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Shai Franklin Headshot

Can Israel Aid Syrian Refugees?

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With newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry visiting Israel next week, and President Obama due there next month, what might a Prime Minister do to defuse and distract from the frustrating impasse on the Palestinian track? Enter (or better, exit) Syria.

Over the weekend, Israeli soldiers along the border took in seven wounded Syrians for medical treatment. Israeli officials said this was a one-off event and will not be repeated. Just as I was preparing to post this column, however, I saw initial reports that Israel plans a field hospital along the border to treat Syrian refugees without technically admitting them into Israel.

Without in any way minimizing the fragile security situation along Israel's north, taking in more refugees could be a substantive game-changer for Israel and possibly the region. And it should always be worthwhile to at least consider a bold move that recasts or re-establishes the fundamental image of the Jewish State. In this case, accommodating and aiding refugees has at least three selling points.

First, it's hasbara. Much of Israel's hasbara (information, or propaganda) strategy is geared to spinning actual facts in a more positive way, or using feel-good stories to distract from difficult realities on the ground. But the best and easiest hasbara is pure fact.

In the 1970s, Israeli ship captains instinctively plucked whole boatloads of South Asian refugees from the high seas and brought them back to Israel (and Vietnamese restaurants really proliferated). At the same time, even while Israel's military was intervening in Lebanon's catastrophic civil war, "The Good Fence" gave southern Lebanese the opportunity to receive humanitarian assistance and medical care along Israel's border. Such actions require no "spin", they speak for themselves.

By contrast, Israel's current flashpoint involves Africans who make it across Egypt's border, after enduring months of hardship along the way. They have hit Israel just as xenophobia -- homegrown by ambitious politicians and imported via Israel's 1990s wave of post-Soviet immigrants -- is threatening a perfect storm. Israel could tap its own government and philanthropic funds, and even international relief organizations, highlighting Israel's ongoing cooperation on multiple humanitarian fronts, and hopefully rebuild some confidence on both sides.

And let's not forget the Palestinians... As long as Israel is unable or unwilling to address the Palestinian issue, the idea of Arabs finding refuge in Israel should be compelling to anyone invested in Israel's diplomatic and media strategies. By promising democracy, the Arab Spring has challenged Israeli PR and unleashed Islamist forces in Egypt and Syria. Taking in the human collateral damage from these movements could be celebrated, if Israel's leadership is willing to get ahead of the news cycle -- but for real, not just for show. This might also help incentivize humanitarian relief for an Israeli demographic that seems to view it with suspicion.

Second, aiding the needy, and welcoming the stranger and the oppressed, are fundamental Jewish imperatives. Above that, our mission in the world is supposed to be as a "light unto the nations" -- whether or not most of those nations see that light. Jews were instrumental in founding the United Nations and crafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Genocide Convention; these post-War mechanisms transcend the contemporary legacy of the Holocaust and speak to that sense of mission that goes beyond the basics of self-preservation.

Many Israelis, and Jews more broadly, care deeply about world opinion, despite remonstrations to the contrary (like dismissing the United Nations as irrelevant). If we truly did not care, we wouldn't be spending countless millions on outreach, branding, and... hasbara. Even if the world and Israel's racist fringe do not care after all, it's still the right thing to do.

Third, it makes strategic sense. Israel has an interest in keeping its northern border as stable as possible, and that includes the Syrian frontier which had remained relatively quiet for four decades until last year. Opening the border, even within the limits of a contained refugee encampment, could obviously lead to unpredictable consequences. But as recent experience with Egypt demonstrates, the future of Israel's neighborhood is unpredictable and full of risks, regardless. Islamist influences in Syria have yet to overwhelm the prospects for a secular-leaning future, and Israel can't afford to rely only on military readiness to counter the long arms of Shia Iran and Sunni Qatar.

Everyone else, including President Obama, is re-imagining the Middle East, and maybe Israel can afford to do some of its own re-imagining as well as play to the trend. It can also save thousands of lives in the process.