What Israel really thinks about the Syrian uprising

For four decades, the border that Israel shares with its most vocal foe -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime -- has also been its quietest. But now, that seems to be changing.

A mortar shell fired from Syria hit an Israeli military post on on the Golan Heights on Sunday, prompting the Israel Defense Forces to fire a guided missile at the Syrian mortar crew responsible for the attack. On Monday, events repeated themselves -- a mortar shell fell on Israel-controlled territory, prompting the Israel Defense Forces to retaliate. The exchange of fire occurs at the same time as a fresh outbreak of violence to the south, where Gaza-based militants have fired over 120 rockets into Israel.

But one crisis at a time: The Israeli outlook toward the Syrian uprising, and its calculation in responding to cross-border violence, has been pretty ambiguous -- so I decided to call up someone who could shed some light on what's going on. Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, served as his country's chief negotiator with the Syrian regime in the mid-1990s -- during the more optimistic days of the Oslo peace process, when it seemed possible to hash out a conflict-ending agreement between the two longtime foes.

To hear Rabinovich tell it, Israel's policy toward the Syrian revolt would make Hamlet proud.  "The policy is very passive," he says. "When you don't have great choices, you don't really push hard for any of them...I would say it is ambivalent, with a slight preference to see [Assad] go than to see him stay."

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

 

Foreign Policy: How would a renewed confrontation along the Golan affect the Syrian uprising?

Itamar Rabinovich: I'd say Israel has very studiously refrained from intervening in this conflict, because it did not want to embarrass the opposition. Assad's line from Day One is that this is not a genuine domestic uprising, but a plot hatched by the U.S. and Israel -- and by doing anything that looks like helping the opposition, including humanitarian help, Israel would have embarrassed the opposition.

Clearly the Syrian army, in its present condition, is no match for the IDF. Israel could inflict significant punishment on them and in that way, let us say, help the rebels.  But what [the rebels] would gain militarily, they would lose politically. Which may be the regime's game.

FP: Do you think Israeli policymakers, in their heart of hearts, want the Syrian uprising to succeed? Or are they afraid of what comes after Assad?

IR: My argument is that there was ambivalence with regards to Bashar al-Assad -- we just found out recently that even Netanyahu indirectly negotiated with him in 2011, through the State Department. But after the 2006 war, following the damage that Israel sustained in Lebanon [at the hands of Assad's ally Hezbollah], and the discovery in 2007 of the North Korean nuclear reactor [in northeastern Syria], I think that changed Israeli attitudes.

In 2005, famously, when George W. Bush told Ariel Sharon that he would be very happy to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, Sharon said, "he's the devil we know." That was a clear articulation of a perspective that says: He's a devil, but the alternative may be some form of Islamist government.

I think that changed. Israel would like to see him go because it would be a blow to Iran. His staying on -- the anarchy becoming more expensive, more and more jihadist elements penetrating into Syria -- I think it's seen by Israel as a negative trend. Therefore, I think on balance, though not in an overwhelming way, Israel would prefer to see him go.

FP: Does Israel push for some sort of intervention to resolve the conflict, and therefore stem the chaos?

IR: I don't think Israel pushes for intervention. The policy is very passive. When you don't have great choices, you don't really push hard for any of them. If Israel was told that Assad was going to be replaced by a liberal, Westward-looking government, you know, it would be quite happy. But this is not a very likely scenario. The more likely scenario is instability, maybe fragmentation, maybe chaos, maybe Islamist takeover -there are lots of negative possibilities here. So I would say it is ambivalent, with a slight preference to see him go than to see him stay.

FP: As someone who has studied Syria for a long time, were you surprised to see this outbreak of popular unrest?

IR: You know, the problem with political prediction is this: You can say this is not tenable, this can't go on forever. But nobody could tell you that in December 2010 someone would sent themselves ablaze in Tunisia, and this would topple that regime and spread to Egypt, and so forth.

So we were aware - people wrote that you could expect this unrest to manifest somewhere. Jordan? Saudi Arabia? Even in Iran itself, in 2009, there was a very serious outburst that was very violently suppressed. In Iran, I can tell you [the current situation] is untenable - this is a civilized country with a sophisticated elite, where power has been hijacked by the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards. And at some point the population will rise in arms. When? I don't know.

Syria was the same thing. Here you had a corrupt, tyrannical regime dominated by a minority group - to lord over the rest of the population forever was untenable. But you know, it lasted 40 years. It could have lasted more, or it could break out suddenly.

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