Amid Syria's turmoil, Israel sees Assad as the lesser evil
While Syria's 40-year Assad regime has fought multiple conflicts with Israel, it has also been a stable neighbor – making Israelis uneasy about the prospects of Islamists gaining power next door.
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To be sure, Syria provides support for Hezbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border, and for Hamas on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip. Both groups have fired rockets into Israel.Skip to next paragraph
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Assad allows Iranian weapons to cross Syria’s border with Lebanon to Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006 and has since rearmed. Syria also provides a headquarters of Hamas, which fought a three-week war with Israel two years ago. In previous years, Israeli military exercises in the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 war, have escalated fear about an outbreak of war. And in 2007, Israel bombed a site in Syria believed to be the location of a nuclear reaction in construction.
But Syria’s authoritarian regime has honored the cease-fire lines separating the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. As a result, those lines have been Israel’s most quiet border over the past three decades.
Indeed, on a recent visit to the Golan Heights during the demonstrations, the border region was calm. An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment whether the turmoil in Syria had prompted the army to change its deployment – a move that could spike tension between the countries.
Why Israeli officials are quiet on Syrian turmoil
While Western countries have condemned the regime’s repression of protests, Israel’s government has maintained a studied silence for fear that Damascus may seize on the comments to recast the unrest as Israeli meddling in domestic affairs. Mr. Kara, the legislator, is one of the few officials to speak out on the issue.
Officials have also expressed worry if Assad’s regime, in a fit of desperation to cling to power, would foment a limited border conflict with Israel to distract attention from the domestic unrest.
"We don’t want to be seen as part of the story. There are elements on both sides that could use any sort of Israeli involvement to accuse the other side," said an Israeli official, explaining the silence from the government. "We are close to the ground, and we could easily get pulled into this. We have to be more sensitive than other countries [in commenting on the violence] … We are not exactly surprised by what Assad is doing. We knew what kind of a regime this was."
Why peace proponents are becoming more cautious
Kara, a Druze Arab, says he has been trying to help Syrian opposition leaders in Europe open a channel of negotiations on reform with representatives of the Assad regime in order to dampen the turmoil. A gradual process of reform under the current government is preferable to continuing unrest which could empower Islamists from the country’s Sunni majority, who he says are radicals.
But the protests have prompted former proponents of peace talks to reconsider. For years, some Israelis have argued that an accord to return the Golan Heights to Syria would break Iran’s influence and would be less complicated than a deal with the Palestinians.
But, with Assad’s legitimacy in question, the thinking goes, Israel should be more cautious about taking security risks. Indeed, if Israel had already negotiated peace with Assad, the turmoil would have put that deal at risk.
"At the moment, Israel's 'Syrian option' will be shelved," wrote Itamar Rabinovitch, an Israeli expert on Syria and a former negotiator, in the daily Yediot Ahronot. "There is no sense in making a deal like that with a regime whose stability is strongly in question."
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