Israeli Government Sharply Divided Over Response to Syria Unrest

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman believes it is time Israel unequivocally condemns the massacres and calls on Assad to resign, while Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu prefers to remain ambiguous.

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Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The country's leaders are clashing over what constitutes a proper Israeli response to the events in Syria - where around 6,000 civilians have been killed - in the revolt against President Bashar Assad.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman believes it is time for Israel to unequivocally condemn the massacres and call for Assad to resign, while Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu prefers to remain ambiguous.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in 2009.Credit: Archive / Tess Scheflan

A senior Foreign Ministry source said that in recent weeks, the ministry issued a recommendation to the effect that Israel has a moral obligation to condemn the mass killings and demand Assad's ouster.

The diplomats say that if the Arab League, the United States and the European Union are taking such a firm position against Damascus - imposing sanctions and calling for Assad's resignation - Israel can't espouse an unclear policy and be the last country in the West to take a stance.

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This approach could give rise to conspiracy theories, especially in the Arab world, that Israel prefers to preserve the Assad regime despite the murders, Foreign Ministry staffers say.

Lieberman has embraced this recommendation and has discussed it with the prime minister and other top officials. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak oppose the recommendation. Netanyahu believes that sharp words from Israel are more likely to spark conspiracy theories and would let Assad argue that Israel is behind the revolt.

Netanyahu's most significant statement about Assad was made in an interview with Al-Arabiya on July 20. Netanyahu said that anything he would say about the issue "would not be used against me, but against the process of genuine reform that people would want to see in Syria. So we don't intervene in Syria, but that doesn't mean we are not concerned."

In the interview, Netanyahu denied that Israel had any interest in preserving Assad's regime.

Since then Syria's disturbances have severely escalated, but Netanyahu refrained from calling for Assad's resignation even after the testimonies on the massacre in Homs at the beginning of February. During the cabinet meeting nearly two weeks ago, Netanyahu referred to them, but very briefly. His words were vague and Assad was not mentioned.

"In recent days we have been reminded of what kind of neighborhood we live in," Netanyahu told the ministers. "We've seen the Syrian army slaughter its own people, we've seen other bloody events in our region. Various leaders have no moral obstacles to killing either their neighbors or their own people."

"The situation in Syria is sensitive," said a senior Israeli official who took part in the debates on the issue and who supports Netanyahu's stance. "We don't want to look like we're supporting one of the sides. We came to the conclusion that it's better to keep quiet. Syria is anyway trying to cause provocations using Hezbollah in the north and other elements, in an effort to drag us into it. We don't have to be tempted."

Another Israeli official dealing with the issue said Netanyahu sought to tread cautiously, though he could change his opinion.

The senior official said Israel is expressing a firmer stance in quiet diplomatic channels.

"When the Americans, French or other countries ask us what we think, we tell them we think Assad should go," the senior official said. "But Israel doesn't have to be the one to make a public campaign out of it."

Lieberman already called for Assad's resignation in July, but since then has moderated his statements, given Netanyahu's position. He has tried to change the policy, but unsuccessfully.

Lieberman did, however, instruct Israel's UN Ambassador Ron Prosor to give an especially critical speech during the debate on the Syrian massacre in the General Assembly this week. Prosor urged UN member states not to stand idly by.

"Assad has no moral authority to govern," Prosor said. "It is time for the international community to stop standing on the sidelines. And it is high time for this organization to start doing something meaningful to stop him from killing his own people."

Read this article in Hebrew



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