Currently, relations between Israel and Syria are very tense. Any deterioration in the situation–or for that matter, any improvement–could have far-reaching ramifications for Israeli-Palestinian relations. But from Israel’s standpoint, there is more to the picture than just Syria and Palestine.
The immediate backdrop to the current Israeli-Syrian tension is the assassination in early March in Damascus of Hizballah security chief Imad Mughniyeh, for which Hizballah blames Israel. Now that the 40-day Shi’ite mourning period has passed, Israel anticipates a Hizballah revenge attack that could escalate into new fighting in Lebanon and Israel. Jerusalem believes that Damascus can restrain Hizballah if it has the necessary incentive. Hence it has redoubled Israel’s security preparations in the north, carried out a massive combined military-political-civil defense exercise and threatened Syria that it could suffer as a consequence of any renewed fighting.
There are numerous intriguing nuances and twists-and-turns to the drama unfolding on Israel’s northern front. For one, Hizballah has an additional incentive to strike against Israel: diverting attention from its prolonged failure to compel the Lebanese political establishment to grant it more power within the country’s faltering political system. On the other hand, Syrian opposition sources claim that the Mughniyeh assassination has brought about an internal shake-up in President Bashar Assad’s entourage, and that Syria’s own investigation of the assassination points to Saudi Arabia, not Israel, as the perpetrator.
Then too, the United States Congress is likely soon to provide new and embarrassing (for Syria) details regarding the destruction of a North Korean-supplied nuclear installation in northeast Syria last September, for which Syria blames Israel. While such revelations could add to the tension, the Deir al-Zour operation also undoubtedly serves as a constant reminder to Syria regarding the extent of Israel’s capacity to inflict damage if hostilities break out. Finally, the Israeli-Syrian border has been tense since the summer 2006 Second Lebanon War. Syria supplied Hizballah with arms before, throughout and after the war. Assad, who appears to have been captivated by Hizballah’s use of massive barrages of tactical rockets during the war, has threatened to emulate that strategy.
This brings us to the linkage between Israeli-Syrian tensions and the Palestinian issue. Renewed fighting on Israel’s northern front would almost certainly freeze Israel’s peace negotiations with the PLO leadership based in Ramallah. And it could easily provoke a new escalation of fighting on Israel’s Gaza front. On the other hand, the Mughniyeh assassination undoubtedly generated recognition by Khaled Mishaal and additional Hamas leaders in Damascus that, if Israel (or Saudi Arabia, or anyone else) can reach Mughniyeh it can also reach and eliminate them. This, coupled with Israeli and Egyptian pressure on Hamas in Gaza, could help explain Mishaal’s recent offer–made to a Ramallah-based newspaper, al-Ayyam–of a ceasefire with Israel.
Then there is the "flip side" of Israeli-Syrian hostility: the constantly-discussed prospect of renewed peace negotiations between the two countries. At the broad regional level, Jerusalem seeks direct negotiations with Damascus with the objective of weakening Syrian-Iranian ties and Syrian support for Hizballah and Hamas. In this regard, a successful Israeli-Syrian negotiating process could, by weakening Hamas, improve the prospects for an agreement between Israel and the West Bank-based PLO. On the other hand, there is an understandable concern in the PLO camp that, for Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, talks with Syria could represent an elegant way to exit unproductive talks with President Mahmoud Abbas.
Even without Israeli-Syrian talks, Israel hopes that Syria’s acute regional isolation, as illustrated by the absence of major Arab leaders from the recent Arab summit in Damascus, coupled with its continued drift alongside Hizballah and Hamas into the Iranian orbit, will persuade Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to redouble their support for the PLO and their pressure on Hamas, and to adopt a more flexible attitude toward both the spirit and the substance of the Arab peace initiative. Of course, Israel also has to take into account that one objective of the Saudi and Egyptian response to the Iran-Syria-Hamas alliance is to try to distance Hamas from that alliance by embracing it and pressuring both Hamas and the PLO to renew their unity government. Success in this endeavor would present both Jerusalem and the international Quartet with a demand to soften their conditions for talking to such a government.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, in order to understand Israel’s response to both the current tension with Syria and Hizballah and the link between that tension and the status of Israeli-Palestinian relations, it is vital to recognize the major evolution that has taken place in recent years in Israel’s grand strategic thinking regarding the Iranian threat. Iran–not Syria and not Palestine–is today the prism through which Israeli security planners look at the region, its permutations and the threats it presents. Any effort at either war or peace with Syria is directed against Iran. The non-state Islamist actors Hizballah and Hamas represent Iranian footholds on Israel’s borders and on the shores of the Mediterranean. Israeli-Egyptian cooperation regarding Hamas relates to Iran.
Of course, Israel still has a host of strategic threats and issues to deal with. But the prism is Iran.