WASHINGTON – Israel’s government and pundits are unabashedly pleased by the missile strike ordered by President Donald Trump early Friday on the Syrian airfield from where Tuesday’s deadly chemical attack is believed to have been launched.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put out a statement out at 6 a.m. local time – unusually early – just to make clear he “fully supports” the strike.
“In both word and action, President Trump sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated,” he said.
Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles on the airfield in northern Syria believed to be where a sarin attack that killed at least 72 civilians, including many children. The missile attack, Syria said in reports that could not be confirmed, killed nine civilians – including four children – and six troops, and caused extensive damage.
Here are some reasons why Israelis are backing the strike – and some reasons why it might not be so simple.
The moral imperative
Images of children gassed a few hundred miles north of Israel hits close to home for a country where the helplessness that Jews faced against the Nazi genocide remains a defining national characteristic.
“There was a genuinely strongly felt moral issue, and that was something that Israelis felt across the political spectrum when the pictures emerged of people killed in the chemical attack, given the Jewish people’s history of being gassed in the Holocaust,” said Daniel Shapiro, who until January was the U.S. ambassador to Israel and still lives there.
Israelis in just days have raised hundreds of thousands of shekels for the victims; fundraisers have explicitly invoked Holocaust imagery.
“No Jew can stay silent as children are being gassed in the streets of Syria,” IsraelGives says on its web page.
The sheriff is back in town.
Israelis were frustrated by the Obama administration’s hesitancy in confronting Assad.
In 2013, President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons would trigger an attack. But when Syria crossed the line, instead of launching an attack, Obama coordinated a deal with Russia under which Syria would divest itself of its chemical weaponry. It now appears clear to the United States and its allies that Syria’s divestment was more fraud than fact.
Trump while campaigning for the presidency appeared to want an even further retreat. His sole conceptualization of Syrian President Bashar Assad until last week was as an ally in combating Islamic State terrorists, an embrace that Obama, however feckless his chemical weapons retreat was, forcefully rejected. Trump officials said last week that they were ready to reverse stated Obama administration policy that any resolution to the Syria conflict must include the removal of Assad.
That concerned Israelis – most prominently Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman – who were concerned that a resurgent Assad would allow Israel’s deadliest enemies, Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, a foothold on Israel’s border with Syria.
Trump over the last three days did a 180 on Assad – “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” the president said the day after the chemical attack — and so, commensurately, have Israelis warmed to Trump.
“American leadership is once again credible,” Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, until last year the director of policy at the Israeli Defense Ministry, told Israel Radio. “When you use nerve gas against a civilian population, the message is clear.”
Netanyahu in his praise for Trump said the message should resonate as far as Iran and North Korea. The prime minister and his government continue to see the 2015 nuclear deal Obama negotiated with Iran, trading sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program, as a license for Iran and its proxies to continue its regional interventionism.
Israel “hopes that this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime’s horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere,” Netanyahu said.
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who spent years in Syria, said in a media call that the chief concern for Israel and America’s Sunni Arab allies was what was “baked into” the nuclear deal: “That Iran could use rump governments in Iraq and Syria to shoot people into the region into submission” while the principal U.S. concern was sustaining the Iran deal.
What’s not predictable
1. Do Israeli jets still get to take out potential threats without triggering a Russian response?
An ally of the Assad regime, Russia was furious at the missile attack and suspended its “deconfliction” agreement with the United States – one under which the two nations give each other prior notice of any military action, particularly from the air, so there’s no risk of an inadvertent clash.
Russia has a similar arrangement with Israel; does that go by the wayside? Israel as recently as last month sent jets into Syria to stop the smuggling of Syrian arms to Hezbollah.
Gilad, speaking on Israel Radio, said he was confident that Russia would continue to allow Israel to act.
“I don’t think there’s any threat on Israeli action as long as it in the defense of Israel’s interests,” he said.
2. Is Israel more of a target than before?
Israel’s most potent threat is Hezbollah, which has positioned tens of thousands of missiles throughout Lebanon since the last Hezbollah-Israel war in 2006. Israeli brass believes Hezbollah could be positioning itself for another Israel war, if only as a pretext to draw attention away from Syria, where its alliance with Iran and the Assad regime has taken hits.
Hezbollah called the missile strike an “idiotic” action that was “in service” to Israel and predicted that it would increase tension.
3. Russia’s mad? But wait, we like Russia.
Netanyahu has gone to great lengths to cultivate Russia, in part because Israel sees Russia as the likeliest agent to broker a final status deal that would keep Iran and Hezbollah as far as possible from Syria’s southwest, where Israel’s border is.
He endured a tongue lashing on Thursday from Russian President Vladimir Putin just for intimating that Syria is responsible for the chemical attack. (Russia insists there is no proof yet.)
The closeness of Trump and his team to Russia – in Washington, increasingly seen as a burden, as it engenders a string of scandals – is seen as a plus in Israel, where it was hoped Trump would leverage his friendship with Putin as a means of containing Assad, Hezbollah and Iran.
“Israel still sees Trump as a dealmaker with Russia, and they want to know if Trump drives a wedge between Russia and Iran-Hezbollah-Syria,” David Makovsky, the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute, said in an interview.
4. That Sunni alliance thing … it’s complicated
The conventional wisdom in Washington after the attack is that Trump has revivified the U.S. profile in Israel among the United States’ Sunni Arab allies.
Except as much as Assad is despised among Sunni Arabs, both for his belonging to the secretive Alawite sect and his alliance with Shiite actors like Iran and Hezbollah, direct U.S. intervention is not necessarily popular.
Critically, Egypt – whose leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, just this week lavished praise on Trump – was less than enthusiastic about the strike.
“Egypt affirms the importance of sparing Syria and the Middle East the dangers of crisis escalation in order to preserve the safety of the nations that comprise it,” its Foreign Ministry said Friday, according to Al-Ahram. “We see the necessity for swift action to end the armed conflict in Syria to preserve the lives of the Syrian people through a commitment by all Syrian parties for an immediate cease-fire and a return to negotiations under the aegis of the United Nations.”
Egyptian unhappiness could hamper Netanyahu’s bid to use Egypt as a conduit to new peace deals with other moderate Arab states.
“Sisi sees Assad rightly or wrongly as part of the battle against Islamic extremism,” said Shapiro, who is now a senior visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel.
“There’s also the more traditional Egyptian value of not wanting to see any foreign intervention in an Arab state lest it be directed at Egypt,” he said. “And Egypt has in recent months gone a bit closer to the Russians, and Russians have participated in counter ISIS operations in western Egypt. That creates some potential tensions between Egypt and its strategic partner Israel and Sisi and his new friend Donald Trump.”
5. It’s open-ended – which means, duh, we don’t know how it will end.
Tabler cautioned against seeing long-term consequences because of a single strike; no one knows yet where Trump will take U.S. involvement.
“This strike is not the same as the invasion of Iraq in 2003,” he said.
Israel initially was supportive of the U.S. action in Iraq, but soon grew apprehensive as the Bush administration neglected increasing threats from Iran and its war radicalized Sunni Arabs in the region.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that the strike was a one-off.
“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or our posture relative to our military activities in Syria today,” he said in a media availability.
That did not assuage concerns among Democrats and even some Republicans in Congress, who called for consultations with Congress ahead of any further action.
“Our prior interventions in this region have done nothing to make us safer, and Syria will be no different,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said on Twitter: “I’m deeply concerned the strike in Syria could lead the U.S. back into the quagmire of long-term military engagement in the Middle East.”