Along with the smiles and backslapping last week in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama also revealed their disagreements over Syria. At their joint press conference the president had harsh words for Bashar Assad, saying the Syrian president “must go.” Netanyahu settled for mentioning the carnage in the neighboring state without naming those responsible or saying anything about political change in Damascus.
For the past three years Netanyahu was Assad’s silent ally. With the Syrian regime becoming destabilized, its borders breached and the struggle for its future rupturing the region, Israel had the back of the tyrant from Damascus. It made no deterrent military moves, did not openly support the Syrian opposition and did not even use the horrors in Syria for obligatory propaganda like “Arabs murder Arabs and the hypocritical world does not care, and we are criticized for much less.” Netanyahu made do with general statements about the “breakup” of Syria and warnings against chemical weapons and missiles falling into the hands of terrorists.
Alliances between states do not require meetings between leaders, exchanges of ambassadors and declarations of support and affection. Mutual interests that the parties understand and act upon are sufficient.
In moving closer to Assad, Netanyahu had a number of motives. First, he wanted to put some space between Syria and Iran, in the hope that Damascus would stand aside in the event of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities in Natanz and Fordow.
Second, Israel’s loss of its alliances with Turkey and later with Egypt, compounded by apprehension about a deteriorating security situation in the south, pushed Jerusalem into buying quiet on its northern borders.
The third motive was to weaken Hezbollah, while the fourth was to address concerns that the Syrian rebels were in fact Al-Qaida operatives and that the fall of Assad’s regime would turn Syria into a hostile Islamic state.
Netanyahu’s first step was to undertake indirect negotiations with Syria, brokered by U.S. diplomats Dennis Ross and Fred Hof in late 2010. Israel was to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace and Syrian disengagement from Iran.
On the Israeli side the talks were handled by Isaac Molho, Brig. Gen. (res.) Michael Herzog and political adviser Uzi Arad. Netanyahu brought in Defense Minister Ehud Barak but excluded the head of Military Intelligence.
In order to keep the talks away from Tel Aviv’s Kirya defense compound Ross and Hof reported on their talks in Syria at the offices of the E. S. Shimron, I. Molho, Persky & Co. law firm, located nearby in the Platimum Tower.
In early 2011 Ross and Hof came to Israel after talks with a senior Syrian government figure. According to an American source they reported that Assad was amenable and they tried to bring Netanyahu on board.
“It was very close,” said the source, adding that the talks did not reach the stage of detailed discussion of withdrawal phases, border demarcation and security arrangements. The contacts were suspended when the Syrian uprising began, shortly. Israel’s Hebrew tabloid daily Yedioth Ahronoth broke the story shortly before the January election.
Many things have changed in the intervening two years. Assad has been pushed back into the arms of Iran, which is providing his regime with weapons, money and diplomatic support.
Hof has left the U.S. State Department. Now a senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, he is now calling for increased American involvement in toppling Assad.
Israel has moved closer to its old allies, Jordan and Turkey, who are arming Assad’s opponents and stirring the Syrian political cauldron, each supporting a rival opposition faction. Israel has also opened a “good fence” on its Golan Heights border with Syria and has begun to provide medical treatment to injured Syrians. The GOC Northern Command, Yair Golan, meanwhile, is fantasizing about a Golan “security zone” that would be controlled by a pro-Israeli Syrian militia − a cognate of the erstwhile South Lebanon Army.
Netanyahu is still wary of goading Assad and potentially entangling Israel in Syria. It is not clear whether Obama, on his recent visit, demanded that Netanyahu harden his position vis-a-vis Damascus. The point is interesting only if Netanyahu is preparing for the moment when circumstances will force him to change sides; his apology to Turkey was the first step in that direction.