Analysis: Blaming Beirut, thinking of Damascus and Gaza

Ehud Olmert was a prime minister torn between two messages Wednesday.

ehud olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
ehud olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Ehud Olmert was a prime minister torn between two messages Wednesday. On the one hand, by going ahead with his pre-planned meeting and luncheon with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Olmert sent out a business-as-usual message, a signal to the country and the world that as serious as the attack in the north was, it would not completely disrupt the business of state, and that Hizbullah would not be allowed to dictate the government's agenda. On the other hand, Olmert also sent out a starkly conflicting message during his press conference with Koizumi: that business was definitely not as usual; that the attack in the north was not "just" another of the myriad terrorist attacks Israel has suffered over the last six years, but was fundamentally different - an act of war. The consequences for the other side, Olmert said, "will be very, very, very painful." The question, however, is who the other side is. If the air force buzzed Syrian President Bashar Assad's summer palace after Hamas killed two soldiers and kidnapped Gilad Shalit two weeks ago, then one could expect the IAF to level the palace - and more - after Hizbullah killed seven soldiers and captured two others. Syria, after all, is - together with Iran - Hizbullah's sponsor. And, indeed, Olmert had some harsh words to say about Syria. "Throughout the recent period, Syria has proven that it is a terrorist government," Olmert said with Koizumi standing at his side. "It supports terrorism. It is a government that backs terrorism. It is a government that encourages the murderous actions both of terrorists located on its soil and those beyond it. Of course, there will have to be an appropriate preparation in order to deal with the conduct of the Syrian government." This language was quite similar to language he used Sunday to describe the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government. "This is the first time in modern history that there is a whole government which is a terrorist government," he said. "This is not a government which is influenced by terror, this is not a government which sympathizes terror, this government is terror." If Israel took strong military action against that type of government in Gaza, it would seem only natural for it to take similar action against a similar type of government in Damascus. But to do so, to go on a strong military offensive against Syria, Israel would need international legitimacy, and getting legitimacy to declare war on Syria for an act perpetrated from Lebanese soil by a party within the Lebanese government, would be difficult to obtain. So the address is Lebanon. Hizbullah is no longer a renegade, Islamic militant organization in Lebanon's south. Hizbullah is now a member of the Lebanese government, holds a ministerial portfolio, and in that sense is to Lebanon what Kadima, Labor, Shas and the Pensioners party are to Israel. As a result, Israel feels it has greater international legitimacy to lash out against Lebanon, than against Syria. The Lebanese government cannot deny responsibility for Hizbullah, since Hizbullah is in the Lebanese government. In addition, UN Security Council resolution 1559 called on Lebanon to dismantle the armed militias, but that is something the Beirut government never did. The international community, Israel is arguing, also bears responsibility for not forcing Lebanon to implement that element of the Security Council resolution. Israel will act in Lebanon, but, as Olmert said, it will act in a manner that will "echo in the right places" an allusion to Syria. If the message is picked up in Syria, the hope in Jerusalem is that it will also impact on what is happening in Gaza as well. The underlining assumption in Jerusalem is that Assad can press Khaled Mashaal to release Shalit and end the Kassam fire in the south. There is no little irony in the fact that that on the same day that the IDF returned to the ruins of Gush Katif, after only a 10 month absence, it also returned, six year later, to southern Lebanon - a chilling reminder of how closely connected they are, and also perhaps how similar.