Jerusalem — Like other Israelis, Chloe Levy, a 32-year-old Jerusalemite, was caught completely off-guard by the Russian proposal to rein in Syrian chemical weapons.
“I don’t know all the details, but what I can say is that I don’t trust [Syrian President Bashar] Assad to get rid of all his chemical weapons,” said Levy, arranging some of the items in the gift shop where she works. “And even if he does comply, what about the conventional weapons? Where does the arrangement leave Israel?”
Those were some of the tough question Israelis were asking this week, as polls showed the American public, along with many House and Senate members, oppose a United States military strike against Syria.
It is still unclear whether President Barack Obama will ultimately muster enough support to carry out in a narrow, ultra-targeted strike, and that has some people here on edge.
“The American president finds himself facing the world with his feathers plucked,” Alex Fishman, a political analyst, wrote in Yediot Achronot. “He has no cards for a diplomatic move and no agreement for a military move.”
While some Israelis, fearful that Syria will attack Israel if the U.S. attacks Syria, are clearly relieved that a U.S. attack doesn’t appear imminent, if it takes place at all, others worry that both Syria and Iran will perceive weapons negotiations as a sign of international weakness.
In a Los Angeles Times op-ed published just before the Russian proposal became public, Benny Morris, an expert in Israeli military history, said Obama has squandered the trust Israel placed in his hands.
“As Obama has waffled on Syria, he has convinced most Israelis that there is no depending on Washington to pull the Iranian nuclear chestnut out of the fire.”
Israel, he said, “will have to take out the Iranian nuclear installations itself — or learn to live with a nuclear Iran led by a fanatical Islamist leadership that seeks Israel’s destruction.”
Iran was also on the mind of Danny Ayalon, Israel’s former deputy foreign minister, who on Tuesday — just hours after Iran’s president said his country won’t relinquish “one iota” of its nuclear rights — told the IBA English News that “all eyes should be on Iran, which is watching the actions of the international community’s actions as it moves toward nuclear capability.”
Even if the Russian proposal doesn’t embolden Iran, analysts say, it is still problematic for Israel.
Writing in Ynet News, Ron Ben-Yishai warned that if Syria is not forced to destroy its chemical weapons and is given time to hide them, “it will not be worth anything and will only allow the Butcher of Damascus to continue with his deceptions.”
Syria, Ben-Yishai said, “would not need a large amount of chemical weapons” to attack Israel.
And if the negotiations on an agreement drag on, he added, Syria will almost certainly donate part of its arsenal to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” a scenario that, in Israel’s eyes, “is just as bad as having the WMDs fall into the hands of the [rebel] jihadists who are taking part in the Syrian civil war.”
Despite almost-universal pessimism over Assad’s true intentions, pundits couldn’t help hoping that the Syrian dictator might cooperate with the international community because he sees no way out of the quagmire.
Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former State Department adviser to successive American administrations, said in an interview that he is anxious to see whether the U.S., Russia, the United Nations and Syria can pull it off.
“If it turns into a truly serious proposal with U.S.-Russian cooperation, a UN resolution that lays out the terms, a cease-fire which will includes hundreds or at least scores of inspectors to inspect every inch of the country and to inventory weapons, and if all of this takes place, it would be a remarkable demonstration of de-weaponizing the single largest stockpile of chemicals in the Middle East,” Miller said, adding that “this is probably pretty fanciful.”
Seated on a park opposite the Jerusalem construction site where he works, Mohammed Khaled from Jerusalem, said he is against an American airstrike “because it could lead to a full-blown war, a real balagan,” he said, using the Hebrew term for “chaos.”
“Iran could decide to attack and where will it leave us? Honestly, all we want is peace.”
Taking a break from his job slicing up produce at a greengrocer on Azza Street in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, 60-year-old Yitzhak Haim wondered how the U.S and other countries could even consider striking a deal on chemical weapons with Assad while his regime continues to massacre civilians with rockets and bullets.
“Why does it matter how he kills more than how many he kills?”
At the same time, Haim said that from an Israeli perspective it might be better if Assad isn’t ousted from power.
“Who knows who will take his place? It could be the Taliban, Hezbollah or al-Qaeda,” he said, a cigarette dangling from his left hand.
“My fear is that if Obama doesn’t respond to the killing it will be sending a signal to places like Syria and Iran that they can get away with anything,” said Peter Asch, a social worker, outside his home in the leafy German Colony.
Asch, who moved from New York to Israel 45 years ago, said this shouldn’t be America’s burden to bear alone.
“Any country with the ability — England, France, Germany — to to teach these countries that murdering people isn’t worthwhile should get involved,” he said.
Asch admitted he is “a little concerned” about the repercussions for Israel of such a military strike “but that’s not a reason not to do it,” he said.
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