Israel and Syria / Mercury's rising
One year ago this week, the cabinet experienced one of the lowest points in its history: the nine-hour meeting at the end of which the ministers voted, against their better judgment and the original intent of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in favor of the Israel Defense Forces' recommendation to initiate an extensive ground operation "to the Litani River" and end the Second Lebanon War.
Two days later, with the United Nations Security Council poised to ratify a cease-fire agreement, Olmert and his defense minister, Amir Peretz, gave the IDF the go-ahead for that last, desperate and unnecessary action. The 33 casualties of those last two days eventually led to Peretz's resignation and before him, of chief of staff Dan Halutz.
Perhaps this backdrop can explain the frequent meetings of the "special ministerial committee for the northern front" over the past six weeks - a total of six, the last of which was on Wednesday.
The government will not allow itself to face another war without devoting enough thought to the matter. However, the meetings are somewhat strange: the ministers get a partial intelligence briefing on home-front protection and a heavy media blackout is followed by another calming message to the Syrian side via anonymous diplomats and once by the prime minister's optimistic prediction about quiet in our region.
Olmert's statements express his real intentions - Israel does not want war with Syria and will try to avoid it.
However, the atmosphere behind the scenes is less tranquil. Since the beginning of August, senior ministers and the few officers and intelligence operatives who are privy to the information are said to be under increasing pressure. Israel does not have a complete intelligence picture of the Syrian side.
However, the most worrisome scenario that seems to remain is a "miscalculation": a series of moves by both sides stemming from faulty interpretation of its adversary's intention, which might lead to a clash.
The Syrian military is arming at an unprecedented rate, Bashar Assad has publicly declared he would consider fielding "opposition" (terror attacks) against Israel in the Golan, and mainly, Jerusalem is worried about Syria's suspicion that Israel really does want to attack.
The moment the IDF set itself the goal of completing preparations for another confrontation by this summer, and this was reported in the media, Syria tensed up. To some extent, the IDF's actions are being mirrored on the other side.
However, it is believed that Syria, bellicose declarations notwithstanding, has no real interest in a direct clash, from which it will emerge battered.
The weapons are cocked, but they may remain on the table for a long time. Israel will have to deal with maintaining a high level of readiness over a long period without putting too much pressure on the reserves. And the longer the tension persists, the more likely it is to put an increasing burden on the economy.
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