With President Barack Obama calling Russia’s proposal to collect and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons a “potential breakthrough,” many in the organized Jewish community are concerned their support for military force against Syria will be seen as leading the charge to war.
As Chemi Shalev, a leading columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote Tuesday, “Israel and its supporters and lobbyists are in danger of being stranded and depicted as frustrated warmongers.
“Israel will also be unhappy with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad suddenly being cast as a legitimate interlocutor rather than an ostracized dictator, with the ‘constructive’ role that Tehran might suddenly play in defusing the Syrian crisis and with the risk that Russian success in Syria may lead it to seek a greater role in other peacemaking endeavors as well,” he added.
But Jewish leaders here defended their support of Obama, with Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, saying: “We are a people with a right to have an interest; we have a dog in this fight. I don’t think the response of the Jewish community has been heavy-handed or that we pushed the president to do anymore than he is inclined to do.”
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said his organization is supporting the president because “we believe it is in America’s national security interests. This is the one and only reason. We want to be certain that a country like Syria cannot use chemical weapons against others with impunity.”
Harris pointed out that such support “could mean a greater risk for Israel in the short term.”
He was referring to reports that Iranian lawmakers and commanders had issued a warning to the United States and its allies last week that any military strike on Syria would lead to a retaliatory attack on Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country is prepared “for any scenario” and that if there is an attempt to harm Israel, “we will respond and we will respond in strength.”
Harris asked: “Do you really think that Israelis relish the idea of being issued gas masks for themselves and their family?” He noted that the Israel Defense Forces is “on heightened alert, with all that that entails.
“This is about Israel standing by the U.S. and saying if it’s in America’s interests, we will do the best we can to be with you and to keep out of your way. Israel is saying it is willing to accept additional security risks for the greater good.”
But, Harris insisted, “This is about America and not Israel; pure and simple.”
Not everyone sees it that way. A cartoon in a Jordanian newspaper this week depicted Obama speaking about his plan for a military strike with four Jewish members of Congress. And there was at least one letter writer in the Washington Post who suggested that Jews were again leading America to war.
That was a reference to the argument that Jews were behind the Bush administration’s decision to go to war against Iraq in 2003, a belief described in the book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.
“In the book they categorically said the Jews and Israel pushed the U.S. to go to war in Iraq,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
He said he was not surprised to hear such talk again and predicted that in another week or two “there will be a lot more of it.”
“But so what,” he said. “[Just] because there are bigots, we shouldn’t express ourselves? Anti-Semites don’t need facts to be anti-Semites. We should not give up our rights as citizens to speak out on issues of concern and importance to us as citizens and as friends of Israel.”
Obama took to the airwaves this week to try to make his case for a strong American response to Assad’s reported use Aug. 21 of sarin gas in its two-and-a-half-year war with those seeking his ouster. Some 1,400 civilians — including 400 children — were reportedly killed by the deadly chemical. The Syrian civil war has thus far claimed the lives of 110,000 people.
Syria, which until now has denied it had chemical weapons, reportedly embraced a diplomatic proposal Tuesday to place its chemical weapons under the protection of international troops in advance of their destruction. The Obama administration said the mechanics of how that would occur were yet to be worked out, and that the initial focus was on determining whether Syria was serious about the proposal.
But Foxman dismissed the proposal as a “non-starter.”
“I’d like to know which countries would volunteer their troops,” he said. “I think this is rhetoric to dissuade America” from pursuing the military option.
Julia Ioffe, writing in the New Republic, agreed, saying Secretary of State John Kerry “blurted out a pie-in-the-sky, hyperbolic idea — getting rid of ‘every single bit’ of chemical weapons scattered across Syria ‘in the next week’ — but everyone seized on it as a realistic proposal. It’s not.
“As it stands now, Russia and France have taken the lead on working out a plan to get Assad to hand over his chemical weapons, a lead Obama seems all too happy to relinquish,” she wrote. “Hammering out the details will take some time, and, while they’re at it, Assad will still have his chemical weapons but will no longer be under the threat of a U.S. military strike. … And a pro-Assad paper ran with the following headline morning: ‘Moscow and Damascus Pull the Rug Out From Under the Feet of Obama.’”
The Obama administration is pulling out all the stops to garner congressional support for military action. Kerry even compared the situation in Syria to what occurred prior to the Nazi invasion of Europe when he said last week that the U.S. faced a “Munich moment” in dealing with Syria.
He was referring to 1938 when Western countries signed the Munich Pact that ceded control of part of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. The pact has come to be regarded as an attempt to appease Hitler and avert an all-out war in Europe.
Such comparisons resonate particularly with the Jewish community. Michael Makovsky, CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a Washington think tank dealing with U.S. and Israeli national security, said, “Jews are very sensitive to mass killing because they do not feel the world did anything to help them” during the Holocaust.
“When Jews say, ‘Never again,’ it’s not just about Jews,” he said. “They don’t feel the world should stand by when Jews or gentiles are being killed en masse. Jews, including those in Israel, want to see that the world will react to moral outrages because it thinks it is the right thing to do — and the general lack of global response [to Syria] is upsetting.”
Asked about the perception that the organized Jewish community is virtually alone in supporting the president, Makovsky replied: “Jewish organizations are attuned to Middle East affairs and understand the strategic implications for Israel and the U.S. For the U.S. to do nothing would embolden the Iranians and the radicals.”
Rabbi Skolnik agreed, saying that American Jews share the “weariness of the painful and difficult war in Iraq, but we also have a deep and abiding concern about the welfare of Israel. Whether other Americans want to hear it or not, the situation in Syria impacts the situation with Iran. The message Iran takes away has profound implications for the well-being of Israel.”
A similar message came this week from National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who said America’s influence on the world stage is at stake. She was referring to the pledge of the U.S., Israel and European nations to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
“As the president has said, all options remain on the table,” she told the New America Foundation, a think tank. “For our efforts to succeed, however, the leaders of Tehran must know that the United States means what we say. If we do not respond when Iran’s close ally uses weapons of mass destruction, what message does that send to Iran? It risks suggesting that the international community cannot muster the will to act when necessary.”
But that argument will only backfire against Israel, argued Mark Langfan, national director of Americans for a Safe Israel. In an op-ed, he said that although he backed U.S. support for the Syrian rebels, he believes linking the “safety of Israel to the legitimacy of [an] attack on Syria achieved nothing except to give Assad legitimate reason to counter-attack Israel. Instead of delimiting Hezbollah’s likely counter-attack on Israel, Obama maximized the likelihood and severity of Iran’s counter-response.”
Media polls found that Americans are not anxious for the U.S. to exercise its military might against Syria, with about two-thirds of Americans opposing such action should Congress fail to authorize it. And on the eve of Obama’s televised address to the nation Tuesday night, the president faced an uphill battle to convince Congress that the threat of military action was the only reason Syria was agreeing to destroy its chemical weapons. He had the support of AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group, which sent hundreds of lobbyists to Capitol Hill this week to garner support for a military strike.
In a statement explaining its action, AIPAC said “Congress’ failure to grant the president this authority would be interpreted as a sign of American weakness, and cast doubt about whether America will act to carry out its commitments in the Middle East — including the president’s and Congress’ pledge to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. …
“Simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass. This is a critical moment when America must also send a forceful message of resolve to Iran and Hezbollah — both of whom have provided direct and extensive military support to Assad.”
But Langfan insisted that AIPAC is making a mistake by this move.
“AIPAC is wading into an issue where there is a strong majority of Americans who — reasonably — vehemently believe we shouldn’t get overtly involved in Syria,” he wrote. “AIPAC has now given the Jew-hating Buchanans of the world an actual legitimate basis on which to attack American Jews and their ‘lobby.’ Instead of publicly making the case to the American public, AIPAC’s direct lobbying of Congress on an issue likely to result in dead American soldiers is a gross abuse of AIPAC’s moral capital.”
A spokesman for AIPAC declined comment.