Could a new ruler in Syria be worse for Israel?

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By Rabbi Dow Marmur

JERUSALEM — I find myself once again confused and conflicted, this time about Syria. On the one hand, as a liberal I’d like to see the end of yet another dictator in the region. One the other, as a Zionist I’m worried that what will come after Assad may be much worse for Israel. Until now I was too inhibited to articulate it, but two recent articles have given me courage to give vent to my confusion. To cover my tracks I cite others.

The first is the Washington Post Israel correspondent Janine Zachariah. Writing in the March 29 issue of the paper she points out that though Syria continues to arm Hezbollah as the terrorists prepare to attack Israel, “Assad, like his father before him, has ensured that the Israeli-Syrian border has remained Israel’s quietest front for decades, enabling the country’s northern residents to flourish in an atmosphere of relative peace even as the two nations remain technically in a state of war.”

Therefore, “watching the Muslim Brotherhood gain a foothold in Egypt’s political system after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak has only fed an Israeli squeamishness about the prospect of regime change in Damascus.”

 My second authority is Salman Masalha, Druze poet and Israeli academic. The heading of his article in the March 29 issue of Ha’aretz is, “Israel’s favorite Arab dictator of all is Assad.” It’s a gloss on “better the devil you know….”

Showing how, albeit for opposite reasons, Jews and Arabs alike love Assad the dictator, he writes: “Both Assad senior and Assad junior advocated resistance against Israel. This slogan was hollow, serving the regime merely as an insurance policy against any demand for freedom and democracy. The Syrian ‘resistance’ government has not uttered a peep on the Golan front since 1973. Instead, the ‘resistance’ regime was and still is ready to fight Israel to the last Lebanese, and if that doesn’t do the trick – then to the last Palestinian.”

Masalha’s final words: “All the hypocrites, Jews and Arabs alike, have united. It seems Assad has wall-to-wall support here, as though he was king of Israel.”

The usual reason for my conflict and confusion is the clash between my idealism that affirms freedom and democracy and the realism of an Israeli citizen who fears that what appears to be the road to liberty may end up as a means of aggression against Israel. With this in mind, it’s much easier to hope for the speedy demise of Libya’s Gadhafi than for the overthrow of Syria’s Assad. The impact of the former on Israel has always been marginal; the attitude of the latter is most crucial.

What originally looked like a progressive and idealistic US Administration seems now to be in a similar quandary. It’s prepared to join in the effort to destroy the current Libyan regime but is much more cautious in what it says and does about Syria.

Members of Israel’s government, usually too eager to be quoted in the media, have been prudently silent this time. They must know that as impossible as it is to hail Assad as “the king of Israel,” it may turn out to be even harder to deal with his successor(s). Again, “better the devil you know….”          

Perhaps they now realize, albeit too late, that Israel should have heeded the repeated calls in recent years to make peace with Assad. In the same way as they’re now less nervous about Mubarak’s successors, they might have felt the same about Assad’s.

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Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.  He now divides his year between Canada and Israel.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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