Syrian terror, 50 years ago

When America threatened sanctions against Israel.

The United States is currently threatening Syria with economic sanctions because of the acts of terror and murder in which its regime has recently been involved. Interestingly, it was exactly 50 years ago that the US threatened Israel with similar sanctions when it refused to tolerate Damascus's acts of terror. Although the leaders have changed in Damascus since mid-century, the dictatorial-fascist nature of the regime remains unchanged. Which is why it should come as no surprise that the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refuses to repeat the gross mistakes made by Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak - who were willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for a dubious signature from Hafez Assad. Now that Syrian intelligence is once again under suspicion, and rightly so, of yet another shocking murder, this time of the courageous Lebanese parliament member and journalist Gibran Tueni, perhaps this will improve the chances that the international sanctions led by the United States will hasten the fall of the regime in Damascus. In December 1955, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Abba Eban, sent urgent messages to David Ben-Gurion that the US and the UN Security Council were threatening to impose sanctions on Israel because of reprisals it had carried out against Syrian outposts east of Lake Kinneret. The purpose of the reprisals was to put an end to firing on Israeli fishermen in the Kinneret by the Syrian soldiers posted on its eastern shores and in the army positions above. All Israeli appeals to the Security Council (and the State Department) to pressure Damascus to stop these acts of terror were to no avail. That is why, on the night of December 11, 1955, the soldiers of Battalion 890, Israel's only paratrooper battalion, set out on the largest and most complex reprisal action ever carried out until then. Meir Har-Zion, Yitzhak Ben-Menahem - who was killed in the battle - and other soldiers raided the Syrian positions, overran and destroyed them, and at dawn captured 30 Syrian soldiers, who were later used as bargaining chips for the release of Israeli captives being held in a Damascus prison. Operation "Olive Leaves" reverberated throughout the Arab world. Ben-Gurion invited chief of General Staff Moshe Dayan, who brought with him the commander of the battalion, Lt. Ariel Sharon to discuss the operation. "How did it go?" asked Ben-Gurion. "Very well," Sharon responded. "Too well," commented Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion was concerned about the reaction of the US. According to the urgent cables he received from Eban, the Eisenhower administration was furious about Israel's action and its dimensions. There was a danger that sanctions would be imposed on Israel, whose population numbered about one million at the time, half of whom were refugees of every conceivable type. Ben-Gurion noted that there was a tone of criticism toward the reprisal action in Eban's cables. That is why, before Eban, who was considered the greatest orator of his time, defended the operation at the UN, they say that Ben-Gurion told him: "Now, after I have heard you, I am convinced more than ever of the justice of our operation." The truth is that it was a miracle that Israel was saved from the imposition of sanctions by State Department Arabists who, together with the CIA, made every effort to appease the dictatorial and corrupt Arab regimes at the expense of the recently established Israel. But things are different now, 50 years later. This is not only because Israel has repeatedly and for many years insisted on defending itself, but also because the current American administration has drawn a clear distinction between democracies and dictatorships, between good and bad. The threat of sanctions is now aimed in the direction of those in Damascus and Teheran that benefited from acts of treachery and murder. Bill Clinton's Democratic administration was not aware, or did not want to be aware, of this distinction and the same was true of Ronald Reagan's Republican administration. Let us not forget that it was the then secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger who rushed to suspend the handing over of combat planes to Israel in the wake of its bombing of Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor. Weinberger also urged Israel to leave Lebanon in 1983 while agreeing to allow the continuation of Syria's dictatorial control over Beirut. This strategic mistake led to the deaths of hundreds of innocents as a result of the Syrian control of Beirut until this past spring - for more than 20 unnecessary years - and to the Syrian acts of murder that continue to this day. And we haven't yet said anything about Hizbullah. Meanwhile, there are those in the US who are urging George W. Bush to withdraw American soldiers from Iraq before they have completed the crucial salvation campaign necessary to establish a democracy there and in the entire Middle East. There could be no greater moral-strategic mistake. Those who do not have the patience and stamina in campaigns of this kind lose - and end up paying a far higher price. "Haste is from the devil," the Arab saying goes. Now, 50 years since the Kinneret campaign, perhaps the guilty are finally about to be punished.