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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When is the Budget 2017?

Chancellor Philip Hammond will present the last ever springtime Budget to Parliament on March 8th. He has a tricky hand to play.

Fans of the Chancellor’s red box photocall outside 11 Downing Street are in for a treat this year - the abolition of the Autumn Statement means Philip Hammond will present not one but two Budgets to the Commons.

The first – the last ever Spring budget – will be published on Wednesday 8 March 2017. A second – the first Autumn Budget – will come later in the year. This will be followed by a new Spring Statement, which will respond to forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility but will no longer introduce new tax and spend changes. 

But what is likely to happen this time around? The Institute for Fiscal Studies set out a grim outlook for the chancellor in its "Green Budget" earlier this month. This year’s deficit will be higher than in 47 of the 60 years before the crash of 2008, the national debt is at its highest level since 1966, and the chancellor is still committed to the diet of austerity prescribed by his predecessor, George Osborne. With day-to-day spending on public services set for a real-term fall of 4 per cent between now and 2020 and those same public services already in a parlous state, Hammond has a difficult hand to play. 

However, Theresa May’s government has proved adept at U-turning when it needs to – think the Brexit White Paper and Amber Rudd’s lists of foreign workers. Here's what to look out for:

Changes to business rates

MPs of all stripes have been pressuring the government to rethink its plans on business rates, which will see new rates based on updated property valuations introduced for the new financial year. 

Initially, the government maintained that three-quarters of businesses won’t see any changes to their rates at all. But the fact that rates for pubs, shops, GP surgeries hospitals could be set to more than double riled Tory backbenchers, several ministers, the CBI and right-wing papers including the Sun and Daily Mail

We will likely see a concession from the Treasury on controversial changes, which were slated to kick in from April. Communities and Local Government secretary Sajid Javid told the Commons that a solution would be in place by Budget Day. 

Reassurances for social care

Britain’s crisis-stricken social care system – and the vexed question of how we’re going to pay for our ageing population – also looms large. In the aftermath of the controversy around the government’s supposed “sweetheart deal” with Surrey County Council, local authorities and charities have been lobbying Number 10 for a new settlement – or at least some extra cash to ease the pain. 

Indeed, the Health Service Journal has revealed the Care Quality Commission is to be handed regulatory oversight for how councils manage their social care services, and a number MPs are increasingly convinced that the government could be set to unveil a modest increase in funding. Any such package would only be a sticking plaster.