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The Devil They Know

Why Israel would prefer that Assad stay in charge

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Far from a second Tahrir Square, this is actually a massive pro-regime rally in Damascus.(Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

When the Egyptian masses rose against President Hosni Mubarak, it was not difficult to see how and why Israeli officials might wish for him to have survived the protests: Egypt had a peace treaty with Israel, was a staunch foe of Iran’s, and in addition to maintaining a quiet border has kept up intelligence and military contacts. Now that Syrian President Bashar Assad is experiencing similar upheaval—his cabinet has resigned; his people are marching in the streets—you might expect a different Israeli response: Here, after all, is a country with no peace treaty; a relatively close alliance with Iran; active sponsorship of Hezbollah, which Israel went to war with less than five years ago; and extremely limited if any military, intelligence, or diplomatic contact.

Yet, report both the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, Israeli officials are (quietly) rooting for Assad’s survival. Assad is far from ideal from their perspective, they privately say, but he is better than civil war to the north or an Islamist takeover; and besides, say what you want about him, he has kept his own country’s border with Israel quiet for more than a decade despite a territorial dispute. In other words, Assad’s claim that the protests stem from an “Israeli agenda” is not only a crazy, paranoid, anti-Semitic conspiracy—it also just doesn’t make any sense. (That was a little joke.)

More broadly, the case of Syria is the latest iteration in the dominant regional question, of whether traditional stability—an authoritarian ruler enforcing the line with an iron fist—is indeed preferable to messier but more inoculated democracy. In the New York Times today, a Syrian human rights activist makes the case for the latter.

Israel, Long Critical of Assad, May Prefer He Stay After All [WP]
Israel Fears the Alternative if Syria’s Assad Falls [LAT]
Assad: Syria Protests Aim To Enforce an ‘Israeli Agenda’ [Haaretz]
The Myth of Syrian Stability [NYT]

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I don’t doubt that the Israeli sources most chummy with the staffs of big American newspapers are rooting for Assad’s survival. The dovish end of the Israeli political and security establishment (conspicuously including Ehud Barak) has long believed–without a shred of justification–that the Assad family is always just inches away from signing a full peace treaty with Israel, if only the right deal can be offered under the right circumstances.

In fact, Syria is a linchpin of the entire Iranian-backed radical anti-Israel alliance that is by far Israel’s greatest immediate threat. A period of serious unrest there, let alone a civil war, would siphon off major resources from Israel’s primary antagonists towards shoring up their allies in Syria. And if Damascus suddenly fell under the full control of anti-Iranian Sunnis, Hamas’ leadership would have to find a new home base, and Hezbollah would find itself confronting an angry Syrian-backed Sunni-Christian majority in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the new Sunni Syrian regime, however radical, would be far too weak, vulnerable and resource-poor to pose much of a threat to Israel.

There are no doubt plenty of Israeli analysts who are viewing the current unrest in Syria in precisely this light. But I doubt that the New York Times or Washington Post is much interested in talking to them. Bibi, on the other hand…

Jed Brandt says:

What the Israelis want has nothing to do with what is right or just. The Israelis wanted Mubarak to keep Egypt under the thumb. The Israelis wanted Hamas to get stronger so the secular Palestinian movements got weaker. They wanted Saddam Hussein to attack Iran. They wanted to annex the West Bank. They killed 1,400 people in a murderous drive by, which was a war crime according to none other than Richard Goldstone, the world’s foremost expert on war crimes (and a Jew from South Africa who knows something of how settler states work).

Why must American Jews defend and identify with Israel when Israel so plainly despises democratic government, the sovereignty of its neighbors and the way the world’s winds are blowing.

Seriously. Zionism wasn’t a great idea to start with, but the reality of endless war in the name of the Jewish people has done more to encourage hatred of Jews than anything else in the world. The truth is that Israel seeks to become gentile — to be yet another sordid colonial project that defines itself through degrading another.

It’s got to end. Secular democracy for all people is the only way to go. We will all be happy when we get there. It works great in New York. It will be even better in Jerusalem.

Bill Pearlman says:

The sooner Assad joins his snake of a father in the underworld the better off humanity will be.

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The Devil They Know

Why Israel would prefer that Assad stay in charge

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