Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has visited Syria four times, twice during the past year. Bashar Assad has visited Tehran four times since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. If reciprocal visits by the presidents of Iran and Syria are cause for panic, let's calm down: the balance between the two has been preserved. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal has also visited Tehran many times, most recently in December, so his meeting with Ahmadinejad last week is not unusual. If Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are planning a war against Israel, they don't need showcase meetings. But why not panic when you can panic? Why not see every meeting as a threat?
"Winds of war" was the headline Israeli newspapers used to describe these meetings, even though the Israel Defense Forces' intelligence assessment was that no preparations are being made for war. All we need to get that pleasant war sensation is the arrival to the region of the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, or for Hassan Nasrallah to give one of his speeches about Tel Aviv, or for a Christian Lebanese politician to charge for the 100th time that Hezbollah seeks to draw Lebanon into a war, or for Ahmadinejad to return to Damascus and for the umpteenth time say the Zionist entity will disappear. Could anything be clearer proof that we are being pushed toward war, or at least that "something is happening"?
On the face of it, each of the leaders meeting in Damascus last week has his reason for war with Israel. Israel, too, has a reason to go to war against each of them, as a group or individually. But a reason for war is insufficient for war. The fact is, Israel is not going to war against Hezbollah, and Syria is not moving its tanks into the Golan Heights. Armed groups like Hamas and Hezbollah consider the menace they pose a strategic asset - not only against Israel.
Hezbollah is basing its control over Lebanon on that menace, but it realizes that war may destroy its political legitimacy. Hamas, cut off from Egypt and the West Bank, cannot allow itself to suffer a Cast Lead II while it is still trying to recover from the effects of Cast Lead I. Syria can attack Israel, but the price it will have to pay is likely to be much higher than what Hamas or Hezbollah will have to pay.
Moreover, Iran is not very keen for its allies to suffer a severe blow whose political implications will echo clearly in Tehran. As far as Iran is concerned, the threat of war is preferable to actual war. The balance of terror is its most effective restraint against an Israeli attack - a view shared by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.
This balance can only be overturned by a peace agreement between Syria and Israel. It will not prevent Iran from going nuclear and will not sever the ties between Syria and Iran or Hezbollah. But it will remove an essential element from this four-pronged threat.
However, it appears that we get along much better with threats than wars or real "operations." We're thrilled when Assad ridicules U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's demand that he distance himself from Iran; proof that the axis of evil exists and the threat is alive and kicking. But when Assad repeatedly calls for the resumption of indirect negotiations with Israel, the list of preconditions is ready: The Golan Heights will not be returned, we will not agree to Turkish mediation, and we demand the dismantling of the Syria-Iran alliance.
When the United States tries to convince us that the talks with the Palestinians may weaken Iran's influence in the region - regardless of whether this assessment is valid - we create new areas of friction with the Palestinians. There is little left of the freeze in settlement construction, and declaring the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb national heritage sites may lead to a third intifada. The fact that Hamas has not fired Qassam rockets for more than a year is perceived as obvious, but the blockade of the Gaza Strip has continued for more than three and a half years. In Israel's eyes this is something natural that should have no effect on the Palestinians' positions.
Israel cannot honestly talk about external threats when it does not pose an alternative to the public. President Shimon Peres may extend his hand of peace to Syria, but the Israeli government extends its finger in a lewd gesture.
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