From Gaza to Damascus
Washington, under Barack Obama's administration, is liable to be more attentive to the idea of an Israel-Syrian agreement, and a unity government in Israel may be the only realistic course by which to strive for political progress in the coming years.
Watching the Oscar-nominated "Waltz with Bashir" generates agitated reactions not just among veteran combat reservists, who performed their mandatory military service in the early 1980s. The first Lebanon war also shaped the current generation of majors general in the General Staff, most of them officers who joined the army after the Yom Kippur War.
The 1982 war was the first (and last war) they experienced, and it was emblazoned on their memories as the last time the Israel Defense Forces fought a regular Arab army (the Syrian army in Lebanon) in addition to terrorist and guerrilla groups. The slightly younger generation of IDF commanders never gained this degree of combat experience. These officers, who joined the army once the IDF started plodding around in the Lebanese mire, know wars of a different sort: the first and second intifadas, the 2006 edition of Lebanon and Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.
But all the wars have a few things in common, from 1982 onward, regardless of their scope. They were very difficult to conclude decisively, they were conducted in densely packed civilian areas, and the danger to the Israeli home front was greater during those wars than in previous ones. Future wars will therefore be one big tragedy. Civilians will find themselves caught between the parties at war: The terrorist groups will use Arab civilians as human shields while aiming their fire at the Israeli civilian population. Israel, in its harsh responses, will cause the deaths of many civilians among the enemy population, as it did in the Second Lebanon War and the Gaza war. The chances of its actions being received with understanding around the world, especially in the Obama era, are diminishing.
Maj. Gen. (Res.) Eyal Ben-Reuven, who served in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, warned against the "intoxication of power" in the wake of the Gaza war. Speaking at a conference last month, he said he saw Cast Lead as being "super-justified" but was worried Israel might draw the wrong conclusion from the war: that all that's needed is to exercise massive, almost blind, force to reach the objective. The appropriate conclusion should be the opposite: That even when the IDF resolves the problem in the short term (and in the case of Gaza, there's still no evidence that even this goal was reached), there are liable to be very harsh long-term ramifications of exercising extensive power. On the Gaza side, more than 1,000 names and a great desire for revenge can now be added to the bloody arithmetic of the Israelis and Palestinians.
There are politicians as well as senior military officials with an in-depth understanding of the consequences of the most recent conflicts. It will be incumbent on them to do everything they can to prevent additional wars in the future, not to incite them in the hope of reaching an abstract political or security goal. On the Palestinian track, the possibility of any advancement in the peace process under a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu appears quite slim. And even if the Hamas government in Gaza is deterred from another military conflict, it is strong enough to prevent the Palestinian Authority-led government in the West Bank from making the concessions necessary to reach a deal with Israel.
The chances look more promising on the Syrian track. A peace agreement with Syria would have a dual advantage. It would reduce the danger of a renewed conflagration on the northern front, where any war would entail heavy losses, both military and civilian. It would also ease the sting of the Iranian plan to strengthen the Arab world's radical axis, under the protection of an Iranian nuclear umbrella. It's no accident that IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi is the most vehement supporter of seriously considering negotiations with Syria.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has signaled a clear strategic direction for his country: lifting the international isolation and improving the economy. Tehran, which suffers from a serious financial crisis of its own and has been hard-hit by the fall in oil prices, is having difficulty satisfying Assad's desires. Syria's path to its goals passes through the United States, and for that it needs Israel. Washington, under Barack Obama's administration, is liable to be more attentive to the idea of an Israel-Syrian agreement. A unity government in Israel may be the only realistic course by which to strive for political progress in the coming years.