Analysis: Syria status quo serves Israelis and Palestinians

The fate of Syrian President Assad is one of those rare subjects where Israelis and Palestinians largely see eye to eye. They want him to survive.

Assad 311 (B) (photo credit: Michael Luongo/Bloomberg)
Assad 311 (B)
(photo credit: Michael Luongo/Bloomberg)
JERUSALEM - The fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad is one of those rare subjects where Israelis and Palestinians largely see eye to eye. They want him to survive.
There is no love lost between Israel and Damascus, and many Palestinians are wary of Assad, whose administration has tried to blame them for the unrest roiling Syria.
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But he is a predictable partner and his ousting would lead inevitably to prolonged uncertainty.
"Both sides would prefer Assad to stay in power. It is a case of 'better the devil you know'," said Gabriel Ben-Dor, director of national security studies at Haifa University.
"Neither side thinks that anything better will necessarily come out of these particular disturbances, and they fear that if Assad goes there would be a long period of instability."
Israel has been forced to review its strategic options on a weekly basis this year. Having seen the overthrow of its most trusted Middle East ally, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, it now faces possible upheaval in its heavily armed northeastern neighbor.
Unlike Egypt, Syria never made peace with Israel following a 1973 war, but it has stuck rigorously to its disengagement commitments, establishing a security status quo that has suited both sides down the years.
Much less to Israel's liking is the fact that Syria backs two of its most active enemies -- Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas Islamists -- and some analysts suggest change in Damascus could eventually benefit the Jewish state.
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But others argue that should the protests shaking Syria eventually lead to the ousting of the country's leadership, as has happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then Sunni Muslim extremists could fill the vacuum and make Damascus much more radical.
"The idea that these regimes will be replaced by liberal democracies is too good to be true," said Moshe Ma'oz, a Syria expert and professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Just as the Israelis are silently monitoring the situation in Syria, so too are the Palestinians in Gaza, which is run by Hamas, and the West Bank, ruled by a pro-Western administration.
"What happens in Syria may have a greater importance for Palestinians than events elsewhere for several reasons. Firstly, 400,000 Palestinians live there, and the offices of many factions are also there," said Waleed Al-Awad, a leader of the Palestinian People Party, a PLO faction.
Syria has been the incubator for several radical Palestinian groups, and the political leaderships of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whose militants in Gaza regularly fire rockets into Israeli territory, are based in Damascus.
Analysts believe neither group wants Assad unseated, and say Palestinians could be acting as a buttress for his government, dismissing hints from Damascus that unnamed "foreigners" might be orchestrating the discontent.
"The presence of the main Palestinian resistance factions gives Syria's regime some internal strength,"said Palestinian political analyst Talal Okal, who lives in Gaza.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad would almost certainly have to find new homes should Assad fall and be replaced by any pro-Western government with ambitions to distance itself from Shi'ite Iran.
That would be the best case scenario for Israel, which fears Iran's nuclear ambitions and wants to see it utterly isolated.
"Syria plays an incredibly important role in Iran's effort to influence and control the region," said Josh Block, a fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute in the United States.
"If Assad were to go it would severely weaken Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran; all the forces that oppose the peace process."
The emergence of a less hostile administration in Syria could also finally open the door to a long-elusive peace deal with Israel, optimists say.
All previous attempts to secure a negotiated settlement between the old foes have failed -- most recently in 2008 when indirect talks brokered by Turkey broke down after Israel attacked Gaza in a bid to end Hamas's repeated rocket strikes.
Israelis are sharply split over whether it is worth pursuing peace with Syria, which would inevitably involve returning the Golan Heights, a border plateau seized by Israel in 1967 and later annexed, in a move rejected internationally.
Advocates of doing a deal say Israel has to normalize relations with all its neighbors if it wants a secure future. Opponents say Syria has nothing to offer Israel that would justify the military, economic and psychological costs of giving up the Golan, home to some 20,000 Israeli settlers.
But any talk of a peace deal at present is absurd.
Israel has said it needs a stable environment to talk peace and analysts doubt whether successors to Assad would rush into negotiations, for fear of harming their credibility at home with a domestic audience weaned on anti-Israeli rhetoric.
"Any new regime is not going to be able to compromise its legitimacy by reaching any agreement with Israel," said Haifa University's Ben-Dor.
However, should Assad hold on to power, he might prove more flexible with the West in an effort to strengthen Syria's economy and quell public anger over poverty and unemployment.
"If he stays he might prove more pragmatic," said Syria expert Ma'oz, arguing that Assad wanted permanent peace. "He wants the Golan Heights from Israel. His father lost it ... and the prestige involved is very important to him."