Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office on April 28 in Jerusalem. (Sebastian Scheiner / Getty Images)
TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered military brass to refrain from public statements, maneuvering drills and other acts that send mixed signals to friends and foes alike about Israeli interest in intervening in the Syrian civil war raging beyond its northern border.
The stand-down directive aimed to contain regional anxieties triggered by last week’s surprise call-up of 1,000 reservists to the northern front and last month’s Israeli military intelligence assessment that Syria had crossed US President Barack Obama’s self-professed red line by repeated use of nerve gas.
Neither Netanyahu nor Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon were informed of the snap reserve call-up drill, which began on the morning of April 29 and included live-fire maneuvering by one reserve battalion before concluding in the late afternoon of April 30.
In response to queries, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman’s office said the exercise “was planned in advance as part of the IDF’s 2013 training schedule.” However, military sources acknowledged privately that due to geopolitical sensitivities, political leaders would receive advance notice of such future drills.
As for Israel’s assessment of chemical weapon use by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, military sources here said Brig. Gen. Itay Brun, research director of IDF military intelligence, had no intention of embarrassing Obama or further sparking the public debate now swirling in Washington.
In an April 23 address to a security conference of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Brun said, “Our assessment is that the [Assad] regime has used and is using chemical weapons. … Which chemical weapons? Probably sarin.”
Brun’s address was widely perceived — particularly by Republican detractors in Washington — as challenging the “red line” Obama cited in a March visit here regarding Syrian use of chemical weapons.
“Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer,” Obama told reporters at a March 20 press conference with Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
Speaking on condition of anonymity due to Netanyahu’s clampdown on the Syrian issue, political and security officials insist the Israeli government has no intention of intervening in the Syrian civil war and is not prodding Washington to act militarily in support of rebel forces.
Israeli policy, sources here maintain, remains focused on preventing el-Assad’s chemical arsenals, as well as advanced air defense systems, medium-range Scud-class missiles and Yakhont-class shore-sea missiles, from falling into the hands of Lebanese-based Hezbollah or other terror groups.
In a Knesset meeting April 29, Netanyahu told lawmakers his government was focused on two developing threats that pertain directly to Israel: “The first danger is attacks on our civilians and soldiers on the line of the Golan Heights. The second danger is the transfer or the fall of lethal weaponry into the hands of Hezbollah or other terrorist organizations.”
“Pay attention to what the prime minister said. Our red lines have been consistently clear for more than a year, and they do not pertain to Bashar’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, as heinous as that is,” an IDF officer told Defense News May 2.
He added, “The whole world has witnessed the slaughter of more than 70,000 in Syria, but when four people are killed from gas, suddenly the world rises up and demands action.”
But with Washington and key European nations now mulling options for military intervention in Syria, security sources here say the prospective arming of rebel forces must be coordinated with Israel.
“We want to be involved in the vetting process. We need to know which groups are candidates for military support and what specific capabilities are planned for transfer to those forces,” said another officer, a member of the IDF General Staff.
Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, IDF chief of staff, referred to Israel’s interest in cooperating with key players to contain proliferation and other dangers from the ongoing deterioration in Syria.
In an April 22 address to the same INSS conference, Gantz said, “The government of Israel has added value to contribute regarding the challenge of the future Syrian theater. … At the end of the day, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and the world has an interest in the same theater. As much as is possible, we should cooperate through the international community.”