Benjamin Netanyahu at Aipac
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Ignoring the Syria problem? Reuters

While talks between US president Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu focused on Iran, the conflict in Syria was relegated to the background.

Netanyahu's speech at the American Israel Public Affair Committee in Washington DC started with a passionate plea. "Never again" he said, alluding to the US's hesitation in 1944 at bombing the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. "2012 is not 1944."

Netanyahu is right: 2012 is different. A new tyrant has emerged in the form of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who still pretends that "armed terrorist groups" and not the army are responsible for the thousands of deaths across the country.

But despite Syria being Israel's neighbour, the Netanyahu administration has remained largely coy on the Syria question.

Netanyahu recently condemned what he called "criminal massacres against innocent civilians in Syria" but his government also insisted it would not interfere with another country's domestic affairs.

Israel has several reasons for not explicitly calling on Assad to step down.

The Golan Heights: Israel wants to maintain calm over the Golan Heights. Only one Israeli has been killed in the northern region since the war of October 1973. Despite Assad's anti-Israel rhetoric he has stopped short of directly attacking his neighbour. Should a new regime take power, the situation could rapidly change. The Syrian National Council has for example clearly stated that one if its first objectives would be to retrieve the Golan Heights.

The Palestinian resistance: Assad was a patron of Hamas and the group had headquarters in Damascus. After the uprising the relationship between the two cooled down and Hamas leader Ismail Haniya changed sides to back the opposition. Any new regime is likely to support the Palestinian cause - maybe even more so that Assad.

The emergence of a new potential enemy: Israel fears that an anti-Israel axis could be strengthened in the region. In the case of regime change in Syria, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is set to emerge as one of the country's key political player. The group has never hidden its support for Hamas and disdain of Israel.

Other questions revolve around peace talks and the dangers of an armed opposition in Syria.

In Libya very few rebels were willing to hand over their arms after the conflict and in Syria Hamas could directly benefit from dumped arms.

Assad could also provide the Lebanese group Hezbollah with weapons in an attempt to bolster its military capacity.

But regime change in Syria could provide Israel with some advantages. With Iran's support for Assad the Iran-Syrian alliance would not survive the aftermath of the revolution. Hezbollah's unwillingness to stand up for Syrian protesters has also been widely condemned across the Arab world and undermined its reputation as a people's movement.

With the United Nations estimating the Syrian death toll at 7,000, a figure activists say is well below the reality, it is difficult to understand how the US and Israel believe Iran is currently the biggest threat in the Middle East.