Cheer Up, Obama. Israel Is Happy With Your Syria Plan

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Alex Wong / Corbis

U.S. President Barack Obama leaves after meeting with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10, 2013.

Whatever is being said elsewhere about U.S. President Barack Obama’s performance in the Syria crisis, the verdict from Israel can be read in the morning papers: “Wise”… “Credible” ….“An American victory.” The American leader who for the first four years of his presidency could never quite win the trust of the Israeli public now is being hailed as a model of principled resolve, a Churchillian figure whose insistent threat of force — an Israeli specialty — extracted a promise to remove weapons of mass destruction from one border, and in terms that will not be lost on an Iranian regime suspected of harboring an even larger threat in its nuclear program.

The verdict is not unanimous. Obama still has harsh critics among the right-wing of the Hebrew press, which focused on the president’s “vacillating,” as columnist Boaz Bismuth says in Israel Hayom, the free tabloid owned by gaming billionaire Sheldon Adelson. But even that column withheld final judgment on the fast-moving events of the previous 24 hours, which for Jewish Israelis ended satisfyingly.

“When President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to present his doctrine for US foreign policy, he coined the phrase: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick,'” Orly Azulai writes in Yedioth Ahoronth, Israel’s largest paid daily. “Obama refined this strategy: He talked tough to Syria, and instead of a stick, he held a cast iron sledgehammer.”

The commentary was headlined: ‘Smart Victory.’  “The US president showed how a great democracy operates when it is at its best: taking calculated steps, it achieves a diplomatic solution by means of a military threat, without firing a single shot,” Azulai writes. “He used the power in his hand wisely.”

Rather than focusing on what Obama could not do — line up anywhere near a Congressional majority for a military strike — Israelis focused on what he did: Use the consistent threat of military force to extract a promise from Syria and its most powerful patron, Russia, to remove tons of chemical weapons from Israel’s northern border.

“In order to use chemical weapons on his own citizens or against Israel, Assad doesn’t need all 1,000 tons of chemical warfare he has. He could do with 1% of that amount,” Ron Ben-Yishai writes on the leading news site

Serious or not, the Russian initiative is an achievement to the Obama administration. It’s clear that his determination to receive legitimacy for a punitive measure against Syria is what pushed the Russians and their Syrian clients to the corner, making them seek a diplomatic solution that would please Americans.

If the Russian initiative comes through, it will stop Assad from using chemical weapons in the future, and make an American strike, which the public, Congress and Obama himself don’t want, useless. Another achievement would be a clear signal to Iran. Obama walked on the edge, Putin had to blink, and the Middle East countries saw that the threat works….They should be pleased in Jerusalem — it’s been proven that a reliable American option holds deterrence.

Israelis had been disappointed — even shaken — by Obama’s Rose Garden announcement ten days earlier, when rather than announcing cruise missile strikes on Assad’s forces as punishment for using chemical weapons, the President said he was going to Congress for an endorsement. “I come back to the Iranian issue,” former Israeli diplomat Oded Eran told TIME on Sunday, before the Russian compromise surfaced. “It could be wishful thinking on behalf of the Israeli leadership, that one cannot draw a lesson from what happens now in Syria to the Iranian nuclear project. But I will not deny that there is some concern there.”

In fact, Obama’s Rose Garden hesitation played to a deep conviction among Israelis that no other country can be relied upon to protect Israel: “We are on our own” is the common expression, uttered with a mixture of fatalism and resolve that stands at the core of Israel’s defense doctrine, a hit-the-enemy-hard-and-first policy summed up in one word: “Deterrence.” So it was doubly satisfying that, however the American President zigged and zagged over the previous fortnight, his stubborn threat of military force was what evidently pried the eleventh hour diplomatic solution from Moscow and Damascus.

“Although it managed the crisis in a clumsy, haphazard way, without any American interests at stake, [Washington] projected credibility in its threat to use military force against Syria, and achieved an effect of deterrence,” Alon Pinkas writes in Yedioth. “Otherwise, Russia would not have bothered to propose its plan a moment before the vote in the US Congress.”

In Haaretz, the most prestigious Israeli daily, Aner Shelev saw it the same way. Obama spoke the lingua franca of a region that, as Israelis like to say, sadly understands only one thing: “U.S. acceptance of the Russian proposal would at first glance undermine America’s credibility and standing in the world, since its threats of war would be revealed as empty. But in reality, implementation of this proposal would be an American victory. Had it not issued a real military threat and stationed forces off the coast of Syria, it’s inconceivable the Syrians would have agreed to give up their doomsday weapons — about 1,000 tons of poison gas that could inflict disaster on the entire region and that can’t be destroyed by an aerial assault.”

“If the precedent of a genuine military threat leading to an agreed neutralizing unconventional weapons works in Syria, there’s a good chance it will also work in Iran,” Shalev adds. “A credible threat to attack could well lead to Iran’s nuclear disarmament without a single shot being fired. And that, rather than a bloody war, would be Obama’s greatest victory.”