Israel’s dilemma as the war intensifies

If Assad is removed, who will succeed him? Even if there is a viable successor, it is likely that the bloodshed will continue, with infighting between rebel groups and lots of scoresettling.

The turmoil in Syria, which threatens to shatter the Middle East in an unprecedented way, poses a dilemma for Israel. The Assad family has been an enemy of Israel for almost half a century. From direct military clashes in 1967, 1973 and 1982 to using indirect harassment via Hezbollah in Lebanon, Damascus has been high on the list of threats Israel faces in the region. This “axis of evil”, as Israeli strategists saw it, stretching from Tehran through Damascus to Lebanon, weighed like a nightmare. Therefore, seeing Bashar al-Assad’s regime crumbling in the face of the present uprising should be a blessing for Israel.

Furthermore, the recent events in Syria have triggered a series of developments that may have positive repercussions for Israel. Turkey, highly troubled by the crisis in the neighbouring country, may be inclined to overcome her past grievances against Israel and come closer, in order to form an old-new alliance in a troublesome Middle East. And Hezbollah, the Shia organisation that has presented itself as the defender of an Alawite-Sunni-socialist regime (don’t worry, the Middle East has seen stranger things than this), might soon find out that it has made a fateful blunder. Already, it has received near-universal condemnation in the Sunni world, and its position in Lebanon, undermined by the “Second Lebanon War” of 2006, will be further weakened.

On the other hand, for the past four decades, despite Syria’s wish to regain the Golan Heights (captured by Israel in 1967), the Israeli-Syrian border has been quiet and Israel felt relatively safe, knowing that, while the Syrians had a deadly arsenal of missiles, the chances that they would be launched against Israel were slim, as long as a strong and responsible Syrian leader was in charge. If Assad is removed, who will succeed him? Even if there is a viable successor, it is likely that the bloodshed will continue, with infighting between rebel groups and lots of scoresettling. Al-Qaeda, a player in the war, might turn out to be the winner. Is that the preferred scenario for Israel, on its northern doorstep?

Grappling with this dilemma, Israel’s military planners decided on cautious non-involvement. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) responded in a measured way to skirmishes on the Syrian border on the Golan Heights, going out of their way not to let them escalate. The last thing Israel needs is to give Assad an excuse to divert the violence within Syria towards a common external enemy.

In the meantime, Israeli leaders, unlike the IDF, couldn’t restrain themselves and made announcements that were perceived as taking sides. Prime Minister Netanyahu rightfully hushed them up.

There was an exception, however, to this general restraint, when the air force – according to sources from outside Israel – attacked a stockpile of weaponry inside Syria which was destined for Hezbollah. This was a surgical operation, which not only destroyed its target but also carried a message to Damascus that Israel would not tolerate a change in the strategic balance between itself and Hezbollah.

Following in the footsteps of the strike on the Syrian nuclear installation in September 2007 (again, reported by foreign sources, as Israel does not officially confirm or deny such actions), Israel once more hoped to show brinksmanship without the dispute turning into war. It has worked in the past, but I wonder if it will work in future. A desperate Assad might clutch at any straw to escape the wrath of his people.

My prediction is that unless a large-scale western intervention occurs, Assad will survive. He may be drastically weakened, but still he will be stronger than his fragmented opponents. There is nothing Israel could – or should – do about it, except to protect its interests in extreme cases only.

Last but not least is the moral dimension. The political and strategic debate on what to do vis-à-vis the Syrian civil war obscures how this bloody struggle has already taken the lives of as many as 80,000 people. The general indifference of the world to this bloodshed is appalling. As Israelis in general, and as Jews in particular, I don’t think we should be part of this apathy, for good historical reasons. When my fellow Israelis ask me about this, I urge them not to shrug their shoulders in the face of the carnage just because – as some see it – “Arabs are killing Arabs”.

I hope the stories about the Syrian wounded being treated in Israeli hospitals are true; and if more can be done on the humanitarian level, so much the better.

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. He was the spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments of Israel from 1992-96

Israelis look at the nearby Syrian village of Jebata al-Khashabn from an Israeli army post near the border in Golan Heights. Photograph: Getty Images
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Europe’s last Blairite: Can Manuel Valls win the French presidency?

He first made a name for himself protesting against halal supermarkets. Now, he could be the man to take down François Hollande.

The election of François Hollande as the president of France in 2012 coincided with the high-water mark of Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party. That year, Labour posted its best local election results in 17 years, gaining 823 councillors and winning control of 32 councils in a performance that has not yet been surpassed or equalled.

Gazing across the Channel, the Milibandites were given hope. Hollande showed that a wonkish career politician could triumph over a charismatic centre-right incumbent.

The UK’s shattered Blairites looked to a different star rising in French politics: Manuel Valls. At the time of Hollande’s victory, Valls was the mayor of Évry, a small suburb of Paris, where he made a name for himself by campaigning against halal supermarkets.

His father, Xavier, was a Spanish painter and his mother, Luisangela, was Swiss-Italian. They met and married in Paris, and Valls was born in Barcelona while the couple were on holiday.

In 2009 Valls urged the Parti Socialiste (PS) to drop the adjective “socialist” from its name, and he ran for the presidential nomination two years later on what he described as a Blairiste platform. This included scrapping the 35-hour working week, which hardly applies outside of big business and the public sector but carries symbolic weight for the French left. Valls’s programme found few supporters and he came fifth in a field of six, with just 6 per cent of the vote.

Yet this was enough to earn him the post of interior minister under Hollande. While Valls’s boss quickly fell from favour – within six months Hollande’s approval ratings had dropped to 36 per cent, thanks to a budget that combined tax rises with deep spending cuts – his own popularity soared.

He may have run as an heir to Blair but his popularity in France benefited from a series of remarks that were closer in tone to Ukip’s Nigel Farage. When he said that most Romany gypsies should be sent “back to the borders”, he was condemned by both his activists and Amnesty International. Yet it also boosted his approval ratings.

One of the facets of French politics that reliably confuse outsiders is how anti-Islamic sentiment is common across the left-right divide. Direct comparisons with the ideological terrain of Westminster politics are often unhelpful. For instance, Valls supported the attempt to ban the burkini, saying in August, “Marianne [the French symbol] has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!”

By the spring of 2014, he was still frequently topping the charts – at least in terms of personal appeal. A survey for French Elle found that 20 per cent of women would like to have “a torrid affair” with the lantern-jawed minister, something that pleased his second wife, Anne Gravoin, who pronounced herself “delighted” with the poll. (She married Valls in 2010. He also has four children by his first wife, Nathalie Soulié.)

Yet it was a chilly time for the French left, which was sharply repudiated in municipal elections, losing 155 towns. Hollande sacked his incumbent prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and appointed Valls in his place. He hoped, perhaps, that some of Valls’s popularity would rub off on to him.

And perhaps Valls, a student of “Third Way” politics, hoped that he could emulate the success of Bill Clinton, who turned sharply to the right following Democratic losses in the US 1994 midterm elections and won a great victory in 1996. Under Valls’s premiership, Hollande’s administration swung right, implementing tough policies on law and order and pursuing supply-side reforms in an attempt to revive the French economy. Neither the economic recovery, nor the great victory, emerged.

With the date of the next presidential election set for 2017, Hollande was in trouble. His approval ratings were terrible and he faced a challenge from his former minister Arnaud Montebourg, who resigned from the government over its rightward turn in 2014.

Then, on 27 November, Prime Minister Valls suggested in an interview that he would challenge the incumbent president in the PS primary. After this, Hollande knew that his chances of victory were almost non-existent.

On 1 December, Hollande became the first incumbent French president ever to announce that he would not run for a second term, leaving Valls free to announce his bid. He duly stood down as prime minister on 5 December.

Under the French system, unless a single candidate can secure more than half of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, the top two candidates face a run-off. The current polls rate Marine Le Pen of the Front National as the favourite to win the first round, but she is expected to lose the second.

Few expect a PS candidate to make the run-off. So Hollande’s decision to drop out of his party’s primary turns that contest into an internal struggle for dominance rather than a choice of potential leader for France. The deeper question is: who will rebuild the party from the wreckage?

So although Valls has the highest international profile of the left’s candidates, no one should rule out a repeat of his crushing defeat in 2011.

He once hoped to strike a Blairite bargain with the left: victory in exchange for heresy. Because of the wasting effect of his years in Hollande’s government, however, he now offers only heresy. It would not be a surprise if the Socialists preferred the purity of Arnaud Montebourg. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump