Pro-Israel groups back Obamas call on Syria

Pro-Israel groups were not deterred this week from their support of a U.S. missile strike on Syria, despite a delay in congressional action called by President Barack Obama.

Some commentators suggested that Israel once again was leading the United States into another Middle East war. Others charged that Obama’s arm-twisting was forcing the pro-Israel community to take sides in a congressional debate it would rather avoid.

Whatever the truth, the president’s concerns about letting an alleged chemical weapons attack ordered by Syrian President Bashar Assad go unpunished dovetailed with broader pro-Israel concerns about maintaining U.S. credibility in the region and the dangers of unconventional weapons.

“A lot of folks are watching, friends and foes,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “If we blink, if we flinch, foes will draw their own lessons and the world will become a more dangerous place.

“And friends are also watching, including friends in the Arab world, friends in Israel, elsewhere. They will draw their conclusions, fairly or unfairly, that they cannot necessarily rely on the United States.”

Jewish groups initially were hesitant to support Obama’s push to strike following the alleged Aug. 21 chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians, including 400 children. The reluctance all but evaporated after top Obama advisers held a conference call last week with Jewish leaders.

The next day, Sept. 3, AIPAC mobilized its grassroots to contact members of Congress. On Sept. 10, 250 of its top members held one-on-one meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The lobby’s talking points, as outlined by an American Israel Public Affairs Com-mittee official who spoke anonymously, were twofold.

“One, there is a very strong strategic case: If we are to deter Iran from obtaining an unconventional weapon, we must stop its proxy Syria from using them without consequence,” the official said.

“Then there is the moral case: Barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass. We have seen the photos and videos of hundreds of children being stricken, and it is imperative America must act.”

AIPAC’s support is joined by other leading American Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Notably, both partisan Jewish organizations — the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council — also are backing Obama.

As of press time, those positions had not wavered, even after Obama’s Sept. 10 speech to the nation in which he asked Congress to delay its vote on authorizing military action in Syria while diplomatic efforts move forward. Obama was referring to Russia’s proposal that international monitors collect and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.

Obama faces an uphill battle in gaining congressional support for a strike. In the House of Representatives, sentiment leans against authorizing a strike. The Senate appears to be split evenly.

Meanwhile, commentators have been fingering Israel as the catalyst for American military action.

“AIPAC wants this war” was the headline over a string of posts by Andrew Sullivan on his influential blog the Dish last weekend. And the conservative Jewish radio personality Michael Savage blamed Israel outright on his syndicated talk show.

“I’m sick of this slavish worship of Israel,” Savage said, according to the conservative

Until recently, Israel maintained a careful distance from pronouncing on the Syrian civil war, except to note that it would respond to any attack on the Jewish state. But the New York Times reported Sept. 10 that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reaching out personally to some congressional leaders at Obama’s urging.

Neither the Israeli Embassy nor congressional leaders would confirm the Times report. But Israel has grown more vocal in supporting a response that would degrade Syria’s unconventional weapons capability.

“Israel agrees with President Obama that the use of chemical weapons is a ‘heinous act’ for which the Assad regime must be held accountable and for which there must be ‘international consequences,’ ” Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, wrote last week on a Facebook message. “Israel further agrees with the president that the use of chemical weapons promotes the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and encourages ‘governments who would choose to build nuclear arms.’ ”

Harris said the narrative of Jewish eagerness for war — peddled heavily during and after the Iraq War — was to be expected. But he added that this should not inhibit Jewish groups from exercising their right to make their views known.

“We’re proud Americans who have every reason and right to engage in the debate as other Americans,” Harris said. “We care deeply about American influence and American national security.”

J. staff contributed to this report.


Editorial  |  Shifting tack on Syria is good news for Israel

This week saw the fast-moving diplomatic developments in Syria shift into an even higher gear, as war fever appeared, at least for the moment, to break.

With the Assad regime accepting Russia’s offer to broker the repossession and dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and the Obama administration taking that offer seriously, if skeptically, the Middle East may have avoided a potentially catastrophic military clash.

The Syrian affair has scrambled many established geopolitical norms. Who would have thought Russian President Vladimir Putin would be the one to find a way for the parties to step back from the brink? Who would have guessed that a war crime committed nearly 6,000 miles away from Washington could have thrown Congress so far off its standard partisan gamesmanship?

So far, the Russian offer fails to fully satisfy either Assad or the demands of the West. The Assad regime wants to walk away from this still in charge, winning its war against Syrian rebels, and with its pride intact. On the other hand, in his Tuesday night speech to the nation, President Barack Obama made clear he wants to keep his military options open.

A wide gulf remains, and with Russia as the apparent arbiter, all parties have cause for doubt and pessimism.

But with this last, best chance for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, everyone with a stake in the outcome should support it.

Of course, the devil is in the details. Will Syria abide by what should be stringent inspection and verification protocols? Is Russia really acting in good faith or merely stalling for time on behalf of its client state? The whole effort could fall apart and we would be back where we started: on the verge of a new Middle East war, with no predictable outcome.

Even if all goes well with this latest diplomatic push, Syria’s civil war goes on. Assad will continue to butcher his own people, only now sticking to more morally acceptable conventional arms. The rebels, many of them Islamists aligned with al-Qaida, will press on, committing atrocities of their own. The number of refugees, now topping a million, will continue to swell. Things in Syria will remain horrible.

But if the United States can avoid getting embroiled in yet another war, if Israel can avoid being drawn into any such war, and if U.S. domestic politics can return to other pressing issues, at least a greater good can be achieved on some level.

It is in that spirit that we wish the negotiators great success. It’s time to step back from the brink.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief