JERUSALEM, June 11 (JTA) — Israel is reacting cautiously to the death of Syrian President Hafez Assad, the hard-line foe who in recent years held the key to comprehensive Middle East peace.
“The government of Israel understands the sorrow of the Syrian people over the death of President Hafez Assad,” Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s Office said in a statement.
“Israel worked in the past to achieve peace with Syria, and will continue to do so in the future with any leadership that emerges,” the statement continued.
“Israel places importance on the maintenance of calm on its borders with Syria and Lebanon, and hopes that Syria will do the same.”
Foreign Minister David Levy called Assad’s death “the end of an era in the Middle East, and perhaps the beginning of a new era of hope. We hope that the stability of Syria will be maintained, and that its commitment to peace will take on a constructive meaning.”
Among the questions raised in Israel was whether Assad’s anticipated successor, his son Bashar, would be able to establish himself quickly to ensure continued stability in the region.
On Sunday, Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party nominated Bashar to succeed his father as president.
One Middle East expert suggested Bashar, 34, may be more open toward Israel than his father. However, he stressed it was unlikely Bashar would dare stray from the hard line his father set in the negotiations with Israel. He had demanded a total Israeli pullback on the Golan Heights to the June 4, 1967, lines.
Regional Development Minister Shimon Peres cast the succession issue in a different light.
“We are putting too much emphasis on people and not circumstances,” said Peres, also a former prime minister. He said Assad’s successor would have to adapt to today’s world circumstances — a situation in which Israel is a military force and economies are global.
“If [Assad's] successor does not adapt himself to the situation, Syria will remain a poor country, very isolated and in a difficult position,” Peres told Israel Radio.
Peres added he believed Hafez Assad had wanted to make peace, “but he was unable to because he could not make the necessary compromise. He 7demanded the Golan, which he got. But when he also wanted the [northern shore] of the Kinneret, he crossed an Israeli line.”
Ha’aretz analyst Ze’ev Schiff wrote that as far as the Israeli-Syrian peace process is concerned, it does not matter who succeeds Assad — that process will be frozen for an indefinite time. Schiff wrote that Assad’s successor would first have to focus on establishing power, and could not risk compromise with Israel.
Barak noted at his weekly Cabinet meeting that Assad’s death had created a “different” Middle East, but did not elaborate. In the immediate future, he foresees stability in the border region.
Israel Defense Force sources were quoted by Israel Radio as saying no unusual movement was seen in the Syrian army, but that the IDF could continue its routine activities with heightened intelligence readiness.
In the Israeli opposition, Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon said Israel must act cautiously with unstable regimes. Knesset member Limor Livnat said Israel must act with special care when it comes to concessions and agreements with neighbors who are not democratic.
Other opposition members said that in light of the current uncertainty, it was good that no peace deal had been signed with Syria in which Israel relinquished control of the Golan Heights. But Barak was quoted as noting that the Israeli peace with Egypt continued after the death of Anwar Sadat.
Druse Arabs living on the Golan Heights called a day of mourning and a general strike for Assad. A memorial rally was held in the town of Majdal Shams.
Israel Radio said a delegation of Druse leaders hoped to attend Assad’s funeral on Tuesday.