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 proves exceptional, once again

In January 2017, the Ipsos Mori research company published a shocking poll headlined “Six in ten around the world think their society is ‘broken.’ ” Out of 23 countries surveyed—13 Western democracies and 10 non-Western democracies, most with relatively strong economies—only in six did a majority of respondents disagree with that statement.

Moreover, almost four in 10 respondents agreed another troubling claim: “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country.” Though the proportion topped 50 percent in only two countries, it exceeded a third in all but three.

Pollsters then asked several questions designed to elaborate on those general sentiments—some exploring trust in national institutions and others exploring attitudes toward immigration. Their theory was that low trust in institutions would correlate to high levels of belief that society was broken, while negative attitudes toward immigrants would correlate to high levels of feeling like a stranger in one’s own country. And there was, in fact, some correlation, albeit not perfect. Notably, countries with both high trust in institutions and low concern about immigration had among the fewest respondents saying either that society was broken or that they felt like strangers in their own land.

And then there was the one glaring exception: Israel.

A majority of Israeli respondents voiced little or no confidence in all seven categories of institutions—international institutions, banks, the justice system, big companies, the media, the government and political parties. In five of the seven categories, more than 70 percent did so. Israel was among the top 10 most distrustful countries in all but one category; in most, it was in the top six.

Yet when it came to the summary question of whether society was broken, Israel suddenly plummeted to the bottom of the negativity rankings, with only 32 percent of Israelis agreeing (Japan and India, at 31 percent and 32 percent, respectively, were in a statistical tie with Israel for the bottom slot).

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