Israel would prefer that Bashar Assad hold onto the presidency in Syria, rather than leave a power vacuum that could be filled by Islamic radicals, according to former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz.

“The regime in Syria kills its citizens every day, but we must acknowledge that the opposition in Syria is composed of Muslim extremists like al-Qaeda,” he said at a fundraising event for Israel’s Tel Hashomer hospital in Moscow on Monday, according to the daily Maariv. “The question ‘what is better for Israel?’ is an important question because we must ask ourselves if we want to trade the bad regime we know for the very bad regime that we don’t know, and this is something that requires serious consideration.”

“At the moment it looks like even in the rest of the world, they understand that they cannot replace the Assad regime as long as they don’t know who will take its place,” he added. “Right now it looks like the alternative is forces that will endanger the stability of the region.

Officials and analysts have gone back and forth since the Syrian civil war began in March 2011 as to whether Israel prefers that Assad stay in power or that the rebels topple his regime. Much like Halutz, those who say Israel prefers Assad point out that while the despot has by no means been a friend to Israel, and his strong ties with Iran and Hezbollah are worrisome, there has not been a major altercation with Syria since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Meanwhile, many feared that anarchy would ensue if Assad were to fall, and Muslim extremist groups such as al-Qaeda would be free to flourish and even rule the country, which would have left them in control of Syria’s considerable chemical weapons stockpile.

However, since September, when it was revealed that Assad had used such weapons against civilians in his fight against the rebels, and the Syrian leader was forced to relinquish his chemical weapons program to avoid US military intervention, most have backed off from speculation as to whom Israel prefers will come out on top.

Halutz, who served as IDF chief of staff from 2005 to 2007, also expressed skepticism on the prospects of a peace agreement with the Palestinians in the near future.

“There is only one thing that is central for us,” he said. “To ensure the future of the State of Israel. Regarding this, security arrangements are the most important thing to the Israel government. On everything else, we can compromise, but not on the security of Israel.

“I’m not optimistic on the possibility of coming to an agreement because I have a bit of experience with the Palestinians.”