Israel regarded former US president Barack Obama’s decision to wait for a Congressional vote before launching air strikes in Syria with great concern, former ambassador to the US Michael Oren said on Tuesday, disputing the version of events written by Ben Rhodes, a former senior aide to Obama.
In 2013, Obama sought to attack Syrian President Bashar Assad’s positions in response to his use of chemical weapons against civilians, but he asked Congress to vote on it first, delaying the strikes – which in the end were never carried out.
Rhodes, then Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, wrote in his new book that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among several world leaders Obama called to update them on his decision to wait for a vote. In an excerpt published by The Atlantic, Rhodes relates that Netanyahu told Obama that “your decision was right, and history will be kinder than public opinion.”
But Oren, now Deputy Minister for Diplomacy, said that while he was not on the phone with Netanyahu and Obama during that conversation, what Rhodes wrote does not reflect Israel’s position at the time.
“People say all kinds of things on the phone,” he said. “We were very concerned. No one will tell you we thought it was a good move.”
In fact, Oren said, he was so shocked by Obama’s decision, that he cut himself while shaving when he heard about it.
“We were surprised and concerned,” he recalled, a primary concern being Israel’s “ability to defend ourselves from chemical weapons. If America isn’t responding, does that mean we shouldn’t respond?”
Oren said he spent much of that week trying to convince the White House to add a line about Israel’s right to defend itself into a speech Obama was planning to give on the situation with Syria.
The former ambassador said that he had “thought that maybe Congress would understand” Israel’s position, but the negative reaction was “overwhelming. I don’t know if Obama anticipated that.”
Oren also lamented the “theater of the absurd” of the Obama administration’s attempts to convince Congress to approve the attacks, citing then-secretary of state John Kerry telling Congress “it’ll be so small you can’t imagine, a pinprick.
“It’s silly. That’s not how you want a superpower to act if you’re its ally,” Oren said.