A shorter and somewhat different version of this article was published last week by the IHT-NYT.
Six months ago, my 6-year old daughter had to pay her first visit to the bomb shelter, as rockets were being fired at Tel Aviv. Last Monday, she had to pay her second, and then third visits. Sunday, the night before, as she went to bed, we reminded her that sirens will be heard the next day, and that she shouldn’t be afraid of them. ‘Yes, yes’, she impatiently and knowingly brushed us off; she knows it’s a drill. Along with all other Israeli children, and the part of the adult population that is obedient enough to play its role in such drills, at 12:30 p.m. she was led by her teacher to the shelter. At 7:05 p.m. we had another drill at home.
Such drills aren’t a novelty to Israelis, but the more a potential war seems imminent, the more somber they become. The whole day radio announcers reminded us: “in case of real emergency, another siren will be heard”. And indeed, such caveats seem necessary as in recent weeks hardly a day passed without someone mentioning the possibility of a real war. Israel, as the New York Times reported a week ago, is reluctantly being dragged into involvement in Syria’s turmoil. Last Thursday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “displayed a new defiance in an interview”, warning Israel that Syria “will retaliate for any Israeli aggression next time”. Early last month Israeli warplanes attacked targets in Syria to prevent a delivery of Iranian missiles to Hezbollah. There were two Israeli airstrikes in Syria within two days — the second being the third this year, after more than five years without Israeli attacks in Syria.
Currently, Israel’s imperative is clear: to prevent the transfer of “game changing” weapons into the wrong hands. That is: preventing Syria from delivering certain types of weaponry to the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, making sure that chemical weapons don’t find new and irresponsible owners, keeping Syria from getting new weapon systems that will make it harder for Israel to defend itself against future aggression. This mainly means the delivery of the Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. In recent days there were contradictory reports on the expected date of delivery of these missiles, but the bottom line is that the deal moves forward, and the Russians refuse to back down. “Maybe nothing has arrived, and maybe something has arrived”, says Brig. Gen. (Ret) Michael Herzog. “But the important thing for Israel is that the Russians say they are sending it. This is a strategically significant weapon that changes the equation in very dangerous ways. It cannot be ignored.”
As Israel vows to act “with determination” to achieve such preventive goals - by offensive means if necessary – the escalation of rhetorical threats was probably unavoidable. There are Syrian threats to use missiles against Israel. And threats from Hezbollah of launching a “popular-resistance campaign in the Golan Heights”, on the Israeli-Syria border, a very quiet border that in recent weeks is showing worrying signs of becoming less quiet. This, in turn, prompts Israel to make its own threats. While its leaders keep saying that they don’t want part in Syria’s war and have no interest in igniting a new one – and there’s no reason to doubt their sincerity on that front - their message carries a somewhat contradictory sound. Or, as Prof. Eyal Zisser, a leading Israeli expert on Syria, described it to me last week: “Israel wants to both eat its cake and keep it too”– it wants to both provoke retaliation by constantly attacking Syrian installations and convoys and sustain peace.
As it keeps the fragile peace going, Israel sends its citizens to practice their shelter drills and warns of a “surprise war”, as Air Force’s chief, General Amir Eshel did about a week ago. “These days a number of scenarios can lead to a surprise war”, Eshel said, and of course, some of the many scenarios he was talking about Israel can’t control. A “Somalization” of Israel’s neighbor- something which both Israeli and Arab diplomats view as a real possibility- will present Israel with a whole set of new security challenges.
However, some of the threatening scenarios are indeed contingent on Israel’s policies and on its cost-benefit calculations. If Israel believes that a weak Assad means a cost-free action in Syria and Lebanon, there’s a chance that the hypothesis is wrong. If Israel is hoping that by keeping quiet and refraining from taking responsibility for the reported actions it is giving Assad enough room to maneuver and to avoid escalation – it might not work next time. Israel’s leaders aren’t choosing between good (prevention) and bad (neglecting developing threats). They are choosing between two potential bads: neglecting a short-term threat, and risking a war.
“A severe case of brinkmanship is being played at the moment”, said a former UN south Lebanon peacekeeper about the developing regional tensions and the looming danger of a “widening war”. When such a game of brinkmanship is played, a war can indeed be sudden, but it should hardly be considered a “surprise”.