In international coverage of the ongoing crisis in Syria, there is a surprising absence: Israel. For decades, Israel has been closely identified with the quagmire of Middle Eastern politics: the perpetual tension with Palestine occupying, in the popular imagination, the role of an analogy to the region’s wider problems. Yet if Israel was once the poster-boy for regional strife, it is no longer. That mantle is undoubtedly, and tragically, taken by Syria. Nevertheless, Israel remains conspicuously absent, seemingly disengaged from the crisis on its doorstep.
Disengagement makes sense, however, when one considers the choices before Israel. On the one hand is Daesh, ostensibly the ‘Islamic State’: a death cult committed to the elimination of both the Jewish state, and the Jewish people. On the other hand, the Syrian Government, a long-standing opponent accused of arming Hezbollah, and which still claims territory in the Golan Heights. Israel, in consequence, is content for its many enemies to shed one another’s blood, leaving each either too weak, or else too distracted, to pose a threat.
Unfortunately, this explanation cannot fully capture why Israel remains disengaged. Doubtless western powers are equally content to see Assad and Daesh exhaust themselves in a protracted conflict, but have nonetheless opted to take action. The difference, quite possibly, lies in that unlike Israel, western nations feel an obligation to assist regional partners, especially Iraq, given their deep and contentious involvement in recent conflicts. Israel, bereft of allies, has faced no such call to arms, and has found disengagement more attractive as a consequence.
A further, and perhaps the key, element to the story is domestic. For one, Israelis have not faced attacks by Daesh like those in Tunisia and Paris, and have not been motivated by the resulting clamour for action that was most recently noted in the British parliament. Crucially, Israel has been, and remains still, far more likely to face terrorist attacks planned from Gaza and the West Bank than from Syria. The defining relationship in Israeli foreign affairs (or domestic, depending on one’s perspective) is surely that with Palestine. In consequence, Israel’s overriding priority is domestic security, and Israel’s foreign policy, manifest in what some commentators have called a ‘siege mentality’, is an expression of this desire for security. In this sense, disengagement, neutrality in Syria is not incongruous with Israel’s prominence in the region, but rather consistent with Israel’s long-standing foreign policy, focused on the maintenance of domestic security.
Given Israel’s focus on the domestic, it is unsurprising that they have not as yet decided to intervene in Syria, given that neither Assad, nor Daesh, have yet struck out against Israel. Daesh, however, facing airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, increasingly reaches out beyond its borders to inflict violence abroad, with one Israeli official describing a Daesh attack in Israel as ‘Only a matter of time’. This is more likely hyperbole than sense. However, it illuminates a crucial conclusion: that while Israel remains a missing voice in the Syrian crisis at present, events that threaten Israel’s domestic security may yet find this voice being raised.