Israeli leaders are known, and not to their credit, to be outspoken on issues where discretion is of the utmost importance. The public debate on the possibility of inflicting a military strike against Iran is a dramatic case in mind. Yet, and this time to the credit of the same leaders, the subject of Syria and Israel's response to the uprising there has not become a matter of public debate and bickering.
Clearly, the Israelis were surprised by the eruption in Syria, something that puts them in company with basically every other country in the Middle East, including with Bashar Assad himself, who stated just weeks before the beginning of the uprising that Syria was stable, and would remain so. It took the Israeli leadership some time to reevaluate the situation, and from the summer of 2011, the prevailing notion of the intelligence community, as well as the political leadership, was that Bashar Assad's regime was doomed.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak threw all caution aside when he declared in public that it was a matter of weeks before Assad was to be ousted. Weeks became months, Assad is still around, but Barak has not changed his basic prediction about Assad's final fate. The commander of the Northern Command of the IDF said in public that the final act in Damascus will be in 2013. Statements notwithstanding, there are no signs that Israel is actually engaged in a campaign to precipitate Assad's downfall.
Even the Assad regime seems to blame others, particularly the U.S., France, Turkey and Saudi-Arabia for supporting the rebels, much more than they do Israel. The temptation to blame Israel, usually a Pavlovian reflex in Syria, is still there, so we can have the usual rhetoric from some politicians, as well as the pro-regime Grand Mufti of Damascus, Sheikh Badr Al-Din Hassoun, making the ritualistic anti-Israel tirades, but no one really believes them, and the Syrian-Israeli border continues to be peaceful. In fact, according to some unverified reports, the Syrian soldiers stationed there are suffering from lack of supplies and on the verge of starvation as all resources are destined towards the units that commit the atrocities against the Syrian people in the rest of Syria. So, altogether the combat readiness of the Syrian army along the border with Israel is at an all-time low. It is so because the Syrian regime, even at its hour of despair, knows that Israel will not take advantage of the situation and attack Syria.
There are several reasons why the Israelis are so cautious about Syria. One is the logical assessment that the Syrian military, once a source of concern to Israel, is disintegrating, exactly in line with the reports cited above, so time is working on the side of Israel. Also, the Israelis do not want the regime and its remaining supporters to be able to use anti-Assad actions or statements by Israeli politicians to show any connection between Israel and the Syrian opposition. The Israelis do not want also be seen as if they are a spoke in the wheel in the commitment of many Arab states to bring the Assad regime down.
And then there is Iran, the number 1 Israeli strategic priority, and clearly Netanyahu does not want to be seen as if he calls for military intervention in Syria at a time when the option of military intervention in Iran is on the table. There is another reason, purely domestic Israeli politics, which is having a major impact on the Israeli attitude towards the Syrian situation -- this is the fear of the Israeli right-wing, the backbone of the current government, that a new, Western-supported regime in Damascus will renew the call for Israel to return the Golan Heights in their entirety to Syria, and such a call will be strongly supported by the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, and so pressure will be brought to bear on Israel on top of the pressure already existing with regard to the Palestinian issue.
If the Netanyahu government needed a reminder that this scenario is in the offing they got it some days ago. One of the leaders of the Syrian opposition, Noufal Al-Dawalibi, stated in an unprecedented interview with Israeli Radio that the Syrian people want peace, and that includes also with Israel. Such a peace, he declared, should be based on the Saudi Peace Plan. Some background is needed here: Dawalibi is known for his close ties with the Saudi regime. Hence, the reference to the Saudis role in any future peace talks. Secondly, he is the son of a former Syrian PM Ma'arouf Al-DawalibI (1909-2004), whose positions on Israel and the Jews were quite different. In 1984, when representing Saudi-Arabia on the UN Human Rights Commission he stated that "the Talmud says that any Jew who does not drink every year the blood of a non-Jew will be damned forever!" Not a nice character to say the very least; sure, the classic biblical line that "fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Jeremiah 31;29-31) may not be in place here, but sensitive Israelis, and there are so many of those, do not need more evidence to substantiate their almost instinctive suspicion towards statements like that made by the young Dawalibi.
Then, there was something else. One of the most respected leaders of the Syrian opposition, Haytham Al-Malih, strongly condemned Dawalibi, blaming him for being a Saudi agent, making it clear that the struggle against Zionism will continue also in the post-Assad era.
As seen from and heard in Jerusalem, this verbal exchange may be just episodic, but maybe not, and this is why caution about Syria is the order of the day. Suspect and respect is the relevant Hebrew saying in a situation like that.