Israelis worry about U.S.-Syria amid missile test

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JERUSALEM — Israel's test Tuesday of an anti-missile system with the United States shows the two are together on military preparedness but not necessarily in sync on current threats in the Middle East, analysts say.
Israel is worried about the strength of President Obama's commitment to the Jewish state and whether the United States is ready for the risk of a regional war if it decides to strike Syria.
Mordechai Kedar, previously of the Israel Defense Force's military intelligence wing, said the test was likely carried out "to signal to the Syrians that everybody knows what Syria is doing, and that the regime could pay a very high price" for these atrocities.
The development comes amid heightened tensions in the region as Congress prepares to hold a vote on whether the U.S. should take military action in Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Britain voted Thursday not to join a military operation against Assad. French President Francois Hollande said he's waiting for a decision from the United States.
Israelis are preoccupied with whether the U.S. will strike Syria not only because the Syrians are threatening to retaliate against Israel. They are equally if not more worried that a mild U.S. rebuke of Syria would embolden Iran, which Israeli intelligence agencies say is developing a nuclear weapons program and whose Muslim clerical leaders have vowed to destroy Israel.
The latest Peace Index poll by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University found that 46% of Jewish Israelis and 40% of Arab Israelis think Assad will attack Israel in the event of a U.S. strike.
The same poll found that 54% of Jews think a U.S. attack will strengthen America's status in the Middle East. Arab Israelis are less certain: Only 26% believe its status will be strengthened.
Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of al Arabiya television, said Obama's policies in the Middle East are not attracting support from Arab leaders because the president is not addressing regional issues like Egypt.
"Everybody's crying out for American leadership — the Turks, the Arabs, and the Europeans. And given the weaknesses of the Europeans, given the vote in the British Parliament, given the fact that NATO ally Turkey is unable to lead — everyone is looking for the United States to lead, and there is no leadership," Melhem said. "The United States is AWOL."
Yaron London, a popular host of a news program, warned that "indecisiveness on Syria tells Israel its assurances regarding Iranian threat cannot be counted on," according to Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth.
Recalling President Obama's long-standing vows to stop Iran's nuclear program before it reaches "the red line" of nuclear weapons capability, London asked, "Can we count on the White House's decisive statement assuring us that Iran will not obtain nuclear weapons? The period at the end of this firm statement is suspiciously similar to the red line Obama set for Syria just a year ago,"
Israel's main concern is that the American president "has drawn red lines, and if he doesn't act, he will lose credibility in Tehran," said Shmuel Sandler, a professor of international politics at the BESA Center at Bar-Ilan University.
Sandler said most Israelis want the U.S. administration to make a precision strike — ideally by targeting weapons depots — but not necessarily to remove Assad from power, creating a power vacuum.
Nor do Israelis want to see the U.S. once again fighting a long, costly war in the Middle East.
Israel "is fearful the American public will blame Israel if the U.S. gets stuck in a protracted war," Sandler said. "It is trying to stay uninvolved."
Yet the alliance between the two countries was on display Tuesday when Russia detected the missile test in the Mediterranean. Israel's Defense Ministry said in a statement that the test of its "new version of the Sparrow target missile" was "successful."
Pentagon press secretary George Little said the test was "long planned to help evaluate the Arrow Ballistic Missile Defense system's ability to detect, track and communicate information about a simulated threat to Israel."
The Arrow anti-missile system, which was developed by the Israeli firm Rafael, detects and tracks a Sparrow target missile in such tests. The Pentagon statement described the U.S. role in the test as providing "technical assistance and support" to Israel and "had nothing to do with United States consideration of military action to respond to Syria's chemical weapons attack."
"There is no doubt that this was a warning shot," Kedar said. "There is more military and intelligence cooperation and coordination between the U.S. and Israel than ever before."
Martin van Creveld, a military history expert from the Hebrew University, said that the U.S. is paying two-thirds of the Arrow Missile program and that today's missile was part of that program.
"These tests are planned long in advance and I don't think anyone was deliberately trying to do anything specific to Syria. It was discovered by Russians, who alerted the world," and Israel had to explain it.
Yet van Creveld said he believes the recent display of military cooperation will not extend to action against Iran.
"America doesn't want Israel to join a military operation against Iran. It would only complicate things politically. In terms of intelligence, there is probably much closer cooperation," he said.
"However, Israel must prepare for the possibility that the war in Syria will expand and Syrian missiles will be launched at Israel as happened in 1991, during the Persian Gulf War."
It is likely, van Creveld said, that the United States is only helping Israel prepare for such an attack by shoring up Israel's "defensive weaponry."
Contributing: Hjelmgaard from London; Jim Michaels in Washington
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