JERUSALEM: Israeli officials have become increasingly outspoken in their belief that Syria's President Bashar Assad should relinquish power after a 13-month uprising that has killed thousands of his citizens — a surprising turnaround that risks backfiring and potentially strengthening the embattled Syrian leader.
These calls mark an important shift in Israel, where leaders initially reacted to the uprising with barely disguised concern and alarm. As the Arab Spring remakes the fabric of the Middle East, Israel has been torn between support for democratic change and a surprising comfort with the established order.
This early dominant thinking was that while Assad was no friend of Israel, he remained a known quantity whose family had kept the shared border quiet for nearly four decades and occasionally pursued peace talks with Israel. With Islamic parties on the rise throughout the region, there was no telling who might replace him.
But as the Syrian uprising has dragged on and the death toll mounted in recent months, a number of Israeli officials have concluded that the Middle East would be a better place without Assad.
This new Israeli thinking is based on both moral and strategic grounds.
Many officials, including the hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, say that Assad's tough crackdown on his own people has robbed him of any legitimacy to remain in power.
Others believe Assad's departure would weaken what the Israelis call Iran's "axis of evil" in the region — the anti-Israel alliance of Iran, Syria, Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla group and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Fears that Assad might attack Israel to divert attention from his domestic troubles have also subsided. Some even believe he will be replaced by a moderate, Western-leaning government.
In perhaps the toughest comments to date, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said last week that Assad's ouster would be "very positive" for Israel. "The toppling down of Assad will be a major blow to the radical axis," he said in a CNN interview. "It will weaken dramatically Iran."
Although Israeli officials now believe Assad's days are numbered, they say they are keeping their distance from the key players in Syria. They do not want to be seen as intervening in Syrian affairs. For this reason, officials say, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been extremely careful with his public statements, condemning the bloodshed but saying nothing about the future of Syria.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel would welcome international action against Assad, just as international action in Libya helped oust the late Moammar Gadhafi. But he said Israel is not openly pressuring the West to take action.
"We know our place. It's not for us to give advice," he said. "We're not doing anything to make him go. We're not getting involved or even thinking of any interference."
Palmor said Israel has no idea who might replace Assad. But Israeli security officials believe that if Assad goes, there is a good chance that a moderate, Sunni, Western-leaning government will take his place.
Officials said this assessment is based on "the latest intelligence" and the belief that Syria is far different from Egypt, where Islamic parties have risen in influence since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year. They declined to elaborate and acknowledged they are uncertain what lies ahead, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a sensitive security assessment.
Alon Liel, a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said he met with opposition figures in Turkey several weeks ago. Liel said he believes fundamentalist Muslims are not so influential in Syria as they are in Egypt.
He also said that Turkey, which is run by an Islamic-leaning government that has generally good ties with the West, would be an influential player in the reconstruction of Syria. At the same time, Liel said Israel should be very careful with its public comments on Syria, since any criticism of Assad could be construed as backing for the opposition.
Israeli officials insist there are no contacts with Syrian opposition figures. But there are signs of at least semiofficial contacts.
Israeli opposition lawmaker Isaac Herzog said in late February that he had held meetings with Syrian opposition figures in Europe and the U.S., and that he believed they were ready for peaceful relations with Israel.
Likewise, Ayoub Kara, a Druse Arab lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud Party, said he has been approached by members of Syria's opposition. "From all the talks I've had with them not a single word was said against Israel, the opposite is true, they say they will strive for peace with Israel," he said.
Syria's opposition is fractured, consisting of groups with a wide range of beliefs, and neither Kara nor Herzog would identify his contacts.
But their comments risk playing into Assad's hands. Since the uprising erupted, Assad, who has traditionally tried to portray himself as leading the Arab world's opposition to Israel, has tried to discredit his opponents as lackeys of Israel.
The gambit largely failed as horrified Arab audiences watched the regime's increasingly bloody crackdown on what began as peaceful protests — and were reminded by Assad's opponents that he has kept the Israel front largely quiet. Syria's Muslim Brotherhood accused him of serving Israeli interests by protected its northeastern flank.
"Syria has been trying to play both sides," said Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. Under Assad, "it has been trying to present itself as an enemy of Israel ... but at the same time, it has always been rather accommodating toward Israel."
Assad's hardline language, however, has highlighted the vulnerability of the main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, a coalition of secular factions as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The SNC is trying to convince the West that it's not anti-Israel, while avoiding saying anything too conciliatory about the Jewish state that could upset supporters and give the regime new fodder for claims that it's the victim of an Israeli-led plot.
At times, the balancing act fails and internal disagreement breaks out into the open.
In December, the SNC's secular leader, Paris-based university professor Burhan Ghalioun, drew criticism from within the ranks when he told a U.S. newspaper that an SNC-led Syria would cut ties with Iran and Hezbollah and try to reclaim the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967, only through negotiations — key commitments sought in the past by Israel and the U.S.
In its political platform, the SNC is more opaque, saying a new Syria would "work to restore" sovereignty over the Golan and build relations with states in the region based on national interests — without mentioning Israel by name.
Louay Safi, a senior SNC official, suggested it might be best for Israel to remain silent.
"We cannot prevent the Israeli officials from making statements," he said. "But what we are saying is that we are not in a position, nor is it useful at all for advancing the cause of democracy in Syria, to engage in a complex issue that will probably detract from the focus on the people of Syria at this point."