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Israelis Support an Attack on Assad but Also Support Assad

by Shmuel Rosner

September 1, 2013 | 5:53 am

A Syrian child holds banner reading “Israel protector,
we are coming to get you” during a demonstration
against President Bashar al-Assad in Idlib. (Reuters)

Israeli Pollster Menachem Lazar of Panels Politics agreed to share with me the results of the survey about Syria which he conducted late last week. It's worth mentioning that the American public seems to be changing its views on Syria quite rapidly, and if something of this sort is happening among Israelis then the survey from last Thursday might not be a reflection of the most up to date Israeli opinion. But there’s reason to believe that Israelis are less likely to change their views on this matter for various reasons – one of them is that they are better informed to begin with – so I do believe that Lazar's poll gives us a glimpse at some interesting trends worthy of attention.

69% of Israelis told him that they support an American attack in Syria “following Assad’s use of chemical weapons”. 23% were against such an attack. 81% said that Israel should take no part in the attack.

Note this: 45% of Israelis believe the expert estimates concerning the “low probability” of a Syrian attack on Israel and don't see it happening. But 44% of Israelis believe that Assad would respond to an American attack by retaliating against Israel. This means that there are many Israelis who support an attack (69%) even though they believe (44%) that Israel – i.e. they themselves– will pay a price for this attack. That’s quite impressive. And not even all of them believe that Israelis should definitely hit back at Syria in case of a Syrian attack. 54% of Israelis, a majority, say that a response should be mandatory, yet more than a third, 36%, say that the Israeli response should come, or not, based on how hard it is hit by Syria. This means, I guess, that if Syria merely responds by firing a couple of shots across the border without really hurting anyone, those Israelis will favor taking the hit and just leaving it at that.

Most Israelis aren’t afraid that the result of these skirmishes will be an all out war between Israel and Syria (69% “aren’t wary” of such a scenario while 23% are). And they trust Netanyahu’s leadership (59%) and the IDF (85%) to do the right thing. They trust the IDF even though 57% don’t believe that the Israeli home front is well protected from Syrian attack.

By the way, Netanyahu can probably feel quite safe following the last round of polls. A new poll by Smith shows that the man thought to be Netanyahu’s main potential rival – Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party – keeps losing steam. The party is now at 12 mandates according to Smith (it has 19 seats in the Knesset). And a mere 3% of Israel’s voters believe he is fit to be Prime Minister. Netanyahu, by comparison, has 54.2% of voters who believe he is fit, followed by Labor’s Shelly Yacimovitz with 9.2% and Naftali Bennet of Habait Hayehudi with 8.6% (by the way, in this poll 66.6% of Israelis support “military intervention by the west” in Syria – pretty close to Panels Politics’ 69%).

Ten days ago, I wrote that: “Israel is conflicted about the civil war in Syria. Assad’s staying would be a victory for Iran and Hezbollah, but his going would mean losing a strongman who can keep the border between Israel and Syria quiet. A rational regime can be convinced, by diplomacy or force if necessary, to refrain from harassing Israel. Who knows, though, if Assad’s replacements would be rational”. Thanks to the new poll, I now have fresh numbers with which to demonstrate that this assessment was valid. Consider this: most Israelis want an attack on Assad and are willing to support it even if they believe that Israel would have to suffer retaliation as a result. So you’d think Israelis are sick and tired of Assad, right? Well, they are, but thinking about the alternatives they have to be careful.

When asked 'as far as Israel is concerned which of the two would be better, Assad or the rebels?' Israelis have a problem. Punishing Assad for his deeds is one thing, getting rid of him is quite another. So 49% of Israelis said they “don’t know”, and among those who have an opinion the clear majority- 34% vs. 17%- would take Assad over the rebels.

So they are conflicted, which also makes them a little confused. Just 17% of respondents want the rebels to control Syria, but 42% of them would like the military operation against Syria to aim at toppling the Assad regime. So there are answers to different questions that aren’t quite compatible, and hardly make much sense. Yet the answer to the second of the two questions – should the attack on Syria aim to topple Assad or just to warn and punish him? – is one through which we can see how truly conflicted the public is over this issue. Disagreeing with the 42% who support the toppling of Assad, 46% of Israelis want him merely punished but no more.

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