In March 1963, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Tzvi Tzur summoned a young second lieutenant serving in a secret Military Intelligence (MI) unit and awarded him a chief of staff citation. The second lieutenant, Ehud Barak, was praised for "the exemplary execution of a mission that contributed to the security of the state." Just like that, with no extra details about what, how and especially where Barak did what he did.
In its 60th year, Israel is looking back with yearning at its early decades, at the silence of the radio, at the editing of the news in the Prime Minister's Office and at the Defense Ministry. According to the Syrian Army spokesman, whose statement was followed by a plethora of foreign reports that at times were just plain strange, two weeks ago (minus one day) Israel Air Force planes entered deep into Syrian air space, where they "made a crater" the size of the one at Ramon, as one hyperbolic report would have us believe.
Barak, now defense minister, has ordered total silence, just as in the old days when he would switch off his two-way radio well before reaching the front lines so the nervous senior command could not recall him before the mission got underway. With a single order, which is being strictly enforced over civilians and soldiers alike, the entire country has become Sayeret Matkal [the General Staff's elite special-operations forces that Barak once commanded]: seven million Israelis impersonating a blonde bombshell and driving a black Mercedes [a reference to one of Barak's covert roles and to the 1976 Entebbe rescue, respectively].
Barak has never managed to shake off his fondness for secrecy and compartmentalization. When, in the spring of 1982, he proposed to defense minister Ariel Sharon that the operation being planned against the Palestine Liberation Organization be changed into an attack against the Syrian Army, he laid out an entire doctrine that included unconcealed military exercises. "There is no need to overtly cancel the existing plans," Maj.-Gen. Barak, then head of planning at the GS, wrote to Sharon. "Continuing them will create a diversion and appropriate 'background noise' to the main plan. As we approach D-day, it will be necessary to gradually include others in the plan."
The strict adherence to information security, an essential component of operational surprise, conflicts with the duty of the country's elected officials to obtain the approval of voters or their representatives before embarking on a planned military operation, and to do so in advance, not after the fact. Cases where immediate action is needed to prevent imminent attack are rare. The disagreements that were publicized after the 1981 attack against the nuclear reactor in Iraq exposed the reservations of knowledgeable and experienced military men, such as deputy prime minister Yigal Yadin, Maj.-Gen. Avraham Tamir and the heads of MI and the Mossad, who were no less well placed than those who supported the operation. Neither side of the debate had a monopoly on judgment and goodwill.
Concealing information is only half the story. The other half is deceit. A reminder: in late October 2006, the GS Planning Directorate, under Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan, finalized its strategic assessment on the basis of one main assumption: There would be a war in the north in the summer of 2007. During the peak of the tension between Damascus and Jerusalem, MI shared information with the Israeli media, and through them, with the general public. MI officials introduced a new concern: The Russians, those evildoers, are telling the Syrians all sorts of stories about Israel's plans to attack them. Damascus swallowed the bait and the official version was presented as genuine, but now, after the mysterious sortie, there are concerns that the Russians may have caught on and that MI lied and tricked the Israeli press. How did Barak put it? "Dissimulation, background noise for the main plan, five-six officers," privy to the secret.
Ironically, according to Israel's military censors, it is the very credibility of the Israeli press and its reporters in the eyes of hostile regimes that vindicates preventing them from publishing views - not facts - such as what we would want to happen to Syrian President Bashar Assad in war. The Hebrew press thus becomes a doppelganger to Syria's official daily, Tishrin. It is a short distance from this to Israel's determined protection of Syrian nuclear secrets - as if the local ambiguity is not enough.
Vive la difference, of course: Barak and his cabinet colleagues are enlightened despots, while Assad is just a despot. But democracy cannot sign off on blank checks and act like a Special Ops unit. It would be unconscionable for Israel to have to become more like Syria in order to beat it.
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