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.”