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(photo credit: )
There really is no reason to get all worked up about the apparent contradiction between the two intelligence briefings on Syria given to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee - the first last week by Mossad chief Meir Dagan and the second on Monday by Brig-Gen Yossi Baidatz, head of the Military Intelligence Research Division.
Harsh disagreements over fundamental issues between the various branches of the intelligence community are nothing new. In fact, they are rarely in concert over the intentions of Israel's enemies. They couldn't agree on what the Egyptians were up to in 1973, whether Israel could trust the Maronites in Lebanon in 1982, what Saddam Hussein had in store in 1991 or 2002, and whether Yasser Arafat was fanning the flames of the second intifada in 2000 or had simply lost control.
This might not actually be a bad thing. It's when all the intelligence "experts" are of the same opinion that one should start to worry. Israeli prime ministers have been aware of the diversity of opinions available and especially those with military or intelligence backgrounds have insisted on being shown the "raw material," not content to rely on any one professional assessment.
The intensity of the current dispute has little to do with the nature of the intelligence available to either service and everything to do with the personality of those analyzing that intelligence. It is also evidence of the increasingly open debate on Israel's strategic policies, especially since the second Lebanon War.
Not long ago, even less than a year ago, such public disagreement would have been unthinkable, at the most hinted about in the columns of a few select commentators and written about in books years later. Now it's all out in the open, transmitted almost immediately from Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee briefings that have long ago stopped being confidential.
But when we look beyond the headlines, it turns out that Dagan and Baidatz are not as much at odds as it may seem. They agree on quite a number of basic facts. Both acknowledge that over the last six months the Syrians have considerably strengthened various branches of their army and reinforced the units stationed on the Golan Heights, and both agree that Bashar Assad's main motive for his recent peace overtures is his rising panic over international isolation, but neither believe he will sign a peace treaty with Israel that doesn't return the Golan to Syria.
Where they remain in disagreement is over Assad's final intentions. Dagan is convinced that it's all a charade designed to confuse Israel and get Assad off the hook of the international tribunal over the Hariri murder. Baidatz believes that Assad is serious and is really after a peace deal with Israel. Since it's highly questionable whether the paranoid Syrian president has divulged to anyone his inner thoughts, quite likely he himself isn't sure yet what he really wants. Baidatz and Dagan are trading educated guesses.
The veteran Mossad chief is an adherent of the "Arabs are the same Arabs and the sea the same sea" school, conditioned to suspect any move on the other side. Baidatz and the rest of the Military Intelligence have been claiming for 15 years that the Assad dynasty is interested in reaching some kind of accord. Even during the summer's war when Syria was amassing forces on the Golan, Baidatz maintained that their positions were still "defensive."
A similar argument is going on this week between security experts over the desirability of dismantling roadblocks in the West Bank.
Roadblocks have been effective many times in preventing terror attacks but anyone who has spent an hour at one of the checkpoints, as a civilian or a reservist manning the barrier, knows that the daily frustration and humiliation they engender in the population spurs hatred and encourages recruitment to the terror organizations. Which consideration to prefer is more a question of personal beliefs than professional assessment.
The fact that the differences of opinion are now out in the open should benefit the public debate, since ultimately it's the elected representatives who will have to make the call. Maybe that's what we have to be worried about.