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Israel Anxiously Monitors Protests In Syria


The protests in Syria are prompting anxiety for Syria's neighbor, Israel. The two sides have no peace treaty but also haven't fought a war since 1973. Over the weekend, Syria gave Israel reason to worry about the future. Palestinians inside Syria appeared on the Golan Heights, Israeli-held territory. Israeli troops fired on the protestors trying to cross the Israeli lines. Israelis watching their neighbor include Moshe Ma'oz, a Middle East scholar at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Welcome to the program, sir.

Professor MOSHE MA'OZ (Hebrew University): Thanks very much for having me.

INSKEEP: Would you describe what happened and explain how Israelis are interpreting this rather complicated episode?

Prof. MA'OZ: It was the day of the Nakba, of the Palestinian disaster from '48. They mourn the loss of their land in the '48 war. Every year they demonstrate. This year was something different. The Palestinian refugees, thousand of them stormed into the fence between Israel and Syria or Syria and Israel. And the Israelis were very, very surprised, including the army. The military intelligence is supposed to know better. So some of them were shot, and many of them were sent back. And Israel, it's raised some questions about the future relations - not only with Syria, but also with the Palestinians. I mean, the issue that many Palestinian refugees - and there are four million of them - are going to walk to the Israeli boundaries all over, I mean, in the West Bank, in Jordan, Gaza Strip, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and women and children, what could be done about it?

INSKEEP: Okay. So, on one level, what we have here is a Palestinian protest, and they are arguing that Israel has taken their land. And a way to show that protest is basically to march on Israel from outside. On another level, though, we have Palestinians marching effectively out of Syria - or out of Syrian-controlled territory, at least. Why is it that the Israeli government would think that Syria's government would be behind this in some way?

Prof. MA'OZ: Because, as you know, Syria is in deep trouble, and this was, for them, a golden opportunity to divert these grievances, this unrest towards Israel.

INSKEEP: Are Israelis deeply concerned about Bashar al-Assad, the ruler of Syria, and his future?

Prof. MA'OZ: Yes, they are. And, you know, they're not all one view in Israel, you know, and they speak about two Jews and four views. There are many views about it. And I think the government at least, the establishment, want to work with a devil that they know. And this Bashar, they know him. He's not, you know, the idol of Israel, but at least he's pragmatic. His nation, it is not fanatic as the Muslim Brothers could be. So they still harbor the hope that they can sway him to leave this axis of evil with Iran and Hezbollah - not now, because now it's a bit of a mess. But this is a hope, of course.

If there is a guarantee that the next regime will be democratic, free democratic Westminster-style, of course, all Israelis would like to see a revolution. But this is not going to happen, unfortunately, because the forces of democracy and liberalism in Syria are very small and disorganized. And if in the worst case scenario there is a coup d'etat revolution, it's likely that the most organized groups can come, emerge to power. This is Muslim Brothers.

Many Israelis are worried that it's going to be worse, because they're religious people. They are fanatic - not all of them, many of them - and they would like to eliminate Israel. So it's going to be different than Bashar.

INSKEEP: Meaning that from the Israeli point of view, whoever comes after Assad could be worse than a government that works with Hezbollah, the militant group in Lebanon, as well as working with Iran?

Prof. MA'OZ: Yes. And incidentally, this is the position of the Israeli military establishment - not only for professors, but they say that the danger is not Syria. The danger is Iran. And they, everybody wants peace, but nobody wants to pay, and the price is very well-known, the Golan Heights and Syrian influence in Lebanon and a great deal of financial support for Syria - of course, from you Americans - and for the other parts of the international military. This is, more or less, a blueprint. Whether it's going to work or not, I don't know. But - and this, of course, is another possibility of some sort of a coalition in Syria after Bashar goes, but this is a very, very slim possibility.

INSKEEP: Moshe Ma'oz is an expert on Middle Eastern politics. He's at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Thanks very much.

Prof. MA'OZ: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.