Israel Is Missing a Political Opportunity by Averting Its Gaze From Syria

Israel is planning for the aftermath of the crisis in Syria, but remaining aloof from events on the ground and letting chances to make a humanitarian and political impact pass it by.

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A stone's throw away from the only democracy in the Middle East, a terrible tragedy has been taking place for two years now.

More than 90,000 people have been killed, tens of thousands injured and a million more displaced in the popular rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad's reign of terror.

Israel would presumably be quick to offer its assistance if an earthquake hit Syria. Israel loves making humanitarian gestures as part of is public diplomacy. But when it comes to the Syrian rebellion, Israel seems to look the other way, as it does whenever Arabs fight Arabs.

Israel may be indifferent to the casualties, but not to the events in Syria. It is already envisioning a war in Lebanon and fears Muslim extremists will take power in Syria. Israel contacted Jordan and Turkey regarding coordination in case certain elements receive Syria's chemical weapons, reinforced its forces in the Golan Heights and even sent unequivocal rounds of fire towards anyone daring to shoot in its direction.

“The fact that the crisis in Syria intensifies from moment to moment was the main consideration in my view,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a Facebook post explaining his recent apology over the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid that left eight Turks and one Turkish American dead. "Syria is disintegrating and its huge, sophisticated arms caches are falling into the hands of different elements. The most dangerous possibility is that chemical weapons will fall into to the hands of terror organizations. The situation in Syria, which includes, among other things, international jihad elements basing themselves on our border at the Golan Heights, poses a major challenge for our security forces. We are monitoring the situation and are prepared to react accordingly."

Of course we're prepared. We're always prepared and always react accordingly. A word about the dead? An expression of sorrow for the tragedy? Not from Netanyahu. Israel has confidentially agreed to establish a temporary hospital on the Syrian border and to offer treatment to several Syrians in Israeli hospitals, but even that was done quietly and fearfully.

Israel is always prepared for threats and wars but not for a situation where hundreds of injured Syrians start making their way toward the border. Who knows? The Syrians might want to remain in Israel as refugees or even seek employment.

For obvious reasons, the refugees might not actually seek asylum in Israel. But it’s reasonable to think people whose lives are under constant threat won’t pause to consider the political, cultural and historical consequences of submitting an asylum request here.

Even if we accept Netanyahu’s way of thinking and ignore the horrible human component of what’s happening in Syria, Israel is missing a political opportunity to its north. Just as Israel used the crisis in Syria as an excuse to renew relations with Turkey, it can use it to improve relations with the country itself.

With the future unclear, Western and Arab states are doing their best to ensure a measure of influence, or at least access, to the eventual Syrian government. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding and arming the opposition, the United States is sending humanitarian aid and training the Free Syrian Army in Jordan, the Kurdish government in Kurdistan is training and arming the Syrian Kurdish opposition and Jordan and Turkey are providing, in effect, rear logistical bases and asylum for Syrian refugees.

Israel is not obliged to be a mere observer and wait until the conflict is solved before deciding if a Syrian partner actually exists. It has an opportunity to create contacts with potential partners now.

The Syrian rebels are not demanding Israeli arms or aid to attack the presidential palace. Most of them, especially the radical organizations, see Israel as an enemy. But that should serve as a further incentive to offer humanitarian aid. To make things more digestible to Israelis, it can be called "strategic aid," in recognition that anyone who accepts Israeli aid legitimizes, de facto, political ties with the state. But that, paradoxically, might be Israel's greatest fear.

Free Syrian Army fighters in the Salaheddine district of Aleppo December 29, 2012.Credit: Reuters
Battles in Damascus.Credit: AP

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