Israel’s Peres Skeptical Syria Would Give Up Chemical Stocks

Israel’s President Shimon Peres said he was skeptical the Syrian government could be trusted to surrender its chemical weapons under a Russian-backed proposal to avert a U.S. military strike.

“I’m not sure the world will trust the Syrians as a real partner,” Peres told Israeli journalists at an event Channel 2 TV broadcast late yesterday. “There will be tough negotiations, because at least one partner is not trustworthy and their acceptance means very little.”

Russia said yesterday it had urged its Syrian allies to give up their chemical weapons arsenal to avoid a U.S.-led assault over an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack the Obama administration blames on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Syria denies culpability and has blamed the attack on rebels fighting to topple Assad.

Israeli markets gained after the Russian proposal. The TA-25 benchmark stock index was up 1.7 percent to 1,199.56 at 2:25 p.m. in Tel Aviv, its highest intraday gain since March 10. The shekel, trading at 3.6011 to the dollar, headed for its highest settlement basis since Aug. 23. The yield on the benchmark 4.25 percent 2023 bonds was down 1 basis point at 4.05 percent, the lowest in a week.

Fears Spillover

While not a party to the Syrian fighting, which the United Nations estimates has killed more than 100,000 people, neighboring Israel has feared spillover could draw it in.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top cabinet ministers have maintained a strict silence about both threatened U.S. military action against Syria and the Russian proposal. Instead, they have spoken repeatedly of Israel’s ability to defend itself against possible retaliation following any military action in Syria.

Israel, which has warred three times with Syria and maintains control of Golan Heights territory it captured from it in 1967, would be a potential target for retribution if the U.S. were to attack Syria. Another Syrian ally, Iran, has warned of such a scenario.

On his Facebook page yesterday, the chairman of the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, warned the Syrians not to attack Israel or transfer chemical weapons to their militant allies in Lebanon, the anti-Israel Hezbollah.

Toppling Assad

“Israel will respond in the harshest possible manner, even to the point of toppling” the Assad government, Liberman said, while adding that “Israel’s paramount interest is to remain outside the conflict.”

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon also said, in an e-mailed statement yesterday, that anyone who would drag Israel into the Syrian conflict will draw a “harsh” response and pay a “heavy” price.

The Russian-supported proposal came as U.S. President Barack Obama, facing an American public weary after more than a decade of overseas wars, is struggling to muster congressional support for what he has said would be limited action in Syria.

He told ABC News a strike would “absolutely” be put on hold if Syria were to abandon its chemical weapons. In a separate interview with NBC TV, he called the Russian proposal a “positive development” that must be viewed skeptically.

‘Fantastic Precedent’

Some in Israel see the U.S. response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons as a litmus test of its resolve to keep Iran, the Jewish state’s fiercest enemy, from developing a nuclear weapon. Housing Minister Uri Ariel, defying Netanyahu’s order to avoid commenting on U.S. policy on Syria, has said failure to act immediately undermined confidence in Obama’s declared intolerance for a nuclear Iran.

The Russian-backed proposal could change that calculus, by opening the door for a resolution on Iran, said Cameron Brown, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“It sets a fantastic precedent on Iran,” Brown said. “That’s the next place people will say, ‘Hey, Russia, you’re a big player, let’s see you work your magic.”

Such a deal might also allow Obama to avert the possibility of congressional defeat, he said.

That outcome “would have sent a signal that maybe they wouldn’t take care of Iran if Iran decides to cross the line,” Brown said.

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