With great fanfare, it was announced this week that the Israel Defense Forces was conducting a general command drill. Last week, it held an important war game. One would have to be naive to think the Arab camp is just sitting there and not conducting drills, maneuvers and large-scale training exercises.
The Syrians are talking about a major military exercise that will last more than a week. They say all the preparations must be complete by June 1 in case Israel attacks. While Hezbollah continues to lick its wounds, it is trying to establish new defense lines, rearm and step up training. One of its new approaches is to recruit Shi'ites who belonged to Amal, as well as Sunni volunteers. Hamas is continuing its efforts to build up a semi-regular army in the Gaza Strip. The organization's self-confidence is growing because it sees that Israel cannot stop the barrage of Qassam rockets.
Reactions to the Winograd Committee report also tell us something about the Arabs' military preparations. The Syrians say the report's conclusions will increase Israel's frustration, and one must be wary of frustrated people who seek revenge and see war as an outlet. Radical Arab organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas claim to have found a tactic to prevent Israeli military victories - continue the war of attrition. Moderate Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan are worried about the Israeli government's weakness. A weak government will not be able to make political concessions, and this increases the danger of armed confrontation.
Many people say there will be war this summer. Are the pessimists right? The question that should be asked is whether one of the sides plans to declare war. Apart from Israel, there are four parties - Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas - who must be asked this question. Iran will determine whether Hezbollah launches a new war. Tehran is involved in large-scale military operations in a number of places: Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, but its primary focus is nuclear development. A major war today, initiated by Iran, could endanger its main objectives. For Iran, a steady stream of low-key military action combined with cash flow is preferable. Tehran has ordered Hezbollah to halt its efforts to topple the Lebanese government. Iran also knows that kidnapping more Israeli soldiers will set off a major conflagration.
Hezbollah will not embark on an all-out war if Iran is against it. If it could, Hezbollah would renew its war of attrition, but the organization's freedom of action in Lebanon is limited. Unusual circumstances would be needed for Hezbollah to go to war again today. Another problem is Hamas; Hamas could ignite a war in the Gaza Strip. This organization's military arm is frustrated by the Palestinians' successes. The more serious leaders of Hamas know that a war this summer would be too early to serve their purposes.
In a year from now, the Gaza Strip will pose a greater threat to Israel, especially if the government doesn't come up with better solutions to the conflict. What is happening today to Sderot could happen someday to Ashkelon. It is a mistake to think the IDF has any desire to reoccupy the Gaza Strip today. There is no need to "save" the government from extremist generals. There are greater extremists among the politicians.
The most complex problem is Syria. There is no question that Syria is readying for combat. Again, the question is whether it has plans to initiate a war, or suspects that Israel does. The military emphasis of the Syrian army is on firepower - various kinds of heavy artillery rockets, some of them new models, missiles, and state-of-the-art anti-tank weapons. The Russians have also equipped Syria with sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles. Syria is capable of surprising Israel, mainly through hit-and-run attacks. But it knows there could be a heavy price to pay for a large-scale war, including the fall of the Alawite regime.
A cautious conclusion is that none of the parties today are interested in an all-out war. But war could erupt by mistake. For example, if the other side's intentions are incorrectly assessed, or if a local military campaign veers out of control and sparks a major showdown. For safety's sake, Israel needs to step up its vigilance in the sphere of intelligence, as well as to reinforce IDF troops on the Golan Heights and hone the army's quick-response capabilities.
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