To most observers witnessing events in Syria, the goal is clear-cut: end the killing, support democracy, and change the Assad regime — hoping it will be removed or reformed to an unrecognizable degree. State actors looking at the same reality will often bring a different set of considerations into play, especially if they happen to be neighboring Syria. Israel has had a complicated relationship with the popular upheaval in its northern neighbor — and, indeed, with the Baathist Damascus regime in general over the years.
As of Sunday, that complexity entered a new dimension. Of course the popular uprising in Syria is not about Israel, nor will it be particularly determined by Israel’s response. Nevertheless, Israel’s leaders, like those elsewhere in the region, will have to position themselves in relation to this changing environment, and this will, in part, impact Syria’s options.
On Sunday, June 5, marking Naksa Day (the Arab “setback” in the 1967 war), protesters — mostly Palestinian refugees and their descendents — marched to the Israel/Syria disengagement line representing the border between Syria and the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. According to reports up to 22 unarmed Syrian-Palestinian protesters were killed when Israeli forces apparently resorted to live fire (Israeli laid mines may also have been detonated and may have caused causalities, the exact unraveling of events remainssketchy). In most respects, this Sunday’s events were a repeat performance of the outcome of May 15′s Nakba Day commemorations (which Palestinians mark as the anniversary of their catastrophe in 1948).
Israel’s initial response to the wave of regional anti-regime protests reaching Syria was, according to reliable reports, to privately root for the “devil we know” approach — encouraging allies, including the U.S., to go easy on the Assad regime. That may sound counterintuitive — Israel is not at peace with Syria, the Assad regime is close to Iran, hosts the Hamas leadership, and is considered to actively assist in the arming of Hezbollah. Yet an explanation for this Israeli disposition is also not too hard to fathom.
The Israel-Syria border has been quiet since the 1973 war. While a member of the “resistance axis,” Syria under Assad has not itself challenged Israel in any military way. It is also a regime with very few soft-power assets with which to challenge Israel in the regional or international diplomatic arena. Syria under the Assads engaged in frequent peace-partner flirtations with Israel and could be considered the most domesticated of the members of that resistance alliance.
At least until Sunday’s events, Israel’s position on revolution in Syria hued closely to the status-quo conservatism that has so characterized the shared Israeli-Saudi response to the Arab Spring. Both Israel and Saudi had been critical of the “premature” abandonment of the Mubarak regime, especially by the U.S. Unlike Mubarak, of course, Assad is not an ally (for either the Israelis or the Saudis), but he is part of anancien régime for which Israel had effective management strategies in place.
And Israel is none-too-enamored of the alternatives in Damascus. One alternative to the Assad regime — a democratic Syria with greater soft power diplomatic heft and perhaps with Islamists as part of a governing coalition — is as unappetizing a prospect for an Israel intent on maintaining its belligerent posture to the Palestinians and to the region (including its occupation of the Golan heights), as the Egyptian version of the same is shaping up to be. Another alternative — that of Syria becoming a largely ungoverned chaotic space and forming an arc of fitna (or sectarian strife) with Iraq and Lebanon is also unattractive.
For the peace rejectionist government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, the survival of an embattled, desperate, and thoroughly discredited Assad regime apparently hits that Goldilocks sweet spot — just the right outcome.
Is this a calculation that still makes sense for Israel after Sunday’s clashes on the Golan? Some reportssuggest that the Naksa day marches to the Golan were encouraged and perhaps even sponsored by the Assad regime or its allies among the Palestinian factions. Protesters don’t necessarily have to be coerced or bribed into wishing to express solidarity with the Palestinians under occupation or to assert their own claims to former family homes — but what does seem certain on this occasion is that unlike in other countries neighboring Israel, the government in Syria did not prevent the marchers from reaching the Israeli border positions. The Lebanese government, and even Hezbollah, actively intervened to avoid a repeat of May 15 at the border, limiting Palestinian refugee communities to holding a day of general strikes in their own areas. Authorities in Egypt and Jordan both repeated their MO of mid-May, allowing demonstrations but not at the border, and the Hamas authorities in Gaza were more assertive in preventing marches towards Israel this time around.
President Assad may be sending a signal to the outside world (this is what happens if I get nasty or if I am no longer around to keep things in check), he may be looking to create a distraction from his own problems (although that hardly looks like a winning strategy), or may just have other things on his plate right now. In any event, Israel will now be reassessing its response posture.
Ongoing protests at the Golan border position will require Israel to reconfigure its IDF deployment and redirect assets to the northern border. There will also be concerns that regularized protests from within Syria could encourage similar phenomenon elsewhere, whether from neighboring countries, from within the Occupied Territories, or even inside Israel itself.
But there is also a flipside to this. The compromised circumstances of the Syrian-Palestinian protests (set against the backdrop of, and perhaps in the service of the violent oppression of the Assad regime) could serve to discourage or undermine popular mobilization elsewhere. The Syrian context has also acted as a shield for Israel’s own actions. Israel has come under remarkably little scrutiny for its apparent killing of so many unarmed civilians. As a leading Israeli military analyst, Ofer Shelach, wrote in yesterday’s Maariv: “[I]t is clear that as far as the world’s reaction is concerned, Assad is Israel’s number one asset: When he massacres his own people, no one will criticize the IDF too severely when it kills dozens of demonstrators trying to forcibly cross an international border.”
Israel now has to choose through which looking glass it should be eying up developments in Syria. The dominant prism so far has been the more conventional one of regional balances of power and Israel’s preferences within the typology of regional regime characteristics. That typology, until recently, basically consisted of three categories: First, undemocratic regimes, backed by the United States, co-opted to Israel’s overall agenda (and in some instances, formally at peace with Israel); second, undemocratic regimes opposed to the U.S. and Israel, with limited soft power assets but carrying a certain military nuisance capacity; third, regimes characterized by internal strife and governance chaos.
Turkey has recently introduced a new prototype to the equation — a democracy with an independent foreign policy and soft-power credibility and non-aligned in terms of its maintenance of relations with all relevant regional and international actors.
Of the old models, the first was of course most convenient to Israel. While the second and third posed the occasional question, they did not represent a sustained challenge. An Israel unwilling to reconfigure its relations with the Palestinians and with the region finds itself most ill at ease with the new, more democratic, and more diplomatically assertive model — a direction that Egypt now appears to be pursuing. From this perspective, Israel will prefer status quo or chaos in Syria to transition to the nascent Turkish/Egyptian-style option.
But there is that second lens through which Israel may have to increasingly calculate its moves — the question of what is most likely to advance or retard unarmed popular Palestinian struggle. Were this to emerge in a concerted, determined, and disciplined fashion, it is likely to pose the greatest threat to the continuation of current Israeli practices. As Tony Karon noted in Time last month “Israel’s security establishment has always seen mass unarmed civil disobedience as far more threatening than rocket fire or suicide bombers, because military responses to non-military challenges weaken Israel’s diplomatic and political standing.” Much more than any UN vote, this will be the wildcard in the coming months on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
After so many failed attempts, it is clear that the asymmetry built into the existing bilateral negotiations formula renders them incapable of delivering Palestinian freedom. A UN vote will also not achieve that. It might though begin to produce some leverage for the Palestinians and mark a more definitive break with those long moribund strategies of the past.
A UN vote in itself may end up having little effect on the potential for popular unarmed Palestinian mobilization. Palestinian frustration will remain whether the UN vote happens or doesn’t happen and almost irrespective of the vote tally, given that Israel will not be changing its deployment on the ground in response to any UN decision. The key arena will be what happens in the Occupied Territories, although supportive popular actions in neighboring countries and inside Israel will also be influential.
A number of factors may tip the balance, for instance: (a) To what extent will the Palestinians be able to overcome the sense of defeat and the crushing blows that followed the first (largely unarmed) intifada of 1987-91 and the second (much more violent) intifada of 2000-2003; (b) Will the leadership of the largest political factions — Fatah and Hamas — encourage or block this kind of mobilization?; (c) Will the donor aid-driven Palestinian economic growth, including Palestinian Authority projects and employment outlets, be a strong enough sponge to soak up Palestinian discontent?; And (d) will Palestinian civil society develop effective and disciplined non-violent strategies in the face of internal challenges and Israeli provocations and restrictions on freedom of movement.
So far, Netanyahu has doubled down on his bet that Israel can insulate itself from change all around by building higher barriers, both physical and ideological, between itself and the rest of the region. Those barriers were briefly breached on the Golan Heights on Sunday. If Netanyahu cannot change course, and he certainly seems incapable of doing so, then he might be making the most consequential and ill-conceived gamble yet in Israel’s short history.