Oren: Israel’s only Syria ‘ask’ is to vet rebels

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israel’s only request of the United States during the Syrian crisis is that should it arm rebels, it carefully vet which factions receive its weapons.

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“All we are saying is that the rebels should be very carefully vetted,” Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said Monday in an interview with Jewish media timed for Israel’s Remembrance Day and Independence Day.

Israel, like the United States, favors the removal of the Assad regime, but is concerned about the empowerment of rebel factions aligned with al Qaida.

Otherwise, Oren said, “we are not pressuring the United States to adopt any policies.” Oren said U.S.-Israel cooperation is close, especially in the wake of President Obama’s visit to Israel last month.

He said both countries were watching the political and economic instability in Egypt closely, and that Israel continued to support U.S. assistance to that country.

“Israel shares America’s interest in a stable and economically viable Egypt, Oren said.

The ambassador volunteered the statement, which is notable because a number of conservative and Republican voices have called for cuts in assistance to Egypt, saying it is no longer a reliable partner because of its Muslim Brotherhood leadership.

Israel appreciated Egypt’s role last year in brokering an end to the Gaza Strip war with Hamas, he said, and noted that overall Egypt continues to abide by the 1979 Camp David peace treaty, although Israel would like to see greater vigilance along the Sinai border, particularly in stopping arms smuggling into Gaza.

“We have no illusions about the Muslim Brotherhood, but we prefer to focus on what Egypt says, not what it does,” he said.

As long as Egypt is fulfilling the terms of the treaty, the terms of the treaty should be fulfilled.”

Egypt receives close to $2 billion in U.S. assistance annually, most of it defense assistance, as a result of the peace treaty.

Addressing Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, Oren said Israel continued to advocate for enhanced sanctions and the introduction of a “credible military threat” as the likeliest path to extracting greater transparency from Iran.

Currently, Oren said, sanctions were having an effect on Iran’s economy but not on the nuclear program, which he said was continuing apace.

The governments of President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued to press for the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, but the Palestinian Authority is blocking this by refusing to drop preconditions such as a settlement freeze, Oren said.

He said Israel “regretted” the resignation this week of P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a moderate technocrat who recently had clashed with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas.

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Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief.

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