Pro-Israel U.S. lobbying group sets major push for Syria action
By Patricia Zengerle
Sat, 7 Sep 2013

  WASHINGTON, Sept 7 (Reuters) - The influential pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee will deploy hundreds of activists next week to win support in Congress for military action in Syria, amid an intense White House effort to convince wavering U.S. lawmakers to vote for limited strikes.

  "We plan a major lobbying effort with about 250 activists in Washington to meet with their senators and representatives," an AIPAC source said on Saturday.

  Congressional aides said they expected the meetings and calls on Tuesday, as President Barack Obama and officials from his administration make their case for missile strikes over the apparent use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.

  The vote on action in Syria is a significant political test for Obama and a major push by AIPAC, considered one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, could provide a boost.

  The U.S. Senate is due to vote on a resolution to authorize the use of military force as early as Wednesday. Leaders of the House of Representatives have not yet said when they would vote, beyond saying consideration of an authorization is "possible" sometime this week.

  Obama has asked Congress to approve strikes against Assad's government in response to a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 Syrians.

  But many Republicans and several of Obama's fellow Democrats have not been enthused about the prospect, partly because war-weary Americans strongly oppose getting involved in another Middle Eastern conflict.

  Pro-Israel groups had largely kept a low profile on Syria as the Obama administration sought to build its case for limited strikes after last month's attack on rebel-held areas outside Damascus.

  Supporters of the groups and government sources acknowledged they had made it known that they supported U.S. action, concerned about instability in neighboring Syria and what message inaction might send to Assad's ally, Iran.

  But they had generally wanted the debate to focus on U.S. national security rather than how a decision to attack Syria might help Israel, a reflection of their sensitivity to being seen as rooting for the United States to go to war. (Editing by Doina Chiacu)


Israel Backs Limited Strike Against Syria
September 5, 201#
The New York Times

  JERUSALEM — President Obama’s position on Syria — punish President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons without seeking to force him from power — has been called “half-pregnant” by critics at home and abroad who prefer a more decisive American intervention to end Syria’s civil war.

  But Mr. Obama’s limited strike proposal has one crucial foreign ally: Israel.

  Israeli officials have consistently made the case that enforcing Mr. Obama’s narrow “red line” on Syria is essential to halting the nuclear ambitions of Israel’s archenemy, Iran. More quietly, Israelis have increasingly argued that the best outcome for Syria’s two-and-a-half-year-old civil war, at least for the moment, is no outcome.

  For Jerusalem, the status quo, horrific as it may be from a humanitarian perspective, seems preferable to either a victory by Mr. Assad’s government and his Iranian backers or a strengthening of rebel groups, increasingly dominated by Sunni jihadis.

  “This is a playoff situation in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win — we’ll settle for a tie,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.”

  The synergy between the Israeli and American positions, while not explicitly articulated by the leaders of either country, could be a critical source of support as Mr. Obama seeks Congressional approval for surgical strikes in Syria. Some Republicans have pushed him to intervene more assertively to tip the balance in the Syrian conflict, while other politicians from both parties are loath to involve the United States in another Middle Eastern conflict on any terms.

  But Israel’s national security concerns have broad, bipartisan support in Washington, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby in Washington, weighed in Tuesday in support of Mr. Obama’s approach. The group’s statement said nothing, however, about the preferred outcome of the civil war, instead saying that America must “send a forceful message” to Iran and Hezbollah and “take a firm stand that the world’s most dangerous regimes cannot obtain and use the most dangerous weapons.”

  After years of upheaval in the Middle East and tension between Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the two leaders are now largely in sync on how to handle not just Syria, but also Egypt. Mr. Obama has not withheld American aid to Egypt after the military-backed ouster of the elected Islamist government, while Israel strongly backs the Egyptian military as a source of stability.

  On Syria, in fact, Israel pioneered the kind of limited strike Mr. Obama is now proposing: four times this year, it has bombed convoys of advanced weapons it suspected were being transferred to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that Israel considers a major threat.

  It has otherwise been content to watch the current stalemate in Syria pull in what it considers a range of enemies: not only the Syrian Army and Iran, but also Hezbollah, which has thousands of fighters engaged on the battlefronts in Syria, and Sunni Islamists aligned against them.

  Though Syria and Israel have technically been at war for more than 40 years, the conflict in Syria is now viewed mainly through the prism of Iran. A prolonged conflict is perceived as hurting Iran, which finances Mr. Assad’s war effort. Whether Mr. Obama follows through on his promise to retaliate for the use of chemical weapons is a test of his commitment, ultimately, to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb — as long as the retaliation does not become a full-scale intervention in Syria.

  “If it’s Iran-first policy, then any diversion to Syria is not fruitful,” said Aluf Benn, editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “From the Israeli point of view, the worst scenario is mission-creep in Syria and America gets entangled in a third war in the Middle East, which paralyzes its ability to strike Iran and limits Israel’s ability to strike Iran as well.”

  This spring, when an Israeli official called for an international response to what he said were earlier Syrian chemical attacks, he was muzzled and reprimanded for appearing to pressure the White House. Now, said Eyal Zisser, a historian at Tel Aviv University who specializes in the region, “it’s clear that Israel does not want to appear as somebody that is pushing the United States for a deep involvement.”

  There are significant differences between Israel and the United States on Syria. There was widespread criticism here of Mr. Obama’s decision to delay responding to the chemical attack, with the quote “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk” from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” becoming a common refrain. One Israeli dentist even took out a large newspaper ad promoting his implant services with a picture of Mr. Obama captioned, “He doesn’t have teeth?”

  There has also been a broader debate about how best to respond to the war in Syria.

  When the uprising began, many here saw Mr. Assad, who like his predecessor and father had maintained quiet on the border, as “the devil you know,” and therefore preferable to the rebels, some of whom were aligned with Al Qaeda or Sunni militants like the Palestinian Hamas faction.

  As the death toll has mounted, more Israelis joined a camp led by Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, who argues that the devil you know is, actually, a devil who should be ousted sooner rather than later.

  That split remains. But as hopes have dimmed for the emergence of a moderate, secular rebel force that might forge democratic change and even constructive dialogue with Israel, a third approach has gained traction: Let the bad guys burn themselves out.

  “The perpetuation of the conflict is absolutely serving Israel’s interest,” said Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.

  Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, was one of several experts who said this view differs from the callous “let them all kill each other” shrug popular here during the long-running Iran-Iraq war. Rather, Ms. Wittes said, the reasoning behind a strike that would not significantly change the Syrian landscape is that the West needs more time to prop up opposition forces it finds more palatable and prepare them for future governing.

  She cited dangers for Israel if the conflict continues to drag on, including more efforts to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, instability in Lebanon and pressure on Jordan.

  Despite those threats, Matthew Levitt, who studies the region at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Jerusalem and Washington essentially agree that “right now, there’s no good way for this war to end.”

  Israeli leaders “want Assad to be punished; they’d like it to be punishing enough that it actually makes a difference in the war but not so much that it completely takes him out,” Mr. Levitt said. “The Israelis do not think the status quo is tenable either, but they think the status quo right now is better than the war ending tomorrow, because the war ending tomorrow could be much worse. There’s got to be a tomorrow, day-after plan.”


  A Congressional veto of Obama on Syria would harm Israel and its supporters. By 'going all out' in favor of a U.S. attack on Assad, AIPAC and other Jewish groups run the risk of sustaining long term damage to their own 'power of deterrence.'

By Chemi Shalev
September 07, 2013


  Most experts agree that a Congressional veto of President Obama’s plan for a U.S. military strike on Syria would not only damage his presidency but also erode America’s standing in the Middle East and diminish its power of deterrence, especially towards Iran.

  But now that the American Jewish establishment has come off the fence to loudly endorse the president’s policy, the fallout from an Administration failure to convince Congress could claim two additional victims: Israel and the influential lobby that supports it.

  If AIPAC goes “all out”, as Politico reported on Thursday, and “250 Jewish leaders and AIPAC activists will storm the halls on Capitol Hill beginning next week”, but the House of Representatives nonetheless votes against the President, then the lobby’s image of invincibility, to which it owes much of its influence, will inevitably be jeopardized.

  And if Congress nixes the plan to punish Syria for its August 21 chemical attack, despite the Administration’s argument that doing so would endanger Israel’s security, then it is Israel’s power of deterrence, which includes a perception of absolute Congressional support, that would be diminished.

  True, Israel and AIPAC have lost monumental battles in Congress before. In 1981, a full court press by AIPAC and other Israel supporters swayed the Democratic House but failed to convince the Republican-controlled Senate to block President Reagan’s plan to sell advanced AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia. In 1991, 1300 pro-Israel lobbyists, Jewish and otherwise, who also “stormed the halls of Capitol Hill”, did not succeed in dissuading Congress from accepting President George H Bush’s call for a four-month moratorium on loan guarantees to Israel.

  In both of these famous failures, however, AIPAC and other Jewish groups were pitting themselves against the President, not fighting on his behalf. And in both cases, the lobby’s defeat, by the narrowest of margins, actually made it stronger.
As journalist and author J.J. Goldberg describes in his book Jewish Power, the Reagan Administration was so overawed by the influence and reach that AIPAC showed in the AWACS duel that it embraced the lobby as its ally throughout the rest of Reagan’s term. And Bush’s defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992 in the midst of his quarrel with the Jewish community made his triumph over the lobby go down in history as a Pyrrhic victory indeed.

  In 2013, however, AIPAC and other Jewish groups have placed themselves squarely – and ironically, given their troubled history - on the same side as Obama, and will thus be deprived of using the power and aura of the presidency as an excuse for any defeat. Congress, on the other hand, has been viewed in recent years as AIPAC’s stomping grounds and as Israel’s best and last defense, even against the American president, as Obama himself found out in his first term: a defeat on home turf would thus reverberate throughout Washington, not only for Obama but for those who backed him as well.

  And if it is the Republican-dominated House that rebuffs the president while the Democratic controlled Senate endorses him, as many analysts now predict, the popular and self-perception of both parties could very well change and evolve, influencing their relations with Israel as well.

  After all, in the 2012 elections, American Jews are thought to have voted for Obama despite the fact that he and his fellow Democrats were considered to be “softer” on Israel than the hawkish Republican Party, in which support for Israel knows no bounds.

  As Mitt Romney said in one of the Republican debates, before making crucial decisions on Israel’s security “I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say: ‘Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?’” Two years later, Netanyahu may be calling back, but Republicans are suddenly keeping their phones off the hook.

  And while a Republican denial of Obama’s resolution on Syria would probably stem from myriad considerations – including, first and foremost, a rejection of Obama itself – it would nonetheless move the party in the isolationist direction of Rand Paul and other “America Firsters”, and undermine the claim that Republicans care for Israel’s security more than their Democratic rivals.

  Now it’s true that AIPAC and Jewish groups have steered clear of mentioning Israel as a reason for America to attack Syria, citing the need to maintain America’s stature in the world and to make sure that “barbarism on such a mass scale is not given a free pass”. That doesn’t diminish, of course, the absolute identification of Israel with the lobby that carries its name and the fallout that both would suffer if Congress rejects their claims.

  The Administration, in any case, has publicly and prominently placed the welfare of Israel and the deterrence of Iran high on the list of factors that mandate an attack against Damascus. Secretary of State John Kerry has gone even further, comparing inaction against the Syrian regime to American and international inaction in the face of the Jewish Holocaust in Europe. It may be unclear how this line is playing out in Peoria or Topeka, but it has certainly stirred Jewish sentiments and strengthened the hand of those who had urged the community to end its self-imposed vow of silence and to come out swinging in favor of the Administration.

  Indeed, for most Jewish leaders, as well as for the overwhelming majority of Israeli decision-makers, the argument for a military strike against Syria and against a Congressional veto is almost a no-brainer. Israelis may have viewed Obama’s hesitation to respond immediately to the August 21 attacks and his decision to seek Congressional approval as a sign of weakness, but most agree now that a Congressional veto that would scuttle an American attack would wreak untold damage on America’s power of deterrence, in the region and towards Iran in particular, and thus undermine Israel’s national security as well.

  It is no wonder, therefore, that a lobby and an American Jewish establishment that purports to support Israel would step up to the plate at such a critical time, though one may question the tactical wisdom of moving so directly and abruptly from total silence to “going all out”, as the Jewish organizations did just a few days ago.

  A defeat for the Administration could turn into a significant and potentially negative milestone for Israel and its lobby as well, not only in Congress and the media, but with the American public as well.

  It is public opinion, after all, that is said be driving members of Congress against a Syrian attack: Americans are turning away from being “the world’s policeman” but in the process, even if unintentionally, they may be turning their backs on Israel as well.