Growing Support In Israel For U.S. Action On Syria

Sep 3, 2013
Originally published on September 3, 2013 5:13 pm

As President Obama tries to convince Congress to approve punitive strikes on Syria’s government, Israeli leaders have stayed mostly quiet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement saying, “We are not part of the civil war in Syria, but if we identify any attempt whatsoever to harm us, we will respond and we will respond in strength.”

NPR’s Emily Harris joins us to talk about the growing support in Israel for U.S. military action.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. In a few minutes, a look at military justice after all the trials this summer.

HOBSON: But first to the U.S. ally with the most at stake if military action is taken against Syria. And yet as President Obama has been lobbying Congress to approve strikes on Syria, Israeli leaders have stayed mostly quiet. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement saying we are not part of the civil war in Syria, but if we identify any attempt whatsoever to harm us, we will respond, and we will respond in strength.

NPR's Emily Harris joins us now from Jerusalem. Emily, thanks for being here.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Glad to be here, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, let's start with today's missile test in the Mediterranean Sea, a joint test, it appears, by the U.S. and Israel. Do we know if that's related to potential action in Syria?

HARRIS: Well, the U.S. explicitly said it was not. The Pentagon put out a statement spelling that out. Israel didn't say specifically either way, but the Israeli minister of defense told reporters in discussing this that Israel is not involved in Syria. And he said this test was to keep developing Israel's military technology. The U.S. and Israel have an ongoing program where Israel supports - excuse me, where the U.S. supports Israel's missile technology development, and they do these kind of tests fairly routinely.

I did ask the DOD and the Missile Defense Agency and the European Command, the American European Command, today, whether there'd been any discussion about postponing today's test, which apparently had been planned for a long time, given the heightened tensions around here. But none of them were able to answer that.

HOBSON: And Emily, there's a big debate going on in Washington right now about whether there should be a strike against Syria. Today we heard from the leaders in Congress on both sides of the political aisle coming out in favor. What would Israel like to see the U.S. do?

HARRIS: You know, a surprising number of people when you ask them, whether it's analysts or whether it's ordinary people, say they don't know exactly what they want the U.S. to do. But what they're looking for from the U.S. is assurance that the U.S. president is there to take decisive action in the Middle East when circumstances dictate that.

The number one circumstance that certainly many Israeli officials and - are thinking of when they say that is Iran as Iran pursues a nuclear program. But as far as exactly what to do, some people here say take out Assad, you know, enough already. Other people say boy, everything looks bad on our northern border, we're not really sure what the best answer is.

And one person I spoke to said something really creative, but they weren't quite sure what.

HOBSON: What about the Palestinian Authority? Have they come out and said anything about what they would like to see or if they would like to see anything, any action taken against Syria?

HARRIS: Well, the Palestinian Authority is not usually consulted in the same way as Israel on these things, but the Palestinian Authority President Abbas did say in a speech on Sunday that he's against a missile strike. He's also against the use of chemical weapons by anyone. And he thinks there ought to be a political solution.

I should point out, too, on the Israelis, you know, one of the major interests there if the Assad government were to fall, would be that could be an end of the relationship between Iran, Hezbollah and Assad, which is a worrisome triangle for Israelis.

HOBSON: Would Israel likely be involved in an attack against Syria if the U.S. goes ahead?

HARRIS: Very unlikely, unless, and as you mentioned earlier President - excuse me Prime Minister Netanyahu has made this clear, unless Israel were attacked or threatened in a way that the Israeli government felt was a credible threat that needed a response from Israel. But Israel's not planning to be involved in any U.S.-led strike.

HOBSON: And Emily, nothing - of course you mentioned Iran a moment ago, nothing in the Middle East happens in a vacuum. How important is Iran in all this from Israel's perspective when it comes to potential action against Syria?

HARRIS: So important. A briefing I attended by the intelligence minister last week before President Obama's speech, shifting the decision to Congress or waiting for consultations for Congress before striking Syria, the briefing was supposed to be about Syria. He talked the entire time about Iran.

The idea is that the U.S. needs to take decisive action against the use of weapons of mass destruction in the region and then turn around and look, say Israelis, there's another government preparing to - trying to development weapons of mass destruction, talking about Iran's nuclear program. And if you're going to take out - respond to the use of chemical weapons, well we need to respond to this developing nuclear program.

They do make a connection there, and their eyes are on Iran.

HOBSON: And we know that there are fears already going on in Israel about any potential retaliation against Israel. We've seen these pictures of Israelis lining at gas mask distribution centers already. NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem, thanks so much for talking with us.

HARRIS: Thank you, Jeremy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.