Josef Olmert
Last updated: 26 July, 2012

Israel’s public opinion and reactions to Syria

It seems unrealistic, to say the least, to expect that regime change in Damascus will lead to Israeli-Syrian peace talks any time soon, writes Josef Olmert in an analysis.

The Syrian drama is fast approaching the final act, and the regime of Bashar Assad is on its way out. The events soon to unfold in Damascus and many other Syrian towns will be cataclysmic, with scenes of violence never seen even in the Middle East, and clearly they will be the subject of intense interest throughout the world, none more so than in neighboring Israel.

While it is difficult, for obvious reasons, to refer to public opinion in Syria, which is not exactly a democratic state , in so far as the question of peace with Israel is concerned, there is a lot to say about the Israeli public’s view on the issue.

It is safe to say, that there has never been since the 1967 war any effective domestic pressure on the Israeli government to make peace with Syria, since the assumed price would be a withdrawal to the 4 June 1967 lines. The Israeli left wing is totally preoccupied with the Palestinian question, and even among them, particularly in the Kibbutz movement, there was strong opposition to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights (some of the early Israeli settlements there are Kibbutzim). Surely, no faction of the Israeli right wing ever put pressure on the government to withdraw, even at a time when a right wing government was engaged in talks with Syria, for example the first Netanyahu government in 1998.

Syria’s image in Israel was always very bad, more than that of other Arab countries, perhaps even that of the Palestinians. There were some contributing reasons to that, among them the oppressive attitude towards the Jewish community (numbering around 4000), until it was finally allowed to leave in 1992. As a participant in the peace talks with Syria in the Madrid conference and in subsequent talks in Washington DC, I can attest to the fact that the plight of Syrian Jews was the first item on the agenda of the Israeli delegation, and not issues of security or possible future diplomatic relations.

Then there were the atrocities committed against Israeli prisoners of war, the refusal to this very day to bring back to Israel the remains of the famous spy Elie Cohen, who was hanged in Damascus in 18 May 1965, and the constant shelling of Israeli settlements in Galilee prior to the 1967 war.

The fact that the Golan border with Syria was the quietest and most peaceful of Israel’s borders with its Arab neighbors was not a catalyst for a change of heart with regard to Syria. On the contrary, it has always been argued by opponents of any change in the Golan Heights, that this state of affairs showed that Syria was afraid of fighting Israel again, and without admitting as much, acquiesced in the Israeli control of this territory.

The Syrian uprising, coming soon to its climax, seem to have hardened Israeli attitudes towards Syria. In the first place, there is complete disbelief that after so many years of dictatorship, there can emerge any real democratic regime in Damascus. Here is a point which is at the center of Israeli attitudes towards the “Arab Spring” in general, that is the strong conviction that it is rather an “Islamic winter”, something that poses a huge danger to Israel. The results of the elections in Egypt and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood there seem to enhance the hand of those who think that democracy cannot really work in the Arab world, and if it does, it is bound to bring to power elements which will wage a war against Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu was traditionally, alongside Nathan Sharanski, the current head of the World Zionist Organization, the proponent of the idea that only democratic governments can make peace with Israel. Well, ideas notwithstanding, the current government in Egypt is democratically elected, surely more than the old Mubarak regime, but real peace with Israel? Well, it seems not to be on the cards, and so, people simply do not believe, that a real peace with Syria is feasible in the post-Assad era, as they anticipate a Muslim-oriented new regime there.

Then, the events in Syria tend to confirm long-held, right wing notions that Arab political stability is something that belongs to fantasyland. Blessed we are, many Israelis say these days, as they watch the events in Syria, that we were not tempted to enter any agreement with Syria which would have led to a surrender of the Golan Heights.

Another factor is Iran. If there was any strategic reason for Israeli governments to try and engage in peace talks with Syria it was the hope that somehow peace between Israel and Syria could bring about a separation between Syria and Iran.

Why bother, this is a prevailing opinion in Israel, since this separation will take place at any rate the moment a Sunni government is installed in Damascus.

Last, but not least, many Israelis argue, that the bloodshed in Syria is a phenomenon endemic to the Middle East, an inevitable expression of a political culture, which is based on intolerance, religious bigotry and old undying sectarian hatreds.

With all that it seems unrealistic, to put it very mildly, to expect that the change in Syria will lead to Israeli-Syrian peace talks any time soon. There is no constituency for that in Israel, and to end, on a personal note, I can only deeply regret it.