Text size

One tried and true method for dealing with a headache or a toothache is to give a wall a nice, hard kick, until one's leg screams with pain. This may do nothing to cure the original pain, but it makes one forget it for a while.

In Israel's dispute with the Arabs and Muslims, this method translates as a leap from the local, Palestinian context to the more general one which envelops local matters.

Something like this occurred early Sunday morning, in the Israel Defense Forces attack near Damascus. The operation's objective was to change the subject. As the world talks about Palestinians versus Israelis, and denounces the Maxim restaurant attack while continuing to evince understanding for a liberation struggle against a foreign occupier, Israel has diverted the agenda to Syria, which allegedly assists terror operations against the Americans in Iraq.

Israel's line of argument is not mendacious. Host countries provide sanctuary to violent activity undertaken by nationalist-religious Palestinian organizations due to the self-interested calculations of their rulers. The exertion of diplomatic and military pressure on the rulers of these countries, under advantageous circumstances of collaboration with the Americans, will highlight anew the large alignment of forces that pits Israel against terror sponsored by the Arabs and the Iranians, an alignment which envelops the smaller balance of forces (Israelis against Palestinians). At the time of the attack (neither too early, so as to preclude charges of an Israeli-American conspiracy, nor too late), the American military attache was summoned for a briefing with the Head of the IDF's Operations Directorate, Major General Yisrael Ziv.

The operation was oriented more toward public relations than toward military substance. Despite the fact that there is a direct connection between Islamic Jihad's staff headquarters in Damascus and the terror explosion at Maxim, the IDF operation's initiators did not believe that a strike at the Palestinian camp near Damascus could significantly curb terror attacks launched from Jenin or the Gaza Strip. In IDF terms,the base in Syria is equivalent to a training field school for platoon commanders or to a training base for a field unit; run by the Ahmed Jibril "Popular Front" organization, the facility has also been put at the disposal of other groups, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas. There is currently no evidence that Hezbollah or Al-Qaida militants have trained at it.

General confirmation in principle for the operation, subject to on-the-spot approval by the prime minister and defense minister, was given by the cabinet a month-and-a-half ago, after the terror attack on the No. 2 bus in Jerusalem. Saturday's strike at Maxim provided a compelling pretext. More than the visiting Palestinians who trained at the base, the operation's target was its host, Syria. For that reason, the speedy execution of the mission (which was undertaken just a few hours after the Haifa terror attack) took precedence over the amount of damage it might cause to Islamic Jihad. Up-to-date intelligence information would have been needed to maximize such damage, and time would have been lost collecting such data; the elapse of time would have meant that memories of the Maxim atrocity would have dulled.

For years Israel dealt with Syria, at Lebanon's expense, in the violent confrontation on the northern border. Sunday's operation set a temporary, not final record in terms of playing tough directly with Damascus. In previous chapters, the IDF attacked Syrian targets in Lebanon, and also flew planes threateningly above Bashar Assad's palace (who was absent at the time, and so missed the sonic boom over his residence). Now the IDF has attacked a non-Syrian target in Syria, using methods that enable weapons firing from long distances without the necessity of invading Syrian air space. Assad is supposed to conclude that should he not desist from aiding Palestinian terror, the next installment will involve an IDF attack on a Syrian target within his country.

Is that a shrewd plan, or a wild gamble? The answer depends upon Syria's response. Faced with a strong Israeli and American military presence, Assad is likely to show restraint; but he might expand leeway given to Hezbollah and other militants for attacks on the Galilee, including the firing of Katyusha rockets. Should Israeli civilian communities (and not only military bases) be hit in such attacks, then the fifth of October will be remembered as the start of a wider conflict, one which will not solve Israel's headache. Major air battles on April 7, 1967 and September 13, 1973 were preludes to the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars.