The Israel Defense Forces this week pressed the button on the stopwatch for the next war with Syria. The act of starting the clock does not necessarily mean that a war is unavoidable next month, but it does have an element of a countdown - like in the launching of a space shuttle - that can be reversed and stopped. This time, the army's statements do not contradict the actual intention to issue the draft of the order (No. 001) to prepare for war. Defensive preparedness - that is, as opposed to a call-up of reserves, preemptive strike, or an attack.

For almost 20 years, from January 1964 until April 1983, the head of the Northern Command had an advantage over his colleagues from the Southern and Central Commands in the competition to be appointed Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. Yitzhak Rabin, David Elazar, Motta Gur, Rafael Eitan - all shared the formative experience of the confrontation with Syria. (Haim Bar-Lev was an exception in that he never served as GOC but was the Northern Command Chief of Staff). This streak, interrupted for about a generation, was recently renewed with the appointment of Gabi Ashkenazi as chief of staff.

For a war with Syria, much of which would be expected, nevertheless, to take place in the air and deep inside the two countries, far from the line of contact between the forces at the front, a chief of staff such as Ashkenazi would bring the asset of years of experience in planning and drilling. One can expect that, in a confrontation with Syria's 68-year-old chief of staff, General Ali Habib, he will come prepared.

Not that Ashkenazi wants to get to a war, but in his statements this week he contributed to the escalation that he seeks to avoid. He is not eager for an unnecessary battle, and sounds wary of its potential cost. In discussions within the military establishment and in its contacts with the political echelon above it, he takes a moderate line, which is shared by GOC Northern Command Gadi Eisenkot, Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin and other generals; at present there is no general who clearly embraces the opposing, combative approach. This is a contrast with the situation in Gaza, where GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant, and Division Commander Moshe (Chico) Tamir are advocating a more aggressive approach.

Officers who've been listening to him get the sense that the chief of staff, on the job for nearly four months now, is already looking forward to the autumn. The summer of 2007 - which was first cited as a potential time for war in the strategic assessment of the Planning Branch made last November, back during the tenure of Ashkenazi's predecessor - took on a magical, fateful significance as time went on, something between a ticking bomb and the anticipated Y2K bug of the turn of the millennium, which all awaited with bated breath until the threat just evaporated.

There is no precedent for a war that is announced in advance, like a summons to a duel, but Ashkenazi cannot rely on precedent; who should know better than he, before whom no reserve major general had ever been appointed chief of staff, that for everything there is a first?

Contrary to popular conception, there was no major difference between the basic military approaches of Moshe Ya'alon and Dan Halutz: In the Syrian context, they were practically a single chief of staff, "Ya'alutz," and Ashkenazi, Ya'alon's top deputy, was involved in formulating the IDF's operational concept, which was adopted primarily under Ya'alon and then finalized under Halutz. And part of the assessment, even before the hostilities of last summer between Israel and Hezbollah, was the understanding that Syria would seek to wage a war of attrition. That war would begin with a sudden move and continue with an erosion that would undermine the Israeli home front, and eventually launch a diplomatic process that would lead to the return of the Golan Heights of Syria.

Of Syria's three "arms," its armored branch would be used to confine IDF forces, while its missiles (and perhaps also biological and chemical warheads) would strike deep in Israeli territory, and be aided by the terror and guerilla activities of Hezbollah and Hamas. The Israeli threat, over the years, was to view the ruling Assad family, which maintains power with the help of the Alawite minority, "as a clear address [operating] politically in a logical manner," and to pay it home visits that would strike at the assets that are "most precious" to it personally and that serve as props for its authority. Meaning, practically, that the traditional missions of destroying enemy forces and conquering territory would be superseded by an attempt to strike at the regime's stability, at its economy and at the system that protects the rulers from being overthrown.

Such an approach might be expected to win the sympathy of the Bush administration, which is upset with Assad for hindering American policy in Iraq and Lebanon, but in the twilight of its rule, the prospect that Assad's toppling would lead to the rise of a ruler from among his opponents (his uncle Rifat and Rifat's son Sumar; former vice-president Abdel Halim Khaddam; or perhaps also retired chief of staff Hikmat Shihabi) might appeal more to Mossad chief Meir Dagan more than the scarred officials in Washington, who've been burned by the experience in Iraq and are unsure what to do about Iran. No one can guarantee that a collapse of the Assad regime at this point will foster a positive change. Things could work out well in the end, but could be preceded by the Syria-Iraq border being breached for America's enemies to stream through. Moreover, what if the ones who take over in Damascus are not those currently living in exiles in the West, but the Muslim Brotherhood, emissaries of Iran or local branches of Al-Qaida? Assad, in his calculations, can figure that the Bush Administration won't be tempted into such a venture anytime soon.

Hints of what direction America will take will be given in President Bush's meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, scheduled for June 19. If the Israeli establishment can shake off its paralysis, it will prepare, in advance of the meeting, creative proposals for handling the short-fused "suspicious object" otherwise known as the Syrian front. These could include, confidence-building steps to calm the situation, like a mutual distancing of forces from the border and a three-month hiatus in the training of formations dozens of kilometers from there.

The next stage would be a meeting in Washington of the chiefs of staff, Ashkenazi and Habib (who was the commander of Seventh Mechanized Division that Syria contributed to the American-Saudi force against Iraq in the 1991 war). Such a meeting could be along the lines of the Shihabi's meetings with then-chief of staff Ehud Barak and his deputy, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak in the mid-1990s.

Such an idea, which cannot be detached from the diplomatic context, will necessarily have to wait for the next defense minister. But if Ashkenazi pushes the idea of such talks, he would be doing as much to improve Israel's security situation as he would by preparing the country's army for war.

Out of Gaza, into Sderot

The state of martial law that existed in Israel [vis-a-vis its Arab sector] was cancelled in 1966, and renewed recently in one place: Sderot. The special situation that was declared there makes that town subordinate to the IDF. Until the end of the summer, it is not being run by Sderot's City Hall, but rather by "the City of Sderot Military Headquarters," which is headed by the deputy commander of the Home Front's southern district command. Fortification of buildings, maintenance work on existing fortifications, public opinion surveys - all of which are completely civilian matters - are now the responsibility of the city's military headquarters.

The military governor of Sderot is the district commander, Colonel Dedi Simchi, and the acting commander is his deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Effi Meshuv. Both are area residents, and both have prior experience as commanders in the Gaza and Arava Divisions. Their direct commander, in this special situation, is the commander of the Gaza Division, who is under the GOC Southern Command.

Sderot came by its special status honestly. In recent days, with the increased pressure being put on the Qassam cells, the Palestinians have varied their tactics, putting an emphasis on mortar shells that fall closer to the fence. But the feeling left after May still hangs in the air. That was the peak month for Qassams - 266, compared to 40-75, the number that fell in each of the four previous months, which added up to a total of 210. Ninety-five of the rockets in May, more than a third, fell in Sderot; a quarter fell within the Sha'ar Hanegev regional council, and the rest were scattered in other areas. Of the 284 people hurt, 276 were in Sderot. If Sderot is the gauge, then the Palestinians are winning.

The law authorizes seven senior IDF officers - the chief of staff, his deputy, the head of the Operations Branch, the head of the Home Front Command and the three heads of the district Commands - to command the local civilians. The reality is confused and even foolish: Authorities are determined by cause and not by effect. If an explosion is heard in Netivot, and it turns out to be a terror attack, then the police are in charge; but if was the sound of a rocket landing there, then it's the army that is responsible, and depending on the legal situation at the moment, that responsibility falls on either the Southern Command or the Home Front Command.

Drivers of ambulances and mobile ICU units, of which there are normally two but which now number a dozen, have been quasi-drafted, though they insisted upon and received military permission to continue wearing their Magen David Adom uniforms. A territory about seven kilometers wide, from the east of Gaza and a little north of it, now belongs to the IDF. Having lost the Gaza Strip, it may now console itself with the strip around Gaza, whose border is the "Yellow Line."

None of the government ministers bears comprehensive responsibility for the home front, which has been relentlessly bombed and shelled for almost seven years - though not always in the same place, except for Sderot. The term "Home Front Command" promises much, but is helpless to deliver on those promises. The GOC Home Front Command, Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon, who would like to change the organization's name to the "National Guard," has been trying to improve the situation, so far without success. Gershon, whatever his motives may be, learned for himself what it means to win a battle and lose the war.

With the encouragement of the most senior officers, he was prodded to petition the High Court of Justice this past March against the state comptroller, over the issue of the release of the comptroller's report on the home front. The petition was accepted, but Gershon was left in the position of an "untouchable," from whom it's best to keep one's distance. If, up to then, it was reasonably expected that Gershon would again follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Yair Naveh, this time into the Central Command, Ashkenazi has since shied away from him and propelled ahead of him Gershon's successor in the Paratroop Brigade, Gadi Shamni.

Gershon was the commander of the Judea and Samaria Division in the IDF's last successful operation, Operation Defensive Shield, in 2002. His treatment paralleled that of the then-head of the Central Command, Yitzhak Eitan, his Intelligence Branch officer, Gal Hirsch, and Division Command Amos Ben-Avraham, all of whom were let go from the system, with the IDF choosing to ignore their experience and what they'd learned.

A logical personnel arrangement would have brought Gershon to the Central Command and Shamni, formerly the commander of the Gaza Division, to the Southern Command. But that's just the trouble: There's no connection between the army and logic.

The rabbi learns a lesson

In the General Staff over the past five years, from Ya'alon through Halutz to Ashkenazi, for the first time in the history of the IDF there has come to be a bloc of skullcap-wearers (four generals) equal in size to that of the blue caps of the air force, the red berets of the Paratroops, the brown berets of Golani and the black ones of the Armored Corps. This is a major change, when you compare the situation at the time of the Six-Day War, when the lone religious general in the IDF had only a political rank, given to him by David Ben-Gurion just before his retirement. This was the chief military rabbi, Shlomo Goren, and documents from the 1967 General Staff reveal how chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin related to him: There was no crack in the unity of the command staff, no division of authority between military and religious sources.

In August, two months after the war, Rabin had to address two issues that arose in its wake. The first had to do with plundered vehicles. The second, the Temple Mount, focused on Rabbi Goren, but also, in retrospect, provided a glimpse of insight into another general, who, three decades later would go ascend to the Temple Mount and from there to power.

"I ask that once IDF generals receive a [Plymouth] Valiant car," said Rabin, "that they not travel in, or have in their possession, a rekhev bizah" - using the Hebrew term for "plundered vehicle." Rabin continued: "Right now five generals, including GOCs, are in possession of a plundered vehicle."

Major General David (Dado) Elazar was offended. "Pardon me," he replied. "The head of the Northern Command did not travel in a rekhev shalal [a vehicle that is military booty] at any time since the start of this war."

Rabin didn't fall for the trap. "A rekhev shalal is from a military enemy," he clarified. "Bizah are just civilian taxis." As for the Temple Mount, Rabin said: "I wanted to explain the whole thing with Rabbi Goren. In the context of the admiration that is growing, and rightly so, and with the sentiments that are connected to the West Bank, each one has his own motivation for having the sentiments that he does. There are those for whom it is historic ... and there are those whose sentiments are religious. Rabbi Goren has a theory that the Western Wall is not the holiest place. Its holiness derives from its being the outer wall of the Temple Mount, and there is no place more sacred to the Jews than the Temple Mount. He says, 'I don't know why Jews in the State of Israel, because Jerusalem today is the State of Israel, are forbidden from praying on the Temple Mount. I understand that one needn't pray in the mosque or on Friday when it would disturb the Muslim ritual, but why should we sanctify a custom that prohibits a Jew from praying in the holiest place for a Jew?'"

Major General Elad Peled: "A Jew is forbidden to enter there at all, according to the halakha (Jewish law)."

Rabin: "Don't argue matters of halakha with Rabbi Goren."

Major General Uzi Narkiss: "The Chief Rabbinate argues with him and says that it's the arbiter."

Major General Yisrael Tal: "I'd argue with him on another halakha. If he's an officer in the army, his halakha is army orders. He's working on behalf of the General Staff before he's a rabbi."

Rabin: "I understand the excitement. Which is why he was summoned to see me and this is exactly what was said to him. He was told one general thing and one specific thing: 'Rabbi Goren, you may be right and you may be wrong, I don't make halakhic rulings on such matters. You want to keep on waging your battle? As long as you're in uniform, I forbid you from performing any act, even prayer. Second, I personally forbid you from praying on the Temple Mount.' He received this order in writing as well. 'And third, issue an order that cancels the call for prayer on the Temple Mount.' He carried out all of it. Until the next chapter. By the way, he denied that his prayer on the Temple Mount was deliberate. He said, 'I was tired, it was crowded next to the Western Wall.' Someone gave him an office. On the way to the office, which is almost the Temple Mount, he prayed."

Major General Ariel Sharon: "Every Jew can pray on the Temple Mount."

Rabin: "The first roll call on the Temple Mount was done not by the rabbis, but by Brigade 35, and they were there with approval."

Sharon: "Are Jews, not the chief rabbi, now forbidden from praying on the Temple Mount?"

Rabin: "Rabbi Goren is personally prohibited. We're not dealing with other Jews. The General Staff does not run the prayers on the Temple Mount. It could - or not - prohibit all army personnel, especially the high-ranking ones."