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Case Analysis 15 July, 2012

The Development of the Israeli Position on the Syrian Revolution


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

Since the outbreak of the Arab revolutions, the Israeli authorities have adopted a stance of outright enmity and disapproval toward these movements, which have aimed to replace repressive, tyrannical regimes with democratic states that are respectful of citizens' rights and interested in social justice.[1] The long history of Israeli suspicion about any movement toward greater freedom and democracy in Arab countries, and/or toward greater Arab unity, is behind this position, expressed in numerous statements made by officials in the Israeli government, officials in the military-security establishment, and a number of "Arab affairs analysts" working in Israeli media; these statements have tended to cast doubt on the objectives and ideological underpinnings of the Arab revolutions[2].

The Israelis have come to the defense of the corrupt and tyrannical Arab regimes threatened by these revolts, in particular some of those they had taken to referring to as "moderate Arab states," namely Mubarak's Egypt and Ben Ali's Tunisia. The Israeli media and academic establishments had never hidden their admiration for the ability of those regimes to brutalize their peoples, and to project regime strength and permanence through the use of well-planned and executed ruthlessness. These states remained weak and unable to face the Israeli challenge, and were forced to acquiesce to Israeli policies in the region.

The Israelis have taken a keen interest in the Syrian popular uprising, which rapidly coalesced into a full-scale revolution, since its inception, though this is only natural as Syria is central to Israeli strategic planning. Recall that the two sides have fought numerous wars, and the Israelis continue to occupy part of Syria's territory, something the Syrians have not forgotten. It goes without saying that Syria is pivotal in the Arab Levant. It has close ties to Iran and Hezbollah, and to a number of Palestinian organizations, enhancing its ability to influence the course of events, especially in the Fertile Crescent.

Compared to the Israelis' position regarding the fall of Mubarak, their attitude toward the Syrian regime and its future was more complex. During the first year of the Syrian uprising, the Israeli authorities maintained official silence on the progress of the revolution and the fate of Bashar al-Assad's regime, adopting a policy of deliberate ambiguity. Once the Syrian Revolution had demonstrated its endurance and widespread appeal, however, the Israeli authorities were forced to toe a new line, for reasons to be examined in detail here.

The Israeli position regarding the possible downfall of Assad's regime has been subject to a number of different and, at times, contradictory pressures. To begin with, there are factors that would tend to make the Israelis prefer the ouster of the Syrian leadership, including the long-standing Syrian refusal to accept US-Israeli conditions for a peace deal, insisting instead that the Israelis should withdraw to the June 4, 1967 boundary as per United Nations Security Council resolutions. Then, there is the Syrian alliance with Iran, Hezbollah, and several Palestinian factions; this "axis" now forms an important bulwark against Israeli-American regional hegemony. Despite Syrian participation in the Arab-Israeli peace process since the Madrid Conference of 1991, the Israelis continue to view Syria as an enemy.

The Israelis can distinguish between those Arab states that have made peace with them - such as Jordan and Egypt, together with those that support the peace process option (e.g., Morocco, the Palestinian National Authority, Saudi Arabia, and some of the other Gulf states) - and those that have opposed the imposition of Israeli-American preconditions. The Israelis regard the downfall of the Syrian regime as the collapse of the Iranian-Syrian axis that currently limits their own influence in the region; its downfall would constitute a blow to Iran at a critical junction of its confrontation with Western powers and the Israelis over Iran's nuclear program. In addition, the collapse of the Syrian regime could herald the end of the Syrian alliance with Hezbollah, a change that would greatly reduce the Lebanese group's power.

Despite all of this, and while Israeli strategic thinking continues to view Syria as an enemy, Syria has remained a relatively calm front for the following reasons:

1) The Syrian regime has adhered to the ceasefire lines along the Golan Heights, stretching back to the disengagement agreement of 1974. Not a single shot has been fired in anger by the Syrian military against the Israelis in the Golan, despite the numerous campaigns waged by the Israelis against Lebanon and the Palestinian people, campaigns in which tens of thousands of innocent Lebanese and Palestinians have been victims. The Syrians' acquiescence in their fate was maintained despite the Israeli attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor near Deir al Zour in 2007; despite the assassination of General Mohammed Suleiman - an advisor to Bashar al-Assad - in Tartus in 2008; and despite the Israeli assassination, in the same year, of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus.[3]

2) The Syrian regime has ruthlessly and efficiently prevented the rise of any popular resistance movement in the Golan Heights.

3) At least since the Madrid Peace Conference, the Syrian regime has abandoned any hope of achieving strategic balance vis-à-vis the Israelis, concluding that only "peaceful means" will bring back the occupied Golan Heights, namely indirect negotiations with the Israelis.

4) The Syrian regime took part in a series of extensive negotiations, with US mediation, with the Israelis throughout the 1990s, followed by rounds in 2007 and 2008, with Turkish mediation. During these processes, the Syrians expressed their willingness to sign a peace treaty with their Israeli counterparts, thereby establishing "normal" relations with them, provided the Golan Heights were returned.[4]

5) Experience has taught the Israelis that they have a chance to reach an agreement with the Syrian regime - one based on mutual interests - on some of the most pressing pan-Arab issues, even when the official line in Damascus indicates otherwise. Some examples are described in an Israeli book published in 1982, which details the way that the Israelis and the Syrians shared a common understanding with regard to Israel's war on armed Palestinian factions, and their Lebanese allies, during Lebanon's civil war. In fact, the Israelis directly contacted the Syrian leadership in a bid to secure the Syrians' neutrality in that aspect of the conflict[5]. Then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon (architect of the war against the Palestinians in Lebanon) and his aide Abraham Tamir even met with the Syrian government's de facto second-in-command (and uncle of the current president), Rifaat al-Assad, at Geneva, in December 1981. Sharon used the opportunity to affirm what he saw as the common interests of the two sides, primarily the destruction of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the division of Lebanon's territory into clear and delineated spheres of influence. Sharon went to pains to explain that the Israelis' objectives during the campaign in Lebanon were limited to the Palestinian forces alone, and that they would recognize the Syrians' own interests in the country. The agreement arrived at by Sharon and Rifaat Assad on these issues remained unwritten.[6]

Despite the ambiguity of the official Israeli position toward the Syrian revolution, a number of lessons can be drawn:

1) From the outset, the Israelis have always preferred that the Syrian regime not respond to its people's calls for greater democracy and freedom; they regard the prospective establishment of a democratic regime in Syria as a strategic shift, one which holds out - in the medium and long terms - the possibility of a Syrian revival, giving it a more prominent role in the region, which would increase its ability to confront the Israelis and challenge their policies.[7]

2) The Israelis would prefer for the revolutionaries' aims not to be swiftly achieved, if at all, and for the rebellion to be as protracted as possible. A long-lived revolution would drain not only the Syrian regime, but the country as a whole, in addition to exhausting the Syrian people. The Israelis lump all facets of Syria - the regime, the state, and the people - together, regarding all of them as enemies. Through the prism of Israeli interests, the weakening of Syria would be a good thing, and a prolonging of the revolution would serve that purpose.

3) The Israelis also fear a breakdown in Syria's present chain of command in Syria; it is this centralization of power that has allowed the Syrian regime to maintain quiet on the Golan front. Any deterioration of the central authority within Syria's borders, any weakening of its ability to maintain order over significant parts of the country's territory, could be a siren-call for armed groups to converge there, making attacks against Israeli-held territory more likely.

4) The Israelis also fear that a weakening of the Syrian state's authority could pave the way for a transfer of unconventional weapons - including biological and chemical - which the country has stockpiled. There is a risk that such weapons could fall into the hands of regional forces opposed to Israel, including the possibility that the most dangerous could end up with Hezbollah.[8]

Developments in the Official Israeli Position

In February 2012, bureaucrats at the Israeli Foreign Ministry proposed a new policy for their government with regard to the Syrian situation. This called for an end to official ambiguity and the adoption of a policy closer to those of the United States and the European Union, a policy which would call for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad.[9] The argument behind this new proposal was that Israel could no longer remain silent when most countries, among them powers like the US, the EU, and the Arab League, were adopting clear positions on the way the situation in Syria was developing. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman adopted the proposal submitted by bureaucrats in his own ministry, and suggested it to the Israeli cabinet. Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, however, along with several other ministers, opposed Lieberman's suggestion, voting to retain the official line of ambiguity.[10] Nonetheless, the acceleration of the Syrian revolution and the increasingly brutal repression of the Syrian regime, with its stepping up of massacres of innocent Syrian civilians, and the attendant increases in international opprobrium, have meant the beginning of a shift in Netanyahu's position. The first signs of this came in early February 2012 when Netanyahu stated: "In recent days, we have heard news which reminds us which region it is that we live in. We saw the Syrian army killing its own people."[11] This statement, brief as it was, encapsulates much of the Israelis' attitude: it reflects their belief that violence, and violence alone, is the language best understood in the part of the world they occupy, giving them a justification for their treatment of the Palestinian people.

Netanyahu's comments were the prelude to a new policy later adopted in haste by the Zionist state. Israeli officials of all ranks suddenly rushed to present themselves as sympathizers of the plight of the Syrian people; they spoke of condemning the massacres of the Syrian people, seeking to present themselves as champions of humanitarian values. Clearly, this policy is intentionally deceptive: it is a fraudulent claim, dripping with crocodile tears. The Israelis, whose state was founded on the wholesale dispossession of the Palestinian people, have earned a reputation for being more than willing to massacre civilians in Palestine, Lebanon, and beyond; theirs is not a humanitarian state.

In fact, Israeli society and its leadership disapprove of humanitarianism as far as Arab civilians are concerned. For them to do otherwise would presuppose Israeli support for the principles of justice, democracy, full citizenship rights in the context of a state for all its citizens, and the right of a people to determine their own fate, but these are well beyond the pale within the Zionist mainstream; these are principles which could prove a threat to the very existence of the Israeli state once they are associated with the Arabs.

The Israelis went further, tying Iran and Hezbollah with the crimes of the Syrian regime, attempting to further isolate their own foes as a result of a wider situation. On May 27, 2012, Netanyahu issued a statement in response to the Houla massacre, referring to "the ongoing massacre in which Assad's forces are slaughtering innocent civilians," and seizing the opportunity to make the claim that "Iran and Hezbollah are also culpable in these massacres, and the world should therefore act against them, too."[12] Barak added his name to the list of politicians decrying the Houla massacre, which, he argued, "the Syrian regime carried out with the cover provided by Iran and Hezbollah". Barak added: "the massacres taking place in Syria give us pause for thought about the modus operandi of some of our neighbors, leading us to realize that it is imperative that the Israeli Army remains strong, and prepared, to defend the state given the surroundings we are in."[13] In this shameless way, Israeli politicians have exploited the bloodshed in Syria, and the general mood of Arab disenchantment with Iran and Hezbollah, to try and further a completely unrelated agenda.

Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, Barak, President Shimon Peres, and many other cabinet members, began a further escalation of their rhetoric on June 10, 2012, accusing Assad of a litany of crimes, including massacres against the Syrian people. Speaking at a weekly cabinet session, Netanyahu stated that "the Syrian regime does not have sole responsibility for the massacres it is perpetrating against its own people, but rather it shares responsibility with Iran and Hezbollah, who aid and abet this regime. The whole world needs to be aware of this axis of evil, and realize what kind of world we live."[14] First Deputy Premier Shaul Mofaz also added his name to those denouncing the Syrian regime, calling on world powers to not make do with words of denunciation but to find "appropriate measures" to take against the Syrian regime.[15]


It is notable how the Israeli government's position on Syria has grown much closer to the US/EU consensus in recent months. It is predictable that this lurch toward the US/EU position will continue; it is also very likely that Israeli pronouncements will grow in frequency and intensity, especially in the event of any new massacres perpetrated by the regime. The Israelis' motives in these statements will be surreptitious, trying to present themselves as defenders of humanitarian values, which they themselves consistently and persistently violate in their treatment of the Palestinians who live under their occupation. In addition to this, the Israelis will take the opportunity to agitate Iran and Hezbollah for their own ulterior motives. It should be noted that their reasons are wholly different from the motives which drive the Arabs to resent anti-Arab Iranian policies in Iraq and Syria.

In reality, it suits the Israelis' desires for the conflict in Syria to be protracted, so they may even work toward such an outcome; it is in their interest to weaken the very entity of the Syrian state, and for the Syrian Revolution to acquire the features of a sectarian conflict.


[1] To read more about the Israeli positions antithetical to the progress of the Arab revolutions, read "Israel and the Egyptian revolution", by Mahmoud Muhareb, published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies,

See also "They are not yet mature enough for democracy," by Hagai Elad in the Israeli newspaper Maariv (in Hebrew), http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/206/220.html.

[2] See, for example, Asher Susser, "Tradition and modernity in the Arab Spring," published in Strategic Assessment, 15(1), April 2012. Many of the Israeli writings have focused on hidden dangers posed by the Arab revolutions to their own state, and tend to note that these revolts are likely to further strain Arab-Israeli relations overall. See also Shlomo Brom in "Israel and the Arab World: The Power of the People in The Strategic Survey for Israel in 2011, edited by Anat Kurz and Shlomo Brom, (Institute of National Security Studies, Tel Aviv, 2011), pp. 37-49. See also Michael Milstein in "A New-Old Middle East: Current Developments and their Implications for Israel," Strategic Assessment, 14(1), April 2011.


[3] On the Israeli attack at Deir al Zour and the assassinations of Mughniyeh and Suleiman, see: Michael Bar-Zohar and Nassim Mishaal in The Mossad: The Big Operations, (Miksal and Yediot Ahronot, Tel Aviv, 2010), pp. 274-294.

[4] To read more about the Syrian regime's flexibility during peace negotiations with their Israeli counterparts in the 1990s, see: Uri Saguy, The Frozen, (Miksal and Yediot Ahronot, Tel Aviv, 2011). The negotiations collapsed over Israeli intransigence on the issue of complete Syrian sovereignty over the entire Golan Heights. Also see: "Visit to Jerusalem Under Occupation: Support for Steadfastness or Normalization?," published by the ACRPS.

[5] See Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv, Every Spy a Prince, (Houghton Mifflin, 1990). This book stands out among others written about the Israeli intelligence services for being academically rigorous and free of propaganda; the authors are also known for their access to information. It is highly unlikely that they would have mentioned this meeting between Sharon and Rifaat Assad had they not been certain of its having occurred. Just to ensure that this fact is not exploited for sectarian reasons, it is important to note that many non-Shiite, non-Alawite Arabs have held their own meetings with Israeli officials. One could cite Syrian opposition figure Farid al-Ghaderi, not to mention then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's official visit, as well as the secret visits of Jordan's late King Hussein. The Syrian military made extensive sacrifices during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which did not seem in the end to be crucial to the Syrian regime, but were more concerned with arriving at an agreement with the Israelis on a number of sensitive issues related to their mutual interests. Although the Syrian forces trapped in Beirut fought under the command of joint Lebanese-Palestinian forces, those in other parts of the country did not attempt to proactively target Israeli forces in Lebanon during the 1982 war. It is interesting to note that Ali Habib Mahmoud, the Syrian field commander who led the victorious and heroic defense of Syria's positions in the Battle of Sultan Yaqoub, was dismissed from his later position as the military's chief-of-staff and former minister of defense at the outset of the Syrian Revolution.

[6] Ibid.

[7] This is, of course, an inference that cannot reasonably be verified by any explicit statements by Israeli officials. It is unlikely that the very image-conscious Israelis will ever come out and say that they would like to see the Syrian regime continue massacring its own people. Instead, when the Israeli public relations machine goes into action to defend a despotic regime, they tend to find ways to speak of "stability" and "moderation".

[8] Berti Benedetta, "The Turmoil in Syria: What Lies Ahead?," Strategic Assessment, 15(1), April 2012.

[9] Barak Ravid, "Netanyahu Opposes Lieberman's suggestion for Israel to call for Assad's dismissal," Haaretz, February 16, 2012, http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.1642813.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Barak Ravid, "Iran and Hezbollah Integral to Assad's Policies: Netanyahu Unexpectedly Condemns the Massacre in Syria," Haaretz, May 28, 2012, http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.1717224.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Jack Khoury and Barak Ravid, "Netanyahu: Iran and Hezbollah Help Assad Massacre Civilians," Haaretz, June 10, 2012, http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/world/1.1727695.

[15] Ibid.