Israeli case for war with Syria - and Lebanon
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - The Middle East seemed to snowball into crisis last week, as war
threats were fired back and forth between Syria and Israel. Israeli Foreign
Minister Avigdor Lieberman triggered the conflict on Thursday by saying that if
war were to break out, the Syrians would lose, prompting Foreign Minister Walid
al-Mouallem to respond that Israeli cities would not be spared by Syria.
He described the Israelis as "thugs" and said that a new regional war would
kill whatever chances there were of returning to the peace process. Syrian
Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otari made similar statements, saying that Israel
would live to regret a war with Syria, while Israeli Defense Minister Ehud
Barak told his
troops to prepare for war with Damascus should peace efforts fail.
Trying to defuse the crisis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on
Sunday that war was not imminent. Speaking at his weekly cabinet meeting,
Netanyahu said that Israel desired peace "with all its neighbors", adding, "We
did it with Egypt and Jordan, and we want to achieve similar agreements with
the Palestinians and the Syrians. I hope that we are on the brink of renewing
negotiations with the Palestinians, and we are open to renewing the process
with the Syrians as well."
A quick read through Middle East history proves that when such talk flows back
and forth through the mass media, the chances of a real war are actually very
low. Countries in a permanent state of war do not inform one another before
attacking, preferring to surprise their enemy during combat, rather than give
them an early warning, as was the case during the October war of 1973.
If a Syrian-Israeli war is on nobody's agenda, why have war drums been beating
for the past week?
One reason is that hardliners in the Netanyahu cabinet like Lieberman, who have
no faith in the peace process, would like to see Israel go to war with a
traditional enemy such as Syria. They blame Syria for many of Israel's
misfortunes and its losses both in the Lebanon war of 2006 and the Gaza war of
Lieberman, who has little say in matters of both peace and war, feels
increasingly sidelined by Netanyahu and Barak, the two men who effectively
handle Israel's foreign relations, although Lieberman remains officially
foreign minister. All the same, Lieberman's hardline policies place Israel on a
dangerous collision course with the entire Arab neighborhood. Wiser and more
experienced Israeli statesmen, like President Shimon Peres and the prime
minister, certainly do not want war with Syria, knowing how painful it would be
to have Syrian missiles landing on Israeli cities.
They realize that such a war would enrage regional heavyweights like Saudi
Arabia, Iran and Turkey, isolating Israel in the international community. The
Israeli state has still not recovered from the very bad publicity it got from
the United Nations-mandated Goldstone Report, which accused the Israel Defense
Forces - along with Hamas - of war crimes in Gaza in 2008. It is one thing to
justify a war against non-state players like Hezbollah and Hamas, peddling an
argument that can easily sell with the Israeli public, but completely different
to do so with a powerful regional heavyweight like Syria.
Another reason the war rhetoric surfaced links directly to Lebanon. For months,
the world has watched threats go back and forth between Israel and Hezbollah.
Many believed that the war of 2006 was not over, given that none of Israel's
declared objectives had been achieved. Israel promised to liberate two soldiers
captured by Hezbollah and then exterminate the Lebanese group, which has been a
thorn in Israel's side since 1982.
Not only did Israel fail in all of the above, but far from being weakened,
Hezbollah emerged from 2006 stronger than before, both in terms of popularity
on the Arab and Muslim street, and in terms of military might. It won all of
its contested seats in the 2009 parliamentary elections and got all that it
wanted in the cabinet of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, forming a strong
representation with its ally, the Free Patriotic Movement of General Michel
Netanyahu, who is a strong advocate of war with Iran, cannot tolerate the
existence of Hezbollah. Such a powerful player in the Middle East, so
independent from US control and so dangerous to the state of Israel, is a
nightmare for the Israeli public. By not winning in 2006, many Israelis believe
that Israel lost the war with Hezbollah.
In 1973, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir was forced to resign, not for losing
a war against Syria and Egypt, but simply for not winning. The same applied to
ex-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, who failed to win the war either in
Lebanon in 2006 or in Gaza in 2008. Netanyahu needs another round with Lebanon
to right the wrongs done to the military under his predecessor. Not only would
that empower him domestically and in the international community, it would also
make him stronger in any peace talks forced on him by the United States.
Top officials in Israel have therefore been itching for a new war with Lebanon.
They let off a trial balloon to see how Hezbollah would react to threats and
received a very aggressive response from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who
in thundering back-to-back speeches repeated earlier threats that he was
willing to strike at "Haifa and beyond Haifa", referring to the northern
Israeli port city.
Within Israel itself there is a widespread belief that there should be another
war with Hezbollah soon. There are fears, however, that the time is not ripe,
not knowing how Iran would react if such a conflict erupted, realizing as well
that the US is not too enthusiastic about such an adventure, with its troops
still grounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, to divert attention from the
potentially explosive situation on the borders with Lebanon, top Israeli
officials decided to fire empty threats at the Syrians - never really
convinced, however, that they wanted or were capable of a new war with
Having that said, nobody can rule out the possibility of another war with
Lebanon, which many analysts are predicting might happen this summer. War with
Syria, however, would be too dangerous for Israel and too costly for the entire
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.