Americans watch our tragedy-of-errors Syria policy from the safety of houses and apartments in suburbs and cities 5,000 miles from the conflict. Israelis are next door, and two weeks ago—when an American strike and possible Syrian counterstrike at Israel seemed imminent—they were lining up for gas masks.
There are no such lines in Tel Aviv today. But what can Israelis make of the Syria crisis now, after the Obama speech and with action moving to Geneva and to the United Nations? What are the lessons they may learn?
Israel has maintained decent relations with Russia throughout the Putin years, under the Sharon, Olmert, and Netanyahu governments, and the lesson here is that this was a smart move. It turns out that Vladimir Putin and Russia remain important players in the region after all, not just by selling arms to Syria but at the U.N. as well. Issues like Iran and Syria can play out in part in Moscow and in part in Turtle Bay, and being able to communicate directly with Putin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov—in a relationship separate and independent from that of the United States—helps protect Israel’s interests. Watching Obama and Kerry fumble and change positions as Putin and Lavrov seize opportunities and play the game like professionals must teach Israelis that keeping a line open to Russia is smart.
No one in Israel has the slightest faith that President Obama means to bomb the Iranian nuclear sites. His rhetoric on preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons has been very tough, including during his visit to Israel in 2013. But the handling of Syria shows his aversion to using force and potentially involving the United States in another Middle East war. Democratic party loyalists who have hitherto advised Israel that Obama might act are, it is said, no longer offering such assurances.
The Israeli conclusion will be that if Iran is to be stopped they must do it themselves. The odds of an Israeli attack over the coming year have risen, and the Israeli question about the United States is whether the administration will reconcile itself to Israeli action or even perhaps come to see it as a useful way to stop Iran without U.S. action.
But Israelis will also be more concerned now about a Russian-led diplomatic offensive, some kind of clever offer that does little to disarm Iran but whose wide international acclaim makes an Israeli strike nearly impossible. The lessons here are to work hard (sometimes along with the French) to toughen the American position in negotiations with Iran, and keep honing their own strike plans. Israelis hope for a diplomatic solution as much as the Obama administration does, but will not kid themselves about the chances of a Western collapse that embraces a bad deal.
The most sobering lesson for Israelis has been the unreliability of their own chief ally and closest friend. They watched the administration pressure Prime Minister David Cameron into a quick and risky parliamentary vote and then change course—so that his defeat was entirely unnecessary. They watched us turn President François Hollande from momentary hero into a butt of jokes. They were stunned by the Obama reversals that led him to talk of strikes at Syria, then demand a congressional vote, then postpone it when he saw he would likely lose. And they saw Putin maneuver around these changes to a proposal that could help keep his ally Assad in power and fend off American strikes indefinitely.
As with the pro-American Arab states (such as Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia), these developments leave Israelis deeply nervous, but they realize American policy is unlikely to change for the next three years. What to do, then? First, keep humoring the Obama administration, seeking to maximize influence in its counsels. That means verbally supporting Obama on Syria even as his policy gyrates, and continuing negotiations with the Palestinians despite near-universal skepticism about the talks among Israelis. With policy changing by the day, who knows? Maybe those White House guys will occasionally listen to advice; worth trying.
But Israelis should have learned that advising and jollying up the administration does not mean intervening in America’s domestic political disputes. According to press reports, the president prevailed on Netanyahu to seek support in Congress for the Syria resolution—the resolution the president has now said must be postponed and may never come to a vote. So they wasted some credibility and angered some Republicans; just how grateful is Obama? The lesson there is to stay out of our partisan arguments unless they very directly affect Israel’s security.
Second, pursue your own relationships with Russia, Europe, and the Arab states. Israel always does that, but with American leadership now discounted, those direct relationships are more important. Perhaps Israel and France can toughen the Western negotiating position on Iran, or Israel and Egypt can work together to weaken Hamas in Gaza, or Israel and the Gulf Arab states can talk together about how to handle conflicts with Iran. Right now it is likely that Israeli-Egyptian, Israeli-Jordanian, and perhaps Israeli-Gulf state conversations are especially candid in reviewing shared challenges—not the least of which is dependence on a power that appears to be choosing to diminish its influence in the region.
There is another, harsher lesson from the developments in Syria. One-hundred-thousand Arabs, mostly Sunni, have been killed there and millions driven from their homes, in a world where the Arab League has 22 member states, the Islamic Conference has 57, and there are in the world perhaps two billion Muslims. No one saved those Sunni, Arab, Muslim Syrians, and no one is doing much now to prevent additional killing; the reactions of their co-religionists and fellow Arabs have ranged from ineffective to uninterested. Christian communities have for years been threatened and attacked in Iraq, Lebanon, and most recently Syria and Egypt with little reaction from the world’s two billion Christians. Who would intervene to protect the Jews should they ever be in a similar situation?
Israelis know this; their view of their neighborhood was (controversially, to be sure) summed up by Ehud Barak in 2006 when he called Israel “a villa in the jungle.” Israelis don’t believe they survive because they are a democracy or a “startup nation” but because they are strong—and willing to use their strength, as they proved yet again in multiple attacks in Syria in the last two years. Their national experience as Israelis parallels their history as Jews: The strong survive, and the weak may well perish. And when the weak are attacked, there are some excellent speeches made but precious little help is forthcoming.
So the fate of Syria’s dead and its millions of refugees is but confirmation that Israel must in the end be able and willing to defend itself, by itself. On September 11, Prime Minister Netanyahu quoted the sage Hillel at an Israeli Navy graduation ceremony: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” He then added that this saying “is more relevant than ever these days in guiding me, in my key actions as prime minister” and said the meaning “is that Israel will always be able to protect itself, and will protect itself, with its own forces, against all threats.”
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.