Israel in a quandary over turmoil in Syria

April 22, 2011

In a recent interview, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was asked bluntly whether it was in his country’s interest to see the downfall of the government of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, now rocked by protests.

“Any answer I’ll give you wouldn’t be a good one,” Netanyahu replied cautiously, in remarks broadcast exclusively on YouTube by Israel’s Channel 2 television. “We’d like to see everywhere, including in Syria, genuine reforms for democracy, genuine emergence of democracy. That’s no threat to any of us.”

The vague response belied the close attention Israel is paying to the unrest across Syria and the concerns raised by officials and experts here about what the possible outcomes could mean for relations between the two countries.

Syria has long been a bitter enemy of Israel’s, a key player in a regional alliance with Iran, a backer of the militant Hezbollah group in Lebanon and host to the political leadership of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. Yet it has also been a reliable foe, keeping its cease-fire lines with Israel quiet for decades through periods of war and confrontation in Lebanon and Gaza, and it has participated in U.S.-mediated peace talks.

A power shift in Damascus could alter those dynamics. But there is no clear sense in Israel of where that might lead, and there are a range of views here on the most preferable scenario. Experts speculate that Syria could dissolve into anarchy and civil war, Libya-style, or that a new authoritarian leadership could emerge, backed by the army and security forces, or a government dominated by the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

“There is a genuine absence of any official comment as to what Israel’s position or desires are, because nobody can really make such a statement or has the data required to make a considered judgement,” said Efraim Halevy, a former chief of the Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, and currently head of the Shasha Center for Strategic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Yet some emphatic voices are being heard.

“We prefer the devil we know,” said Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister, referring to Assad. “Although the Islamist forces are not the majority in the opposition, they are better organized and politically competent. And if we fantasize today that one day we’ll be able to take the secular regime in Syria outside the Iranian orbit, it may be more difficult, if not impossible, if the regime is an Islamist one.”

Dore Gold, a former foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu who heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, also emphasized the importance to Israel of monitoring “who the opposition is” in Syria to see whether “what looks like a sincere desire for freedom ends up being hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“Israel views a lot of the current developments through the prism of the Iranian threat,” Gold added. “It would be unfortunate if Iran becomes the beneficiary of the developments across the Middle East. Iran could face a tremendous strategic loss if the Syrian regime falls and is replaced by a more Western-oriented leadership.”

Shlomo Brom of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University said Israel’s calculations were more complex than that.

“On the one hand,” he said, “Assad has maintained stability. He has kept the border with Israel quiet, and though he has harassed Israel by assisting Hezbollah and Hamas, he reacted cautiously to events such as the bombing of a Syrian nuclear facility that was attributed to Israel. For Israel, he is a known quantity. On the other hand, there is no sympathy for Assad and his links with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, and any regime change in Syria will hurt this axis.”

A separate issue is the impasse between Israel and Syria over the occupied Golan Heights, a strategic plateau seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. Attempts to restart peace talks have foundered over Syria’s insistence that Israel commit in advance to withdrawing from the territory, a move Israel has rejected.

“On the bilateral front, it makes no difference who will be in power in Syria,” said Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry who heads a group advocating Israeli-Syrian peace. “No possible successor to Assad will give the Golan to Israel as a gift.”

Gold, the former Netanyahu adviser, said that given the current turmoil, “you don’t know if you have a partner willing to come to terms,” and that in considering its moves, Israel “will have to err on the side of caution given the total uncertainty it faces, from the Turkish border down to the Suez Canal.”

Still, a change of leadership in Syria or a weakened Assad regime could present opportunities that the United States and Israel should explore when the dust settles, according to Uri Sagi, a former chief of military intelligence who headed the Israeli negotiating team in talks with the Syrians from 1999 to 2000.

“I would suggest that the Americans take advantage of this crisis in order to change the balance here, namely to get the Syrians out of their intimate relationship with Hezbollah on the one hand and the Iranians on the other,” Sagi said.

That could be done, Sagi said, by “making the Syrians an offer they can’t refuse” of economic and political support that would shore up the stability of the regime in return for realigning its policies.

What’s more, he added, it does not appear that the Muslim Brotherhood is driving the current protests or that it would emerge as a dominant force among a population that on the whole is not religiously radicalized.

So “if I were a decision-maker here, I would look to take advantage of the opportunity,” Sagi said of the current unrest. “It is not necessarily bad for Israel.”

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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