Israel Update for April 2007

David Dolan
David Dolan

Israeli officials decided to publicly warn during April that a major conflict may be looming with Syria in the coming months. This came after further evidence emerged that the Baathist regime ruling from Damascus is stepping up war preparations, along with allied Hizbullah militia forces in Lebanon. Meanwhile political fallout from last year's Second Lebanon War continued to swirl in Israel, with government cabinet ministers, legislators and regular citizens waiting for the release of the seminal Winograd Committee report on the conflict, expected in late April or early May. Many analysts predict the report could spell the end of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's public career, along with current Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

In an apparent effort to stave off growing demands that he immediately resign, Olmert expressed interest during April in pursuing a final Middle East peace accord in the coming months with regional Arab and Palestinian leaders, despite the threat of pending conflict with Syria and Hizbullah. While negotiations continued for a prisoner swap designed to free a kidnapped Israeli soldier and hundreds of Palestinian terrorists, more violence and chaos rocked the Gaza Strip during the month, prompting United Nations officials to warn that they may need to pull all aid workers out of the small coastal zone.

Prime Minster Olmert spoke several times during April about the very real possibility of conflict in the coming months with heavily armed Syria. He told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on April 18 that Israel has no intention of attacking its northern neighbor, but repeated earlier warnings that the Assad regime is preparing for possible conflict with Israel, and therefore Israel must respond in kind.

Olmert said all Israeli military leaders and security chiefs share the assessment that Damascus is preparing for war. The Israeli leader added that Syrian officials seem to believe the United States is preparing to attack Iran's sprawling nuclear facilities, and will ask Israel to lash out at its Arab neighbor-Iran's chief Mideast ally-at the same time. But Olmert insisted he has no knowledge of any such White House plan, despite an ongoing American naval buildup in the Persian Gulf.

After touring the contested Golan Heights in late March-where he was briefed by senior IDF officers on the situation along the tense border-Olmert gave several newspaper interviews just before Passover in which he began to warn of the possibility of a major conflagration with Syria later this year. He said he had decided to openly state this in order to have a chance to publicly assure the Assad regime that Israel has no intention of attacking Syria. He said Israeli government and military leaders were concerned that "a Syrian miscalculation" may spark an armed conflict between the two countries. He confirmed that Israel had used the controversial visit of US House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Damascus in early April "to send a calming message" to senior Syrian officials that no IDF military offensive was being planned.

The Haaretz newspaper quoted an unidentified "senior security source" as saying that Israeli government leaders hoped the message delivered by Pelosi "will be understood in Damascus." The source added that it was not clear to Israeli officials if the Syrians were genuinely concerned that Israel might be plotting a joint attack with America, or were just bluffing as an excuse to prepare for their own premeditated assault upon Israel. "The question is whether Assad is looking for an that he can carry out an attack against Israel in the summer, or whether this is a mistaken assessment," said the source.

Fresh Syrian Warmongering

Soon after PM Olmert issued his initial warnings of possible conflict with Damascus in the coming months, a top Syrian government spokesman significantly upped tensions in the region by threatening to take the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights back by force. As Israel's annual Holocaust Memorial day commemorations were drawing to an end on the evening of April 16, Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal warned that his country may attempt to regain control over the disputed territory by force. "If Israel rejects the Arab peace initiative, the only way to get the Golan Heights back would be by means of resistance," he said at a press conference in Damascus. The Syrian official was apparently referring to the 2002 Saudi peace proposal, which was reaffirmed by Arab League nations at a summit meeting in April.

Language experts explained that the Arabic word for "resistance" (mukawama) can imply either full-scale warfare or more limited, terrorist style action. But it definitely speaks of violence in one form or another, they confirmed.

Israeli political analysts declared that Bilal's war threat was extremely serious, given that Syrian officials fully understand Israeli leaders cannot accept the Saudi plan under its current contours. Especially objectionable is the plan's demand for a complete Israeli withdrawal from every inch of Judea and Samaria, including Judaism's most sacred ground on earth inside Jerusalem's walled Old City, and its call for all Palestinian refugees to be granted the "right of return" to family ancestral properties inside of Israel's pre-1967 borders, which Israeli officials insist would effectively spell the end of the world's only majority Jewish state.

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has issued similar warlike statements several times since his surrogate Hizbullah militia force claimed victory in the 2006 armed conflict. Many Israeli analysts believe that last summer's Hizbullah rocket assault was launched at the behest of both Syria and Iran in an attempt to test Israel's response to sustained attacks upon its civilian population. They say Israel's unexpected difficulty in halting the daily barrages, which continued for over one month, along with the apparent gaps that showed up in its ground operations and reserve force deployments, greatly encouraged political and military officials in both Damascus and Tehran to think that victory over Israel's legendary military machine is now possible.

No Cakewalk

Various Israeli media reports warned during April that a looming war with Syria would undoubtedly pose a very significant challenge to Israel's armed forces. Many reports noted that prior to last year's intense 34 day conflict with Hizbullah militiamen in Lebanon, it was generally assumed by Israeli military strategists and political leaders that winning another war with Damascus would be a relatively easy task, as it was during the Six Day War fought 40 years ago this June. This assessment was based on the known fact that Israel's military hardware, especially IDF Air Force jets, radar systems and ground armored forces, are mostly much newer and far more sophisticated than similar equipment possessed by Syria.

But last year's confrontation clearly demonstrated that massive firings of enemy missiles upon civilian population centers in any new conflict could itself be enough to give Syria a fighting chance to prevail, especially if non-conventional warheads were employed. After all, Hizbullah is a mere militia force, comprised of an estimated 5,000 active Lebanese fighters, aided by several hundred Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders stationed in Shiite portions of Lebanon. The militia, based in a relatively small piece of territory in southern Beirut and south Lebanon, does not even enjoy the full support of all Lebanese nationals, to say the least. On the strategic plane, its Syrian and Iranian-supplied rockets and missiles could only reach the northern third of Israel. It possessed no air force to counter Israeli warplanes, nor tank or armored divisions to fend off Israeli ground advances.