Sharon returns to deterrence
Israel accepts risk of escalation; some question longer-term strategy
by David Landau
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
JERUSALEM -- For those worried about the credibility of Israeli deterrence, the Israel Defense Forces this week delivered two unmistakable messages -- to Syria and to the Palestinians -- that it is willing to fight.
For those worried that military strength alone may not hold the answer to Israel's problems, however, the week of escalation did nothing to allay their fears.
Many people belong to both groups -- because tactically, there is no contradiction between them.
Escalation involves heightened risks, and the great majority of Israelis and Israel's supporters abroad were united this week in support of the government's deliberate decision to take these risks.
The second group, however, questions whether there is an overall strategy behind the tactics that can restore the hope of reaching a negotiated peace.
Israel's aerial strike on a Syrian radar installation deep inside Lebanon on Monday, in response to the killing of an Israeli soldier over the weekend, was a careful and deliberate upping of the ante -- a new "price list" for Arab attacks on Israel, in the words of Sharon spokesperson Ra'anan Gissin.
"There are new rules now," Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer agreed, indicating that Israel would hold Syria directly responsible for Hezbollah attacks.
The action came after Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles across Lebanon's border with Israel on Saturday, killing a soldier.
The incident took place at Har Dov, a rugged section of the Israel-Lebanon border near Shabaa Farms, an area that Hezbollah claims is Lebanese land still occupied by Israel.
Israel -- backed by the United Nations -- says the area is part of the Golan Heights that Israel conquered in 1967 from Syria, and whose fate should be determined in Syrian-Israeli negotiations.
Indeed, after Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon last May, the United Nations confirmed that Israel no longer had troops on Lebanese soil, forcing Israel to make even small redeployments of several feet in some places to conform rigorously to the international border.
This week, the U.N.'s Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, reiterated that Hezbollah's claim flies in the face of earlier U.N. decisions.
The United States adopted a similar stance Monday, calling Hezbollah's cross-border attack "clear provocation designed to escalate an already-tense situation."
Just the same, Israel's decision to punish Syria for the incident represents a shift.
Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned after last May's withdrawal that Israel would hold the Syrian and Lebanese governments responsible for any further Hezbollah attacks.
In practice, however, a series of Hezbollah kidnappings, shootings and bombings of Israeli soldiers went unanswered until this week.
Israel's Security Cabinet decided, by a vote of 11-2, to hit Syrian military targets rather than Hezbollah, which locates its bases inside civilian areas in southern Lebanon.
Following the Israeli attack, Syria vowed revenge "at the appropriate time," and put its 35,000 troops in Lebanon on high alert.
Israel, in turn, made it clear that it did not seek further escalation but is prepared to face a challenge from Syria if its still-green president, Bashar Assad, so decides.
Less than 24 hours later, Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers were moving into the Gaza Strip, cutting it into three separate sections and seizing a tactically important area of just under one square mile in the strip's northeast corner.
The land, sea and air operation early Tuesday came in retaliation for a Monday attack in which Palestinians fired mortars on the Israeli town of Sderot.
The Palestinians in recent weeks have begun using mortars against Israeli residential communities, and the Sderot attack marked their deepest penetration into Israel since violence erupted last September.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, returning from a trip to Egypt on Tuesday, accused Israel of seeking to reoccupy Palestinian-held territory.
The Israeli government stated firmly that this was not its intention, and troops began withdrawing Tuesday night.
The IDF action plainly involved a calculated threat to previously signed agreements with the Palestinian Authority.
In politics, as in the military sphere, the week's events demonstrated a clear distinction between the tactical and the strategic.
Tactically, Sharon continues to enjoy very broad public support. Apart from the Israeli Arab Knesset members -- one of whom called the Israeli government "terrorist" and sent a letter of condolence to Assad -- the decision to strike Syria enjoyed near-universal acclamation.
Even the dove's dove Yossi Beilin called the attack the logical and correct extension of last year's decision to withdraw from Lebanon, which was supposed to remove any perceived legitimacy for Hezbollah attacks.
The peace camp, though uncomfortable, did not seem seriously disturbed by the escalation against the Palestinians either.
Israelis were shocked by the mortar shells that fell on the sleepy little town of Sderot, located three miles from the northern tip of the Gaza Strip -- and close to Sharon's Negev farm.
The attack appeared to be a provocation of ominous significance that could not go unpunished.
Regarding longer-term strategic thinking, however, the divisions are as deep as ever.
A reminder came last weekend in an interview the prime minister gave to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.
Sharon offered the Palestinians -- after a total cease-fire -- a state on 42 percent of the territory, in return for an open-ended non-belligerency accord.
A full peace treaty, Sharon said, did not seem a practicable objective in the foreseeable future.
This was a far cry indeed from the vision of full peace, in return for an almost total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, that sustained the former Barak government and that still represents the eventual goal of Israel's "peace camp."
Sharon's words drew a welter of criticism, led by Ha'aretz.
The critics' case is largely hypothetical, however. After all, Arafat rejected the peace package proposed by Barak and President Clinton at Camp David last July and thereafter -- and instead launched the violence that this week took a dangerous turn for the worse.
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This story was published in the WashingtonJewishWeek
on: Thursday, April 19, 2001
and was last modified on: Sat, May 5, 2001