No nation has a more vital interest in understanding Syrian President Hafez Assad than does Israel. For 20 years, a core of Israeli intelligence officers, military strategists, academics, Foreign Ministry analysts, and politicians have made it their business to know as much as possible about Mr. Assad, leader of the nation that Israel regards as its most formidable and implacable enemy.
Israeli analysts can discourse convincingly on seemingly mundane facts about Assad's family and village background as well as on his commitment to the socialist Baathist ideology.They know that, though he believes in the long run Israel cannot continue to exist as a Jewish state in the mostly Muslim Middle East, he is capable of making and keeping agreements with Israel.
Yet recent Syrian actions caught even the most experienced Assad watchers here by surprise, and made them question some of their basic premises about the man.
``It has been a reminder that once I've made the most logical analysis of the data about Assad, then drawn conclusions about how he will act, I then have to throw the computer into reverse,'' a senior government analyst says.
Most unsettling, Assad-watchers interviewed say, is what Israel alleges was Syria's involvement in the attempted bombing of an El Al passenger plane at Heathrow Airport in April. Assad has repeatedly denied involvement in the affair and condemned terrorism. The United States has said it has no conclusive proof of Syrian involvement in the affair. But the Israelis insist that their evidence clearly implicates Syria.
There is a consensus among analysts here that had the bombing attempt been successful, Israel would have retaliated militarily against Syria. Against a backdrop of Syria's military buildup and Israel's shooting down last November of two Syrian fighter planes over Syrian territory and the forcing down of a Libyan jet carrying Syrian officials, the incident could well have resulted in war, these analysts say.
Those interviewed for this article agree that an Assad-ordered attack on an Israeli passenger plane was a move entirely out of character for the man they have come to know as a pragmatic, cautious foe.
What analysts here are asking is whether Assad wants a war now, or whether the bombing incident suggests that he is less fully in control of his government and security apparatus than in the past. Finding the correct answers to those questions is considered a vitally urgent task.
``I find it extremely hard to believe that Assad didn't know about the plan to blow up the El Al plane,'' a senior military source says. ``They were about to kill 400 people. That places the question in front of us -- are we facing a turning point in Assad's behavior?''
There is a consensus among Israeli politicians, academics, and military analysts that for Assad, the vital question is not whether to go to war with Israel, but when.
``Assad is truly ideologically committed to the struggle against Israel,'' says Moshe Maoz, a Syria specialist at Hebrew University. ``He wants to build enough military strength to defend Syria, to deter an Israeli attack, and eventually to attack Israel. . . . He believes deeply that Israel is a danger to the rest of the Arab world. . . .''
Maoz and other Israeli analysts glean their information about Assad from a variety of sources. All those interviewed say they rely heavily on Assad's speeches for clues to his thinking.
``He doesn't speak all that often,'' one analyst says. ``And when he does, he means what he says.''
Analysts also avidly read Arabic newspapers -- both official Syrian publications and the much freer, and more critical, Lebanese and Kuwaiti press.
Israelis have had a long time to develop their picture of Assad, who has ruled for 16 years after seizing power in 1970. Maoz dismisses as unlikely recent rumors that Assad's grip might be slipping. The rumors were sparked by recent bomb blasts in Syria that claimed more than 100 lives. ``As long as he is alive, there is no danger to his regime. He is so shrewd and so careful. . . .'' says Maoz, who, along with other analysts believe it would benefit Israel if Assad were overthrown.
``The advantages to Israel of Assad's disappearance are clear,'' says Itamar Rabinovitch of Tel Aviv University. ``Given the complicated choice between an unstable Syria or a Syria led by an Assad ready to go to war -- I would pick the first.''
Dr. Rabinovitch says Assad's ``leadership qualities have been overstated by [former US Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger and others who said he was the toughest, most astute bargainer, most sophisticated leader in the Arab world. He is a very clever man, one of whose most prominent characteristics is patience. Others are in a hurry and he is not. It is a great advantage for him.''