Israeli officials laud US airstrike on Syria, discuss short-term regional impact

Israeli officials seemed more encouraged than ever by the retaliation airstrike in Syria carried out by the US on Friday, deeming it as an appropriate reaction marking a welcome change in US policy.

A man breathes through an oxygen mask as another one receives treatments, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man breathes through an oxygen mask as another one receives treatments, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli officials expressed on Sunday their vocal support of the US administration's rare decision on Friday to strike Syria's Shayrat airfield in retaliation for the Syrian regime's lethal chemical attack, which claimed the lives of dozens of civilians three days earlier.
However, the same officials were also quick to note that US President Donald Trump's somewhat surprising and encouraging decision to actively intervene in the escalating situation in Syria did not imply that a resolution has been reached in the conflict-worn country.
Transportation Minister Israel Katz (Likud) spoke to Israel Radio about the US airstrike on Syria, lauding it as a sign of welcome support from Israel's ally. "We should certainly congratulate the American move in Syria, it is of highly valuable strategic importance," the minister said. "This is a warning here to Assad not to cross red lines as well as a clear signal to [Iranian supreme lead Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei, Iran and their protegees such as [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nassrallah regarding the future."
Expanding on what he believes still serves as a prominent threat to Israel, Katz said: "We should not agree to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria because the great concern is that a new, northern front will be formed. Such a front will not only intensify and exacerbate the missile threat but will also force us to face a threat we have not had to deal with for close to 40 years now [an ongoing conflict with multiple Arab states, such as the military situation that preceded the Yom Kippur War in 1973]."
Katz also reacted to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's statement that came immediately following the American airstrike. Tillerson vowed that the US will act to significantly stabilize the situation in Syria after it takes on the front with ISIS in the region.
"This is a very important message for Israel. Israel was like an orphan in the political arena facing Syria. We did not have the backing of world powers," Katz said, adding that "and now this is going to change."
The minister stressed that Israel was under a moral obligation to aid the victims of the chemical attack in Syria, explaining that Israel still remembered that millions of its people perished in the gas chambers at the hands of the Nazi regime during World War II. "Immediately following the horrific chemical attack in Syria, I said that I see it as our duty as Jews and as Israelis to aid those injured in the attack and bring them into Israel to receive medical aid.''
Trump orders US military strikes on Assad airbase in Syria , April 7, 2017 (REUTERS)
Katz also said that he intended to promote this idea and that he hoped "that the the Israeli government and cabinet will make the decision to act to bring here at least elderly people and children who were injured in the attack as it is our commitment."
Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevi echoed Katz's sentiment that the US airstrike as well as comments from White House officials regarding the attack could be interpreted as clear signs of an emerging change in US policy, which would have direct impact on Israel.
"It's very important to take notice of all the official statements in the US about this. There's no doubt that President Trump was presented with a variety of options and he chose the easiest option that would also cause the least embarrassment and the least damage," Halevi said in an interview with Israel Radio on Sunday. 
"This is not some move made at a whim," Halevi continued. "This is a change of policy and a beginning of a new strategy.. it's also leaving a leeway for a dialogue with Russia."
"I think that if Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and others will not be too occupied [with the recent chain of events] then the Israeli government will know what to do. They already reacted appropriately by condemning the chemical attack and attributing it to the Assad regime," the former Mossad chief summarized in relation to the possible threat now emanating from the heated northern border.
But while Katz and Halevi both did not seem too concerned about the potential heightened security threat to Israel, former National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror on Friday presented a different viewpoint. "More than any place in the world, the decision makers in Iran are learning the reaction of the Americans, taking into account that if they don't behave, the military option is on the table, unlike the previous administration."
Nonetheless, in the meantime Israel will probably not be quick to take an active part in the military action in Syria and will presumably remain "on the sidelines," Amidror said. "We will stay on the sidelines, because our strategic decision was not to take part in this war," he concluded, maintaining a reserved tone like many in Israel following the tumultuous past week in the region.