Golan Heights 224 88 aj.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Three months before Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Israel in November 1977, fears mounted in Military Intelligence that the Egyptian leader was actually planning another war.
Mixed messages were being heard in Cairo, which led Maj.-Gen. Shlomo Gazit, head of MI at the time, to call a number of assessment meetings with his senior staff - including a young colonel named Ehud Barak - to try to decipher Sadat's true intentions.
While Gazit warned his staff that without a clear understanding of Egypt's plans there was a real possibility of war, what he didn't know was that Sadat had already made up his mind, and was just waiting for the right opportunity to offer Israel peace negotiations.
Exactly 30 years later, Israel is once again facing an Arab leader whom it cannot fully understand. Since the Second Lebanon War, Syrian President Bashar Assad has sent a number of mixed messages.
He talks about redeeming the Golan Heights by force, and a month later says he is ready to negotiate peace. He has placed his military on high alert and embarked on the greatest weapons shopping spree in Syrian history, but at the same time claims that it is actually Israel that is planning to attack his country.
The current assessment in the defense establishment is that Assad is at a point where he can go either way - to the negotiating table or to the battlefield. Now defense minister, Barak has said a number of times in recent weeks that Israel is not interested in war and neither is Syria, and therefore "there is no reason that it should happen."
But what is clear on the ground is that both countries are conducting around-the-clock intensive military maneuvers, which by itself is enough to raise tensions along the Golan Heights. And Israeli officials are taking the opportunity to warn the public of the possibility of war with Syria, which is armed to the teeth with anti-tank missiles and long-range Scud-D missiles.
Syria claims its unprecedented arms purchases are actually a defensive measure aimed at deterring Israel from launching a war.
And then there is the defense establishment's favorite new English word - "miscalculation" - in reference to a potential misunderstanding between military commanders along the border that could evolve, due to the high level of tension, into an all-out war between the two countries.
The ball, Barak believes, is in Syria's court. If Assad really wants to engage Israel in peace talks, Barak claims, the president knows how. The framework of a deal has also already been laid out by former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu and Barak, all of whom tried to negotiate with Assad's father, Hafez, on the premise that Israel would be willing to return the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.
AS TIME passes, the situation grows more complex. One of Israel's stated interests in making peace is also to break Syria's strategic alliance with Iran. Syria and Iran are purchasing large amounts of weapons from Russia which, in an apparent attempt to counter the multi-billion-dollar US-Saudi arms deal, has also begun bolstering its presence in the region.
The shipments have already begun arriving. This week, Syria started receiving the first batch of Pantsyr-S1 anti-aircraft missile defense systems. The Russian-made system, which has a range of 12 kilometers, poses a tactical challenge for the IAF, and puts into question the IDF's training regimen, which includes flying aircraft during exercises on the Golan Heights.
Tactically, the IDF does not believe that a war with Syria would be of the conventional type. Instead what is expected, as one senior IAF officer told The Jerusalem Post this week, are "missiles, missiles and more missiles."
In addition to its large array of Scud missiles and short-range Katyusha rockets, Syria, drawing on Hizbullah's successful tactics from last summer's war, is also training commando teams to use advanced Russian-made anti-tank missiles.
Recognizing these growing threats, Barak has become a major proponent of missile defense systems, which he believes need to be developed as fast as possible. On this issue, he sees eye-to-eye with OC Air Defense Forces Brig.-Gen. Daniel Milo, who took up his post shortly after the war.
To prepare for the next war, which he believes will be characterized by an unprecedented onslaught of missile barrages, Milo wrote up a thee-step training and procurement plan for the Air Defense Forces, which are responsible not only for downing enemy aircraft, but also for operating Patriot and Arrow systems to intercept incoming missiles.
Milo's vision is that Israel will have a complete missile defense shield by the end of the decade. The IDF currently has the Arrow 2 defense system, which is to be used to intercept long-range ballistic missiles like the Iranian Shihab and the Syrian Scud-D. For medium-range missiles, the Rafael Armament Development Authority is developing David's Sling and for the short-range Kassams and Katyushas the Iron Dome.
Barak and Milo believe that missile defense systems have a dual purpose: The Arrow prevents civilian casualties by intercepting incoming missiles aimed at cities, and a successful missile interception system can create better diplomatic maneuverability for the government.
The IDF, meanwhile, is hoping that it would, if necessary, be able to do to Syria's missile launchers what it did to the Egyptian air force on the first day of the Six Day War. Understanding that war was imminent, Israel used the element of surprise and wiped out nearly the entire Egyptian and Jordanian air forces, and half of Syria's, in the first few hours of the war.
SO WHAT is Assad really thinking? In a talk with The Jerusalem Post this week, Gazit, today a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies, said that the president could easily turn into a modern Sadat.
He recalled that Israel had no prior intelligence indicating that Sadat was planning in 1977 to make a speech in Cairo and offer to travel anywhere in the world for peace talks. His only comfort was that no one in Egypt knew either, and even Sadat's foreign minister resigned as an act of protest following the speech.
"In the end, the outcome with Syria will be the same as with Egypt," Gazit stated. "The only question is what will happen in between."