No margin for error?
In the years of the Olmert government the fortunes of Hezbollah and Hamas have improved as a result of mistakes made by Israel.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the Israeli leadership enjoyed a margin for error in its decisions. Israel was strong militarily and economically, was deterring its enemies from taking military actions against it, and could afford to take risks. And even mistakes made by the leadership were not going to have catastrophic consequences. Not like in the early years of Israeli statehood when there was no margin for error.
In the days of the Sharon government there was enough confidence for Ariel Sharon to announce that since there was nobody to negotiate with, Israel would unilaterally determine its borders, use the Israel Defense Forces to evacuate settlements, and make itself "more Jewish and democratic." It was a time when Ehud Olmert, then the deputy prime minister, declared that "we are tired of fighting and tired of defeating our enemies." Those of us who were concerned about these mistakes could comfort ourselves by the thought that Israel was strong enough to have a margin for error - we could even afford to make mistakes. But since Olmert assumed the office of prime minister, the government's mistakes have been accumulating at such a rate that our margin for error is rapidly disappearing.
Although relations between us and our enemies are not always "zero-sum games," when it comes to those enemies who are dedicated to Israel's destruction, we are truly dealing with "zero-sum game" situations. What is good for them is bad for Israel.
Unfortunately, some of Israel's enemies make no bones about their intention to bring about Israel's destruction. Iran, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's leadership, Hezbollah and Hamas are in that category. When their fortunes improve it is bad for Israel, and the margin of error at Israel's disposal shrinks. In the years of the Olmert government the fortunes of Hezbollah and Hamas have improved as a result of mistakes made by Israel.
The debacle of the Second Lebanon War has been interpreted by Israel's enemies as a sign that Israel could be defeated on the battlefield. Hezbollah's hand was strengthened in Lebanon and its influence there increased. The newly elected Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, recently declared that Hezbollah had "freed southern Lebanon of the Israeli occupation." He continued, referring to Hezbollah, that "under no circumstances can I accept that those who defend their land and free it from occupation should be treated as 'terrorists'" (L'Express, no. 2975). The release of Samir Kuntar in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers only served to increase Hezbollah's prestige in Lebanon and much of the Arab world.
The disengagement from Gush Katif and the forcible evacuation of 8,000 Israelis from their homes there contributed to Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections, their subsequent takeover of the Gaza Strip, and encouraged them to launch rockets and mortar shells against Israeli towns and villages in the Western Negev. Israel's agreement to a cease-fire with this terrorist organization further strengthened them and increased their standing among Palestinians and in the Arab world. Israel's margin for error is shrinking.
And now comes Olmert's adventurous policy toward Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. It is true that the Israeli-Syrian relationship is not necessarily a "zero-sum game." Some moves could end up being good for both countries. But the fact that Syria until recently was considered in most of the Western world to be a part of the "axis of evil" could only work to Israel's benefit and discourage the Syrian dictator from undertaking overtly hostile steps against Israel, and eventually make him more flexible when the time came for negotiations with Israel. Throughout the world, his support for Hezbollah and the allegations that he was behind the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri were not going to be soon forgotten. It was no accident that Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah arch-terrorist, was in Damascus when he was recently assassinated. Syria's record on human rights is also well known. So helping to improve Assad's image cannot work to Israel's benefit.
Now, while Assad is being boycotted by the U.S. and most European countries, along comes Olmert and insists on beginning negotiations with him. If anyone wonders how Assad was so suddenly rehabilitated and greeted by President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, the answer is to be found in the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. When French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was recently questioned on that point, he replied that "we cannot be more Israeli than the Israelis" (L'Express, no. 2975). Olmert's shameless chase after a handshake with Assad at the Paris conference added embarrassment to the unease that most Israelis feel at his antics.
The Olmert government may not be able to survive many more weeks, but in those weeks, at the rate they are going, they might very well exhaust the small margin for error Israel still has left.