An army invades a hostile neighboring state’s airspace and bombards a convoy of military vehicles loaded with anti-aircraft missiles. By any possible definition, this is an act of war, which has not been concealed. It was preceded by public warnings to the leaders of the attacked state and by the deployment of a rocket-warning system round the attacking state’s cities.
This is what happened between Israel and Syria last week. But no Israeli official or authority has taken responsibility for the bombing. Instead of releasing an announcement, Israel chose the indirect way of giving information to foreign media: It explained the action’s goal − foiling the transfer of SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles from Syria to Hezbollah.
This practice is customary in “perception warfare” units. The information is given to foreign news agencies or “target newspapers” in Arab states, Europe and the United States, in the shabby guise of quotes from “Western officials.” A censorship gag is slapped on the Israeli media, but the “officials” hint to the Israeli journalists that they would do well to quote from the foreign media reports. The leak to the newspaper in Kuwait, or to a local paper in the United States is intended to preserve ambiguity. The indirect quote released in Israel is intended to strengthen the credibility of the foreign media’s report.
This used ploy failed this time, because the Syrians refused to take part in it and exposed the Israeli bombardment in official notices and video photos. In response, Defense Minister Ehud Barak took indirect responsibility for the act, ended the official ambiguity and showed the censorship up in all its absurdity as having been activated for nothing.
In retrospect, it appears the main purpose of the official ambiguity, certainly after the Syrians published the details, was to prevent a public debate in Israel about the wisdom and responsibility of Israel’s pushing itself into the boiling lava of the Syrian civil war. The prime minister and defense minister would rather play James Bond and turn Israeli media into a fighter in the “perception-shaping” army instead of explaining the action and its motives.
This approach was barely suitable for Israel in its early years. It is time to grow up and act like a state, not like a boys’ club.
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