david horovitz 224.88.
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'The quietest of Israel's borders." That's what we've long become accustomed to be saying about the line between us and the Syrians. "Barely a cross-border incident in more than 30 years." "An area where mutual deterrence keeps either side from chancing anything against the other."
Well, not exactly.
In truth, what we've had on the Syrian border for many years was a status quo that was hugely advantageous for Israel. The Syrians never liked it and always sought to change it. After last summer's war, they thought they might be able to. One question, after whatever happened in the early hours of September 6, is whether they are now thinking again.
Another, wider question, is what impact Israel's reported resort to the high-risk use of force against a potent, dangerous target is having on Western attitudes to other, potentially far more potent and dangerous targets... across Iran.
IT WAS galling, to put it mildly, for the late president Hafez Assad when parts of the Arab world began edging toward peace with Israel after the Yom Kippur War. He wasn't about to join them, least of all from a perceived position of weakness. What he sought, instead, was to achieve "strategic parity" with Israel so that, if war came, he'd be able to hold his own, and make enough gains on the Golan to be able to negotiate from a position of greater strength.
Belatedly, toward the end of the 1990s, he realized the impossibility of that task. In the absence of superpower backing following the demise of the Soviet Union, there was no way, he finally internalized, that his military forces could match Israel's might. If he wanted the Golan back in the foreseeable future, it would have to be via the negotiated route. Hence, the flurry of diplomatic activity, ultimately abortive, around the turn of the millennium.
Post-Hafez, the Syrians endured six years of mounting frustration - no progress via the diplomatic route, no improvement (quite the reverse) in the quest for strategic parity, and that continued good-for-Israel calm on the border.
Then came the Second Lebanon War. All of a sudden, the Syrians began to sense an opportunity to hurt Israel militarily, via the Hizbullah expedient of asymmetrical conflict. Maybe, ran the new thinking, gains could be made in a war against mighty Israel after all.
That didn't mean the Syrians were giving up on the possibility of diplomatic progress. But, they made increasingly clear, they were as unhappy as ever with the status quo, they wanted the Golan back, and if Israel wasn't interested in talking, war was again an option - not necessarily tomorrow, but just maybe the day after tomorrow, or the day after that.
AND THEN came whatever happened two weeks ago. Despite Binyamin Netanyahu's unguarded reference to the operation on national television Wednesday night, military censorship still means there is nothing definitive or even original that I can write here. But I can point you to reports in overseas publications - notably those in newspapers including The New York Times and The Washington Post that have stated that the alleged IAF bombing attack had been planned for some time, on the basis of accumulated intelligence information.
I can draw your attention to public comments from Andrew Semmel, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy and negotiations, who said last weekend that Syria might have a number of "secret suppliers" for a clandestine nuclear program.
I can also refer you to a telephone interview I had last week with the former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, in which he highlighted the longstanding military connections between Syria, Iran and North Korea and said that "simple logic" suggested that the latter two of those countries, whose nuclear ambitions are keenly monitored by the international community, could have outsourced nuclear development "to a country that is not under suspicion" - namely Syria.
Syria's two-toned response to September 6 reflected its post-Second Lebanon War "diplomacy or conflict" mindset: There was soothing talk from some quarters, including from Assad himself, about an abiding Syrian desire for peace, and nastier rhetoric from others about the impossibility of remaining silent in the face of such Israeli aggression.
BUT WHAT, through all this, of Israel's position?
According to Giora Eiland, who served as Ariel Sharon's national security adviser and with whom I spoke this week, Sharon had "no interest" whatsoever in negotiations with Syria, no matter whether Damascus wanted a dialogue or not. "He didn't want to relinquish the Golan, among other considerations," said Eiland.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, after a bit of zigzagging, appears to be charting a very different course.
Plainly, from his point of view, the reported September 6 attack was wise, and not only because it led to a predictable boost in his own popularity ratings. The target was, apparently, an appropriate one. The alleged operation bolstered the process of perceived Israeli military rehabilitation in the wake of summer 2006's failures. And it might have given the Syrians pause - forcing them to reconsider whether their military options are quite as good as they might have thought after the Second Lebanon War.
Now, deterrent capability at least partially restored, Olmert is again expressing a readiness to negotiate.
Declaring his respect for the Syrian regime and his desire to meet at the peace table, Olmert is evidently seeking to smooth ruffled Syrian feathers. But Eiland, for one, assesses the readiness for dialogue as genuine - in stark contrast to Sharon's strategic rejection of such negotiation.
IS THAT willingness to talk going to lead anywhere substantive? The answer to that will depend, in good part, on movement - diplomatic and military - on various other tracks.
Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair, in their very different styles - she, direct and disciplined; he, friendly and talkative, broadcasting goodwill and reasonableness - are desperately trying to make something of the planned November peace summit. But the portents are not good.
Salaam Fayad may recognize the compromises inherent in a viable accommodation, but he has no support base. His boss, Mahmoud Abbas, is unlikely to put his life on the line by publicly abandoning the "right of return." Donor nations may offer money and expertise, via Blair, toward the establishment of mechanisms for effective Palestinian self-government, but nobody is talking about sending in large numbers of troops to actually achieve law and order on the ground. Meanwhile, on the Israeli side, the current government is hard-pushed to so much as relocate a West Bank outpost.
Bold statements and actions prompting a resurgence of mutual confidence? Hard to envision from the current players.
Meanwhile, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is making it increasingly difficult for the West to delude itself that a nuclear Iran would be anything other than a globally threatening force for destabilization. Last month, the Iranian state news agency quoted him boasting that he would place Iran's nuclear technology - hitherto depicted by his regime as peaceful in nature and purpose - "at the service of those who are determined to confront the bullying powers and aggressors."
In response to that kind of rhetoric, President Bush last month vowed to confront the danger posed by Iran "before it's too late." He added that "Iran's pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust." The decision to invoke that word, in this context, was not, I think, taken lightly, and indicates a sober recognition of precisely what is at stake here.
Whether or not Pentagon planners have drawn up a list of "up to 2,000 bombing targets in Iran," as Britain's Sunday Telegraph claimed this week, attitudes to Teheran are hardening, and not only in the United States. If Iran is not dismayed by the approving post-September 6 silence in much of the Arab world, it should be.
Even as the precise nature of what the Syrians were up to remains classified, the incident has prompted some policy-makers to look more carefully at the history of military cooperation between the likes of Iran and Syria and North Korea. And in an era of fast-proliferating technology, where nuclear development can be outsourced and the devastating products of such development easily shared, they may now be concluding that the dangers and complications of firmer intervention are dwarfed by the dangers of appeasement and inertia.
This Israeli government may indeed truly believe in the possibility of a peace accord with the Syrians. The reported daring and success of its raid two weeks ago could yet refocus thinking in Damascus and make that possibility more realistic.
But that extraordinary alleged offensive across "the quietest of Israel's borders" will also have reminded other, stronger Western players that, sooner or later, if all else fails in the effort to keep the most potent weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of those who would use them, there may be no alternative to action.
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