TEL AVIV — When it comes to Syria, the conventional wisdom is that Israel’s best case scenario is maintenance of the status quo: prolonged conflict without a clear winner.
Moreover, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the mainstream Israel lobby, are fully on board with President Obama’s push for a limited strike against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for use of chemical weapons, though not necessarily Assad’s overthrow, which might bring to power radical Islamist rebels.
But surprisingly, a sampling of Israel’s leading intelligence and military strategists reflects no such consensus. When asked by the Forward about both the immediate and long-term scenarios for Syria, prominent Israeli national security experts offered a sprawling range of opinions, ranging from support for Assad’s survival to unqualified backing for his ouster, even if that means the ascendance of leaders who back Al Qaeda.
The diversity of views punctured the perception that Israel’s defense establishment is united in what it wants to see happen in Syria. These interviews show a group of thinkers whose views — with careful if divergent reasoning in each case — are all over the map, as they seek to assess and make sense of the chaos next door.
After Obama’s decision to delay a strike and instead seek Congress’ approval for one, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admonished his ministers to refrain from public comment, which they did with one exception. This pleasantly surprised Efraim Halevy, who headed Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, from 1998 to 2002.
“For once, wisdom prevailed,” Halevy, who also directed the prime minister’s National Security Council for eight months, told the Forward. Netanyahu considers it important that if America does strike Syria, its action should not be viewed as a result of Israeli pressure. Halevy believes this to be correct strategically, not just good public relations.
“Assad’s survival or not isn’t an issue in which Israel should have a stance,” he said.
He thinks the impression that Jerusalem is nurturing, namely that it has no favorite in the Syrian civil war, is genuine. Israel’s interests, Halevy believes, are limited to three considerations. The first is that whoever is in power in Syria doesn’t engage in any direct military confrontation with Israel. The second is that Iranian power in Syria is constrained, as “any enhancement of Iran in Syria is contrary to Israel’s interest.” The third is that Syria doesn’t serve as a conduit for the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah.
No scenario ensures outcomes that meet Israel’s needs, and “every scenario has so many negative aspects.” As for the ramifications of a strike by the United States on Syria, “I don’t think Israel’s interests would be impacted in any direction whatsoever as a result,” except perhaps to “strengthen deterrence” against Syria.