her pre-school.”

Call to carry on
But even among those queuing up for gas masks, there are plenty who believe the chances of Syria attacking Israel in retaliation for Western air strikes are slim.

And this chimes with the assessment of the Israeli military and intelligence agencies.

To emphasise the point, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday again called on people to carry on with their lives as normal.

Overall, the mood in the country does seem relatively calm even after announcements that air defences in the north were being strengthened and some reserve soldiers were being called up.

“I would say 60-70% of Israelis think Syria will not attack Israel if the American operation is limited to a surgical attack and doesn’t attempt to wipe out President Assad’s regime,” says Professor Ephraim Yaar, head of Tel Aviv University’s conflict resolution programme and an expert in Israeli public opinion.

“If the American operation is more extensive, damaging Assad’s regime and his strongholds, then it would not be only Syria, but also Hezbollah we would have to worry about.”

Intelligence experts believe Mr Assad knows that attacking Israel would prove to be suicidal for his regime as the Israeli military would hit back hard.

But experts are concerned that the powerful Shia militia Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, may try to launch some kind of attack, although again they say the chances are quite small.

“I think the likelihood that Hezbollah will open fire on Israel after an attack on Syria is even higher than the probability that Syrians themselves would do it,” says former Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland.

“It makes sense that if Syria is attacked by the United States or by its allies, then Iran will give an instruction to Hezbollah to open fire on Israel.”

The question is whether it would be a small-scale symbolic attack which Israel could ignore or something much larger which would provoke an Israeli response.

Israel lobby silent on Syria

By Anna Palmer, Politico
August 27, 2013

As President Barack Obama moves closer to calling for military action against Syria, a powerful ally that could help him win over skeptics is staying quiet.

The Israel lobby, including the high-profile American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups, isn’t pushing for intervention even as evidence emerged this week that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its citizens.

The silence could be a problem for Obama, since the Jewish groups are connected across the political spectrum, wielding influence from the far right to liberal Democrats on issues critical to the Middle East — especially when it comes to the use of military force.

And while Obama has been willing to strike a foreign country without Congress’s approval — as he did in Libya — this time he not only faces a reluctant Congress, but a vocal chorus of Republican and Democratic lawmakers publicly advocating against entanglement.

“Everyone is in a wait-and-see mode about where this is all leading,” former Israeli Deputy Ambassador to the United States Dan Arbel told POLITICO. “The fact is, right now, the picture is not so clear.”
That has led groups to move slowly.

“I think that’s why you see organizations like AIPAC and others being more low-profile and cautious,” Arbel said.

Behind the scenes, several veteran pro-Israel lobbyists also said they don’t want a repeat of the Iraq War, when the vast majority of groups and Jewish leaders supported taking out Saddam Hussein. Afterward, many felt they were left with the blame when the war became deeply unpopular with the American public.

“They don’t want this to be seen as a Jewish or an Israel war,” said one veteran pro-Israel activist. “This is not a clear-cut North versus South civil war where you know you want the North to win. There are some real issues with the rebels here and they aren’t sure what would be better. Syria under [President Bashar] Assad, the border has been fairly quiet.”

Israel itself has not taken a stance, either.

“Israel is also cautious about this,” Arbel said. “Realizing that Israel itself cannot intervene. I think the Jewish organizations are looking at also the Israeli position.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said, “This situation cannot continue,” but he has not prescribed what action should be taken, according to news reports.

Israel’s position is further complicated by this being the first major crisis since Ron Dermer took the reins as ambassador to the United States.

The outside groups’ quiet posture comes despite many Jewish leaders moving gradually to support the rebels in Syria over the past year. Part of the delay was due largely to the general stability in the region under Assad and worry over the outcome of Egypt’s uprising, according to foreign policy experts.

While AIPAC declined to comment, the group has laid out a set of three “talking points” on its website calling, on the country to stop committing human rights abuses, noting that Syria supports terrorism and that it must open up its nuclear program.

There are multiple reasons AIPAC might not feel the need to take a more public posture — it appears the Obama administration is going to move in the direction they would like and they are also looking to Israel for leadership.

The decision not to get out front on Syria doesn’t come as a surprise to all. AIPAC opted against weighing in earlier this year after critics of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel accused him of being anti-Israel and tried to scuttle his nomination.
Still, AIPAC regularly engages its lobbying presence in Middle East politics. This spring, the group had its more than 13,000 members fan out across Capitol Hill. Atop its agenda: Press lawmakers to support a bill that would broaden sanctions beyond Iran’s energy and financial transactions. The members also urged lawmakers to find a way for the sequester to not impact the $3.1 billion in U.S. aid to Israel.

AIPAC also has gotten involved in lobbying for the U.S. to continue providing Egypt aid. The group sent a letter to top members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July, opposing an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would have cut off aide to the country until it held free and fair elections.

Meanwhile, other Jewish groups like J Street, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the American Jewish Committee have also not begun a Capitol Hill offensive.

The AJC’s director of government and international affairs, Jason Isaacson, said he hasn’t seen any evidence of a significant Jewish organization making a play on Capitol Hill.

“We have not adopted an advocacy posture on this on Capitol Hill. We certainly talk to folks about the situation in the Middle East when asked, but haven’t approached the Hill on the matter,” Isaacson said, noting that AJC will continue to monitor the situation closely.

AJC did put out a policy position that the Obama administration needs to take action following Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement on chemical weapons being used in Syria.

“There is now clear evidence that the Syrian regime has used such weapons to kill and maim, and not for the first time,” the policy states. “To ignore violation of a ‘red line’ it has established would undermine U.S. credibility not only in Damascus, but also in Tehran, Syria’s essential ally.”

J Street declined to comment.

Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs Executive Director Michael Makovsky said he believes the U.S. should act — though the group’s primary focus is preventing a nuclear Iran.

“President Obama said that Assad needs to go and we need to do what we can to contribute to his downfall,” Makovsky said, noting that JINSA looks at the issue as about the impact on Iran. “That is, I think, the larger issue here in the Middle East.”

Syria and Israel Lobby Conspiracy Theories

By Jonathan S. Tobin, Commentary
August 28, 2013

Israelis were lining up for gas masks and dusting out their air raid shelters today as the prospect of U.S. attacks on Syrian targets this week provoked threats of retaliation against the Jewish state. That Israelis as well as their neighbors seem to take the idea that they should be attacked because Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians as nothing out of the ordinary. This is par for the course in the Middle East where Israelis have always served as the all-purpose scapegoats for everything that happens. But though Americans may not be quite as jaded to this sort of thing, some in our nation’s capital also seem to subscribe in some ways to the Arab world’s conspiratorial view of Israel. That was evident in a Politico story published last night that pondered why it was that the so-called “Israel lobby” was “silent on Syria.”

The assumption behind the story and the headline seems to be that anything that happens in the Middle East or any foreign policy initiative undertaken by the United States has to be in some way the result of machinations by supporters of Israel even if the conflict in question is one on which they have no rooting interest. That Jerusalem doesn’t have a favorite in a fight between a genocidal maniac dictator and an opposition that is heavily infiltrated by people related to Al Qaeda is a given. But the fact that backers of Israel are as divided about what the U.S. should do about Assad’s atrocities as the rest of the country is seen as somehow anomalous. But, like the Iraq War, which was, contrary to the anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers, not fought at Israel’s behest, there seems to be no stopping those who subscribe to the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that claims the Jewish state and the wall-to-wall bipartisan coalition that supports it somehow manipulates U.S. foreign policy against the best interests of the nation. However, in this case the slow march of the Obama administration to act on Syria gives the lie to the idea that Israel is the tail that wags the dog in Washington.

Apparently for the editors of Politico, the lack of a concerted effort on the part of pro-Israel groups either in favor of or against intervention in Syria is like the dog that doesn’t bark in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. If you start thinking in Walt-Mearsheimer terms in which everything revolves around Israel, then the absence of pro-Israel groups in a debate must seem suspicious or at least odd. But there’s nothing unusual about neutrality on Syria, especially since the Jewish state has good reason to distrust both sides in the civil war and will probably suffer if the U.S. attacks.

It may be a shock to some to think that Israel’s friends don’t have a vested interest in every issue on the table. Groups like AIPAC do speak out on topics like aid to Egypt (which is directly related to maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel) or strengthening ties to moderate Arab nations like Jordan. But Israel doesn’t directly figure in calculations about Syria or most questions between the U.S. and Arab and Muslim nations.

If anything, events of the last few years in which Arab Spring protests and rebellions have debunked the long-cherished view of Israel’s critics that holds that the conflict with the Palestinians is the central issue around which all conflicts revolve in the Middle East. That’s a concept that those heavily influenced by the Walt-Mearsheimer canard have a tough time wrapping their brains around. But those willing to subscribe to conspiracy theories in which Israel provides the explanation for every mystery and misery on the planet now find themselves searching for an Israel angle about Syria. But other than the fact that Israel will be blamed for the outcome no matter what happens, there is none. Conspiracy theorists and their journalistic enablers need to move on.

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