Sunday, April 06, 2008

Not Yet Time for War

Last week brought a bit more than the usual tensions in dealings between Israel and its neighbors to the north, Lebanon, Hezbollah and Syria. On Wednesday, the inner Israel cabinet that deals with security announced for this coming week a large, unprecedented exercise to test military and civilian readiness for an attack on the homeland. Another announcement said gas masks would be distribute to Israel households in the near future for protection against possible chemical missile attacks. These announcement and the actions are partly taken in response to renewed threats by Hezbollah Secretary Nasrallah to avenge the killing, presumably by Israel operatives, of his military commandeer Imad Mughniyeh in February in Dasmascus. Since Israel PM Olmert has already warned that Israel will punish Syria and Lebanon as well as Hezbollah for any such act, the security cabinet seems to have deemed likely a new, rapidly escalating edition of the Second (2006) Lebanon war, triggered by a high profile Hezbollah action. Perhaps a suicide bombing during Passover or next month's celebrations of Israel's 60th anniversay. The estimate might have been raised by a report, later discredited, of an unusual mobilizations in the Syrian army, as if Syria knew from its client Hezbollah that the trigger was going to be pulled.

The Lebanese government was understandably nervous and somewhat dubious that Israel would await provocation to go after Hezbollah. It is still beset by the stalemate over choosing a new President and unable to curb Hezbollah. Prime Minister Siniora expressed his fear of an Israel attack to the UN, US and world opinion. The situation in Syria, once the troop movement report was discounted, appeared calmer to Israelis. Nevertheless, Israel signaled that the combined military-civilian exercise was no prelude to an attack on Syria or anyone else. By week's end the tensions had subsided and Syrian President Assad even allowed that peace with Israel was an imaginable strategy for his country's security. That was consistent with the reendorsement at the Arab League meeting just concluded in Damascus of the Saudi 2002 proposal of peace, once Israel withdrew to the 1967 boundaries. In the meantime, attention in Israel began shifting to another aspect of its complex relationship with Syria: the prospect of fuller disclosure later this month about the Israel Air Force's bombing of some installation in northern Syria, last September. The rumor is the Bush administration will publicize material provided by Israel that confirms the installation was technology purchased from North Korea for purposes of nuclear weapons development.

According to Zvi Barel in Haaretz, the Israel government feared Syria might miscalculate Israel's intentions and drag both sides into a war that neither wants at this time. However, since the relationship between the two states is based on deterrence, arguably any step one side takes to reduce its vulnerability can be read by the other side as aggressive and encourage the other side to preempt before the vulnerability is reduced. On the other hand, if no effort is made to reduce the vulnerability, the other side may also be tempted to attack. So absent MAD capabilities and the will to use them, deterrence is likely to be a fumbling, unstable relationship. No wonder the Second Lebanon War left Israeli strategists brooding about Israel having lost its deterrence strength and what it must do to regain it. But, Barel notes, the brooding might be a waste of time, since both Israel in 2006 and Syria in 1973 showed they can start wars without considering their costs. He suggests the real problem instead is the strategists do not see much benefit in peace with Syria in its present condition. Neutralizing Syria would diminish, but not eliminate the threats from Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. They would prefer peace only after certain conditions have been met: repudiation of Hamas and Hezbollah, a break with Iran, an isolated Syria without any strategic capabilities. In other words, peace would be reward for Syria rather than an opportunity for Israel vis a vis the Middle East and for Syria vis a vis the West.

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