Friday, February 1, 2013

Winds of war

Suddenly, the agenda changed. The general elections and the distribution of seats and the mandates and the struggles and intrigues inherent to forming a  government coalition were relegated to the back pages. The headlines were caught by an air strike in Syria and an alert on the Lebanese border and threats from Tehran and an attack on an embassy in Turkey. Once again the winds of war began to blow. Israelis moved en masse from waiting their turn at the polling stations to the long waiting lines at the gas mask distribution stations.

Just what happened here? What for? And why now? For two long years the State of Israel watched the Syrian bloodbath from the sidelines and took care not to intervene. For two years IDF forces on the Golan border observed with great attention the course of the civil war taking place on the other side of the border and carefully noted on their maps which villages had been captured by the rebels and which are still held by Bashar Assad's loyalists – all the while, the Israeli forces holding their fire and not intervening. And suddenly, this week, an air raid in Syria, a high profile event even though no official responsibility was taken.

More ridiculous than ever was the insistence of the Israeli media to add "according to foreign sources” whenever Israeli responsibility for that raid was referred to. "Mr. General (ret.), what have you got to say about the raid which according to foreign sources our air force carried out in Syria? " "Well, I have nothing to add to what the foreign sources told, except to say that the mysterious unknown attackers did a good job. Well done, well done!"

Veteran commentator Amos Harel provided a thorough explanation on the pages of "Ha'aretz": "Israel had set out red lines for Syria and Hezbollah. Already during the term of the Olmert Government, long before the outbreak of civil war in Syria, Israel gave a warning that it would not tolerate the transfer of balance-breaking Advanced Defense Systems to Hezbollah, and would if necessary resort to force to prevent such a move. On several occasions the Israeli position was set out in greater detail: no transfer of advanced anti-aircraft missile systems, of precision ground to ground missiles or of long-range land to sea missiles. (...) The Air Force is especially concerned about the transfer of Russian-made anti-aircraft  missile systems, because they  might significantly limit the planes' freedom of action, undermined the present situation where Israeli planes enjoy complete air superiority over Lebanon and face no real risk. These flights over Lebanon are critical for gathering intelligence. The introduction of SA-17 surface-to-air missiles to Lebanon, a step against which Israel cautioned Russia even as these systems were sold to Syria, is a very problematic development." Apparently, it proved problematic enough for the Israeli Air Force to be sent to destroy these missiles while still en route, before they could arrive and be stationed on Lebanese soil.

All this is a bit interesting for those who know some basic principles of International Law. For example, it is universally accepted that a sovereign state (for example, the state called Lebanon) owns its airspace and has the right to protect that airspace, including the deployment of anti-aircraft artillery or  missiles and the use of these to deter foreign planes from entering this airspace without permission. On the other hand, International Law does not authorize any country (for example, the one called Israel) to regularly send its planes into the airspace of another country so as to gather intelligence. Certainly there is no reference in International Law to the right of a state to set its neighbor "red lines" and forbid it to obtain effective air defenses. But as with regard to building settlements in the West Bank, on this issue, too, successive governments of Israel have created their own peculiar international law which is quite different from that practiced in the rest of the world.

This state of affairs did not just begin recently. I well remember one evening in 1981, over thirty years ago, when the very same issue already came to focus of the public agenda.  All of a sudden, the government burst out with an outcry  about Syrian anti-aircraft missiles being stationed on Lebanese soil, and the smell of war was in the air. Then Prime Minister Menachem Begin spoke about it to the gathered masses at a city square (at that time Likud was still able to bring out great crowds into the streets). And so did the PM cry out: "These missiles are a serious threat to our security. They endanger our planes which fly over Lebanon, and prevent us from keeping track of what is happening there, from knowing which schemes are being plotted against us. We strongly demand that these missiles be removed from Lebanon forthwith." Later in the same speech Prime Minister Begin referred to another issue which was at that time on top of the agenda: "We are greatly opposed to United States selling  to Saudi Arabia the intelligence aircraft type AWACS. That aircraft is a serious threat to our security. Its intelligence gathering systems are so sophisticated that when flying over ​​Saudi Arabia it could keep track of what is happening in Israel, we will be transparent to it and lose the ability to keep our vital secrets. We strongly demand that this plane not be given into Arab hands. " Menachem Begin did not feel any contradiction between the two parts of his speech, nor did his audience.

At the time, the summer of 1981, the tensions faded out after about a week -  but this was but a temporary respite. A year later, in the summer of 1982, the great war broke out which was initially known as "Operation Peace for Galilee" and Israeli soldiers broke northwards as far as Beirut. At the very outbreak of this war, the Air Force launched a massive attack on these infamous missiles, and the Israeli media hailed the technical and operational capacity of the Air Force which destroyed the missiles in a masterful operation carefully crafted for years. (At that time the illusion still prevailed that it was going to be a short war ending with a quick and decisive victory, and it had not yet become "The War of Deception", destined to be the longest and most traumatic of Israel's wars to date).

After this achievement the Israeli Air Force totally dominated the skies of   Lebanon, and bombed Beirut day after day, and for years afterward the news broadcasts almost every day included the news items of "Air Force planes had bombed terrorist targets at … in Southern Lebanon". On the ground the "Security Zone" was established in Lebanon where the soldiers fought an endless guerrilla war impossible to win, and suffered increasing losses. It took   almost twenty years before the public protest over the endless attrition in Lebanon led to the withdrawal of the soldiers from there. But even after that, Israeli war planes continued daily cruising the skies of Lebanon, feeling quite at home.

And is the wheel now turning a full circle again? Already for several weeks, the well-informed Nahum Barnea is publishing gloomy forecasts in his weekly column at the weekend issue of Yediot Aharonot: "The IDF brass is convinced that in a matter of months Syria will become the most pressing security problem for Israel. Israel can’t stop all arms convoys. Hizbullah is problematic, but the Jihadist elements which might take over the Golan area are no less dangerous. They would have the same missiles, the same ammunition, and less responsible behavior. By pessimistic forecasts, it seems we are on the verge of a military confrontation on at least one of the two fronts in the north [Syria and Lebanon]. An IDF ground operation would be required immediately after the other side starts launching rockets, and possibly earlier. In Lebanon, a large-scale action is envisioned, a veritable full-scale war. In the Golan a takeover of the buffer zone is envisioned, creation of a security zone in the format that was used in southern Lebanon. Syria will not remain forever a TV news item, in the end it would directly affect every home in Israel "(Yediot Aharonot, February 1, 2013).

The General Staff is apparently making these plans for months already, but is the timing when they come into the news focus entirely coincidental? Exactly a week after the elections in which Binyamin Netanyahu was left  battered and bruised, even if he does form the next government. A week after the elections in which Yair Lapid became a superstar, a virtually indispensable  partner in forming the next cabinet, and he made a series of uncompromising demands on a whole series of fundamental issues, including the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians.  And also the week when John Kerry is to take over as US Secretary of State, with the proclaimed intention of coming here and seriously pushing for resumption of the same negotiations. And also the British and French, with their designs of a new Middle East diplomatic initiative in which they want to involve the whole of Europe, as soon as a new government is established in Israel. Would anyone think about such issues and such initiatives when Israel embarks on the 2013 Syria War on the pattern of the 1982 Lebanon War, or perhaps on the First Syria War simultaneously with the Third Lebanon War?

And the entanglement which will follow afterwards? We will think about them  afterwards.

In short: Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.