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Syria Crisis Gets A Hearty Embrace At Pro-Israel AIPAC Conference

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A woman chants anti-government slogans during a protest in a town in north Syria, Friday, March 2, 2012.
A woman chants anti-government slogans during a protest in a town in north Syria, Friday, March 2, 2012.

WASHINGTON -- At this week's conference for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the recent changes taking place in the Middle East were typically seen through wary eyes: Iran's nuclear threat on the rise, Hamas and Fatah worryingly close to reconciliation, the revolution in Egypt empowering the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood.

But one ongoing transformation received a more hearty embrace: the uprising in Syria.

"I admire the courage of the Syrian people and I wish them peace and freedom from the depths of all of our hearts," said Israeli President Shimon Peres, to warm applause, when he opened the conference on Sunday morning.

Peres has said this before, but it turned out to be a common sentiment at the conference. In a discussion about foreign policy that same morning, Ehud Yaari, an Israeli fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), announced his support for the opposition, adding, "I do not share the concern of many that Syria is bound to fall under leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood."

The next day, at a panel discussion on the Syria uprising, Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at WINEP, found an encouraging audience.

"There were a couple skeptics, but by and large it was much more positive than last year," Tabler later told The Huffington Post.

Israelis, especially among the political and security establishment, have been slow to embrace the Syrian revolution, in part owing to their preference for regional stability, but also because of a general sense of foreboding about the outcomes of the Arab Spring.

Despite Israelis' natural disdain for Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president who has close relations with both Iran and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, they also appreciate that Assad has kept the peace in the Golan Heights and suppressed Islamists inside his country.

When Ehud Eiran, a postdoctoral fellow at Haifa University, wrote a paper on the subject for the U.S. Institute of Peace last November, he described Israel as "watching from the sidelines" as the revolution took shape.

On the whole, AIPAC's literature and public messages reflected this ambivalence about the changing Middle East: one panel discussion was given over to "the rise of Islamism in Egypt"; elsewhere, in a welcome packet, a full-color handout depicted a screaming Arab militant and the headline, "Growing Turmoil, Increased Threats."

"The Middle East is experiencing extraordinary chaos and instability," read AIPAC-distributed talking points on how to promote more U.S.-Israeli security cooperation and aid. "With this regional upheaval, Israel faces unprecedented challenges, contending both with emerging threats and heightened traditional security challenges."

Syria's crisis was not ignored -- the violence it spawned was mentioned as a potential source of danger to Israel -- but in general the revolution was viewed optimistically, mirroring a shift in Israel's officially stated stances.

Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the U.S., was one of the first Israeli officials to openly voice the change in stance, telling a Christian Science Monitor panel last fall that while the Arab Spring in general "is still in an inchoate period," the ouster of Assad could represent an "opportunity for us."

More recently, the Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon denied that his government was quietly supporting the Assad regime, adding that the Syrian government's fall could "break the axis of evil with Iran and Hezbollah." And on Thursday, Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, proposed that his country start offering humanitarian assistance to the rebels.

As Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, put it in one of the AIPAC panel discussions, "The consensus has shifted."

Some experts see a certain cynical calculation to Israel's embrace of the Syria uprising: By tackling the regime in Damascus, they argue, Israel can undermine Iran's power in the region.

Tabler said he thinks the reason for this transition in public opinion, at least among the pro-Israel crowd at AIPAC, is largely driven by a growing awareness, thanks to YouTube videos and personal testimonials, of the suffering of the Syrian people.

"They were a little bit cynical at first, but now the degree of the brutality of the regime I think strikes people on a very human level," Tabler said. "And I think what it does is it wipes out, at least temporarily, the political divides."

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