The dilemma Israel faces in trying to formulate a strategy on Syria two years into its civil war is symbolized by a case being heard in a small courtroom near Tel Aviv.
The state is prosecuting an Arab Israeli who briefly joined the rebel forces fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Arrested after his return to Israel, Hikmat Massarwa, a 29-year-old baker, is accused of unlawful military training, having contacts with foreign agents and traveling to a hostile state.
The trial hinges on the unanswered question of who, if anyone, Israel favors in the war and if the rebels will turn out to be friends or enemies.
The prosecutor in Lod is trying to depict Massarwa as having aligned himself with foes of Israel, but Judge Avraham Yaakov is struggling for clarity.
“There’s no legal guidance regarding the rebel groups fighting in Syria,” he told a recent hearing.
Matters were simpler during the decades of unchallenged al-Assad family rule.
Technically, Israel is at war with its northern neighbor. It captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East War, built settlements and annexed the land. However, belligerence was rare and the borderland has remained largely quiet for decades.
Al-Assad’s Syria is part of the so-called “Axis of Resistance,” along with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, both archenemies of the Jewish state. However, Syria itself avoided open conflict.
Israel was slow to welcome the uprising against al-Assad when it broke out in March 2011. Though some leaders now call for his overthrow, planners fret about what might follow.
“The question for us is no longer whether it is good or not if al-Assad stays in power, but how do we control our interests in this divided, murky situation, which could last for decades,” said Ofer Shelah of the Yesh Atid party, which is part of the government coalition.
The dilemma has grown more acute since Islamist fighters linked to al-Qaeda assumed a prominent role in the rebels’ battle plans.
Israelis believe one in 10 of the rebels is a jihadi who might turn his gun on them once al-Assad is gone. They also worry that Hezbollah guerrillas allied to al-Assad could get hold of his chemical arsenal and other advanced weaponry.
So Israel has acted with restraint on Syria — shooting at its troops across the occupied Golan Heights only when hit by stray fire and playing down an Israeli airstrike on a suspected Hezbollah-bound convoy in January.
Officials say Israel has also been cool to Western proposals to increase aid to the Syrian rebels to help them match al-Assad’s superior armed forces.
One Israeli official said that he responds to any suggestions of a foreign military role with the question: “Do you really know on whose behalf you’ll be intervening?”
However, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presiding over a new, right-leaning coalition and the Israeli military stretched by keeping vigil over several fronts — including Islamist-ruled Egypt — the message has been far from uniform.
Netanyahu may have contributed to this by framing Iran and its nuclear program as Israel’s overriding regional concern, bolstering the case for removing Tehran’s ally al-Assad. When an Israeli intelligence analyst said two weeks ago that al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons, both the Netanyahu government and its foreign allies were blindsided, officials have said.