WASHINGTON -- President Obama’s strategy for winning congressional support for military strikes on Syria relies on two of lawmakers’ most powerful impulses: to challenge Iran and to protect Israel.
Although Congress is deeply divided on the wisdom of Obama’s planned cruise missile campaign, members are generally united in not wanting to send a signal to Iran that the United States won’t stop it from building a nuclear bomb. And they understand that Israel, while silent on the issue of the strikes, is looking to Washington to help shield it from regional spillover from the Syrian civil war.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry played the Iran and Israel cards in his round of TV talk show appearances Sunday.
“Iran will read importantly what we decide to do with regard to the [chemical weapons] convention,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Likewise, Israel: Israel is at risk.”
He compared Syrian President Bashar Assad to Hitler, and said on Fox News that he couldn’t believe Congress “would turn its back on all that responsibility, and the fact that we would have granted impunity to a ruthless dictator who continues to gas his people.”
Administration officials are saying privately that a “no” vote would encourage Iran to charge ahead with its suspected bomb program and would make it harder for the United States to intervene later.
They acknowledge that a key factor in the debate of the next two weeks will be pro-Israel advocates who have leverage among House Republicans who could hold the key to the vote.
Conservative Christians, who are passionate defenders of Israel, can be expected to weigh in with House Republicans from the South and West, a House Republican aide said. “They’re tuned in to all of this,” said the aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly under office rules.
The strength of sentiment against Iran has been clear over the last decade, as lopsided bipartisan majorities have voted in favor of tough Iran sanctions, sometimes against the wishes of the administration. Congress has set aside arguments that the sanctions would hurt ordinary Iranians while leaving the elites untouched.
Some anti-war Republicans are arguing that strikes could put Israel more at risk by encouraging Syria and the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah, Syria’s ally, to launch retaliatory strikes on the Jewish state. But many analysts there doubt Syria or Hezbollah would want to tempt Israel’s powerful military to intervene and make the war even more difficult for them.
The issue is a sensitive one for Israel, because it doesn’t want to be seen as urging that U.S. troops be put in harm’s way for Israel’s protection. For that reason, the Israeli government can be expected to keep a low profile, and pro-Israel groups probably will want to avoid too prominent a role on the issue, said an official of one such group, who declined to be identified because his organization hasn’t taken a public position.
Michael Hertzog of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote in an analysis that “while Israel is taking care not to appear involved in the crisis, it quietly expects Washington to take meaningful action.... Israelis believe that U.S. credibility among local and international actors is at stake, especially in Iran. Erosion of American deterrence would be bad for Israel as well as Washington.”
The White House can probably rely on help from some lawmakers who have been supportive of Israel, such as Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the foreign affairs committee.