The last time Israeli and Syrian forces clashed at the level of fighter-plane squadrons and ground divisions was in June 1982, apart from a brief aerial encounter in November 1985. For a quarter century the Syrian front has been quiet but volatile, as illustrated by the panic that seized the government and military command in the tense summer of 2007. Regaining the Golan Heights may not be Syrian President's Bashar Assad's top priority, but Israel holds no copyright on productions titled "The boss has gone crazy".
For the last three and a half years, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot has headed the Israel Defense Forces' Northern Command. When Maj. Gen. Udi Adam resigned, haunted by his failure in Lebanon, Eizenkot turned the post down. The defense minister at the time, Amir Peretz, wanted to give the job to Maj. Gen. Yoav Gallant, head of Southern Command. But chief of staff Dan Halutz didn't agree, and Peretz came up with two retired generals, both over 60, Ilan Biran and Amiram Levin. (He also wanted to appoint retired general Uzi Dayan to head a supreme command at the Defense Ministry.) None of these plans materialized, and when Eizenkot was summoned once again to Peretz's office, in Halutz's presence, his objections to the appointment weren't so strenuous.
Although both the current chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, and his deputy, Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, served as head of Northern Command during the seven years before Adam's tenure, Eizenkot is now the IDF's top expert on the northern front. He will have to command Israeli forces there if war breaks out. His senior subordinate will be Maj. Gen. Gershon Hacohen, the commander of Corps 446. On Sunday, Eizenkot and Hacohen expounded on their views at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Both are thoughtful, experienced commanders who are excellent at analyzing situations and reflecting on their significance, but they are happy to make do with a public image of being narrowly focused subcontractors.
This northern duo remains silent while the political duo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, leads Israel toward a political and security catastrophe. The quiet on the borders is illusory, similar to the quiet that put Israel to sleep in the early 1970s in the three years between the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War. Barak, who was defense minister in the government that negotiated with the Palestinians on the Annapolis parameters, has now lent a hand to bury the process by making it possible for Netanyahu to kill off what he is trying to revive.
Without progress with the Palestinians, there can be no progress with Syria. The initiative has been abandoned to Assad, who could take military action in a number of ways: surface-to-surface missiles, commando raids on Mount Hermon or a Druze settlement in the Golan, or terror attacks by Hezbollah. In the last resort, he could move tanks up to the border. Pandemonium would break out, the Americans would intervene, and the process would resume with the Syrians determined to restore their dignity and land.
From the lectures given by Eizenkot and Hacohen, it's clear that the IDF has responses to various scenarios, but it doesn't have solutions. If Assad decides to imitate Anwar Sadat, who was his father's partner in 1973, and to strike Israel in order to wound it, its air bases, infrastructure and pride, Israel will not be able to prevent him from gaining a psychological and political victory, however heavy a military and economic price he must pay.
This is the code of the north that our commanders there are refusing to decipher for the public, who will suffer the consequences. To their credit, it may be said that the generals are unwilling to encroach on the no-man's-land between the military and political echelons, and that they fear divulging to the Syrians the IDF commanders' thinking. But on the negative side, they are shirking their supreme duty - preventing an unnecessary war.
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