Analysis from Israel

Is the Obama administration trying to start a war between Israel and Syria? Because intentionally or not, it’s certainly doing its darnedest to provoke one.

This weekend, three anonymous American officials told CNN that Israel was behind an explosion in the Syrian port of Latakia on July 5. The explosion, they said, resulted from an airstrike targeting Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship missiles. If this report is true, this is the second time U.S. officials have blown Israel’s cover in Syria: They also told the media that a mysterious explosion in Syria this April was Israel’s work, even as Israel was scrupulously keeping mum–just as it did about the Latakia incident.

This isn’t a minor issue, as anyone who knows anything about the Middle East knows: In a region where preserving face is considered crucial, publicly humiliating Syrian President Bashar Assad is the surest way to make him feel he has no choice but to respond, even though war with Israel is the last thing he needs while embroiled in a civil war at home.

This truth was amply demonstrated in April, after three airstrikes attributed to Israel hit Syria within a few weeks. After the first two, Israel kept mum while Assad blamed the rebels; face was preserved, and everyone was happy. But then, the Obama administration told the media that Israel was behind the second strike–and when the third strike hit two days later, Assad could no longer ignore it: He vociferously threatened retaliation should Israel dare strike again.

The Latakia attack also initially adhered to Israel’s time-tested method for avoiding retaliation: Israel kept mum, Assad blamed the rebels, face was preserved, and everyone was happy. But the Obama administration apparently couldn’t stand it–and a week later, it once again leaked claims of Israeli responsibility to the media.

At best, this means the administration simply didn’t understand the potential consequences, demonstrating an appalling ignorance of Middle East realities. A worse possibility is that it deliberately placed its own political advantage above the safety of Israeli citizens: Facing increasing criticism for its inaction in Syria, but reluctant to significantly increase its own involvement and unable even to secure congressional approval for the limited steps it has approved, perhaps it hoped revealing that at least an American ally was doing something would ease the political heat–even at the cost of provoking a Syrian retaliation that claims Israeli lives.

The worst possibility of all, however, is that the administration knows exactly what it’s doing, and is deliberately trying to spark an Israeli-Syrian war as a way out of its own dilemma: It wants Assad gone, but doesn’t want to do the work itself. Starting an Israeli-Syrian war would force Israel to destroy Assad’s air force, thereby greatly increasing the chances of a rebel victory.

Whatever the truth, these leaks damage American as well as Israeli interests, because one of Washington’s consistent demands of its ally is that Israel not surprise it with military action. Hitherto, Israel has honored that request: Though it doesn’t seek America’s permission for action it deems essential, it does scrupulously provide advance notice. But if Obama administration officials can’t be trusted to keep their mouths shut, Israel will have to rethink this policy: It can’t risk getting embroiled in a war with Syria just to ease Obama’s political problems.

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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