Along with the smiles and backslapping last week in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama also revealed their disagreements over Syria. At their joint press conference the president had harsh words for Bashar Assad, saying the Syrian president “must go.” Netanyahu settled for mentioning the carnage in the neighboring state without naming those responsible or saying anything about political change in Damascus.
For the past three years Netanyahu was Assad’s silent ally. With the Syrian regime becoming destabilized, its borders breached and the struggle for its future rupturing the region, Israel had the back of the tyrant from Damascus. It made no deterrent military moves, did not openly support the Syrian opposition and did not even use the horrors in Syria for obligatory propaganda like “Arabs murder Arabs and the hypocritical world does not care, and we are criticized for much less.” Netanyahu made do with general statements about the “breakup” of Syria and warnings against chemical weapons and missiles falling into the hands of terrorists.
Alliances between states do not require meetings between leaders, exchanges of ambassadors and declarations of support and affection. Mutual interests that the parties understand and act upon are sufficient.
In moving closer to Assad, Netanyahu had a number of motives. First, he wanted to put some space between Syria and Iran, in the hope that Damascus would stand aside in the event of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities in Natanz and Fordow.
1. Israel wanted Assad gone after he refused to turn on Iran, but is now ambivalent.
The Jihadist opposition actually poses the greater threat to Israel and the region, and Netanyahu now understands that. We may even see a split and growth of tensions with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states -- al-Nusra's sponsors -- who some years ago became an ally of convenience to the Israeli right-wing.