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Israel's Man in Damascus
In October 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin telephoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to inform him that peace was at hand between Israel and Syria. Two weeks later, Rabin was dead, killed by a reactionary Jewish Israeli fanatic; the peace agreement that Rabin referenced died not long thereafter. But Israeli hopes for an eventual agreement with the Assad regime managed to survive. There have been four subsequent attempts by Israeli prime ministers -- one by Ehud Barak, one by Ehud Olmert, and two by Benjamin Netanyahu -- to forge a peace with Syria.
This shared history with the Assad regime is relevant when considering Israel’s strategy toward the ongoing civil war in Syria. Israel’s most significant strategic goal with respect to Syria has always been a stable peace, and that is not something that the current civil war has changed. Israel will intervene in Syria when it deems it necessary; last week’s attacks testify to that resolve. But it is no accident that those strikes were focused solely on the destruction of weapons depots, and that Israel has given no indication of wanting to intervene any further. Jerusalem, ultimately, has little interest in actively hastening the fall of Bashar al-Assad.
Israel knows one important thing about the Assads: for the past 40 years, they have managed to preserve some form of calm along the border. Technically, the two countries have always been at war -- Syria has yet to officially recognize Israel -- but Israel has been able to count on the governments of Hafez and Bashar Assad to enforce the Separation of Forces Agreement from 1974, in which both sides agreed to a cease-fire in the Golan Heights, the disputed vantage point along their shared border. Indeed, even when Israeli and Syrian forces were briefly locked in fierce fighting in 1982 during Lebanon’s civil war, the border remained quiet.