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Washington — Threats to Israel have also decreased from nearby hostile states. Syria itself, which has been Israel’s only neighboring country considered to pose a conventional military threat, has seen its military capabilities erode after more than two years of fighting rebels. Experts say that despite recent reports of Russian weapons deals and of arms shipments coming in from Iran, Syria’s army is a shadow of its former self. The fact that Assad had to call in Hezbollah for help demonstrates how weak his army has become, analysts note.
On the diplomatic front, Israel has seen some gains, as well. Relations with Turkey, which went sour following the Gaza flotilla incident three years ago, have been on the mend, thanks to recognition by both sides that the Syrian crisis requires a renewal of their alliance. Israel has also intensified its cooperation with Jordan, the country seen as having the most to lose from Syria’s disintegration.
But perhaps most significant for the Israeli government is a shift in international attention, from the Palestinian conflict to the Syrian front. “It’s changing the most salient axis of division for a lot of people,” said Robert Blecher, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. Blecher noted that more attention is now paid to other Middle East fault lines, such as sectarian divides, than to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Generally speaking, this will play well for a government that doesn’t want anything to happen,” he added, referencing the Netanyahu government.
The Obama administration has been trying to prove this widespread assumption wrong. For the past few months, Secretary of State John Kerry has been directing a concerted effort to restart stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Speaking to the American Jewish Committee on June 3, Kerry made clear that America does not believe that the turbulence in the region should lead to abandoning the peace process. “Some say that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, it’s too messy, it’s too uncertain. But in reality, the dawn of a new era in the region is exactly the kind of time to recast Israel’s relationships, to change the narrative with a new generation that is starting to make its voice heard,” Kerry said.
Israel, which has for years battled to fend off international pressure demanding faster movement in the peace process, has seen the Syrian crisis reinforce its argument that the Palestinian conflict is not the root cause for Middle East instability and that the road to a new Middle East does not go through Jerusalem. “When more people have been killed in the past two years in Syria than in all the years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the argument that everything depends on solving the conflict no longer stands,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a researcher at Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center who is currently on sabbatical at George Washington University.
Despite a variety of gains in easing security concerns and improving Israel’s diplomatic standing, the list of threats brought about by Syria’s plunge into a bloody civil war is much longer. It includes primarily the risk that Israel’s Golan Heights border, which has been quiet for the past four decades, will become tense and require greater military attention.
Many also fear the Syrian government’s potential loss of control over its chemical weapons stockpile. Other threats include a possible break-up of the country into sectarian autonomies with no effective central government, which would provide fertile ground for terrorists, and the collapse of the monarchy in Jordan, currently Israel’s most reliable partner in the region, under the pressure of refugees and internal unrest.