Hezbollah youth holding Katyushas near Nasrallah portrait
Young Hezbollah supporters holding mock ups of Katyusha rockets in front of a portrait of group leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Photo by AP
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When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declares that Israel will not be able to restrain itself from responding to Syria's transfer of long-range missiles to Hezbollah, the Israeli embassy in Madrid goes on the alert. The diplomats there know that by the next day there will be a hysterical directive from Jerusalem to ask Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos to relay a reassuring message to Damascus.

And when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatens to wipe out the Assad clan, ministry officials assume there must have been a development in the criminal investigation against Lieberman. The problem is that the Arabs just don't get the Israelis: They take our ministers' twaddle more seriously than we do.

It seems that Netanyahu and Lieberman want to scare us and put the peace genie back in the bottle. But how to convince the Arabs that their scaremongering is aimed at diverting our attention from the destruction the government is wreaking on Israel's foreign relations? Barak Ravid reported in Haaretz last week that Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said, on his return from Beirut, that there was total panic in Lebanon over the possibility of an Israeli offensive there. It turns out that when Israeli officials try to scare us about the menace of the Scud missiles that Syria has given Hezbollah, it is the Arabs who get frightened.

According to articles appearing recently in the Arab press, the Syrians think that in the absence of permission from the United States to launch an offensive against Iran's nuclear installations, Israel will strike in Iran's front yard by attacking Hezbollah's missiles and dragging Syria into a confrontation. In an atmosphere of panic, a local incident would be enough to start a major flare-up. Hassan Nasrallah said after the last war that he had not correctly assessed the action Israel would take. The Hezbollah leader implied that he had not been interested in a conflict of such high intensity.

In 2006, it ended with missiles landing on the outskirts of Hadera and 1 million refugees who fled from the north. According to the head of the Military Intelligence research division, Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, if the Syrians err in their assessment of Israel's intentions in 2010, the missiles will land in Tel Aviv and even further south. He recently told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Hezbollah's military capabilities had developed greatly since the Second Lebanon War and that it now has thousands of rockets of all kinds and ranges, as well as long-range solid-fuel missiles that are highly accurate.

No less important, the "national appraiser" pointed out that Hezbollah is regarded by the Syrians as "part of their own defense entity" - and this comes at a time when the U.S. defense establishment does not see an Israel ruled by a right-wing government as part of the American defense entity. The checks and balances through which the peace process with Syria has contributed to a state of calm have worn thin. Baidatz said the Syrians are still interested in a peace deal with Israel for the return of the Golan Heights and American involvement. Military Intelligence believes that in exchange for this, "Syria will alter its role in the radical axis." For Syrian President Bashar Assad, however, progress in the diplomatic process with the current Israeli government is of no import.

As long as Israel is not ready to pay the territorial price for peace with Syria, deterrence is a legitimate, and even vital, means of avoiding a military confrontation. Deterrence, according to the accepted definition in the Israel Defense Forces, consists of "an action or process of threatening that prevents the enemy from taking action because of a fear of its repercussions."

Deterrence creates an atmosphere of the existence of a credible threat that decision makers believe could lead to an outcome that they cannot or do not wish to countenance. What would happen if the decision makers in Damascus decide that Israel is determined this summer to carry out its threat to attack, no matter what? When its life is threatened, even a pet cat unsheathes its claws.

We can only hope that our neighbors begin taking the blathering of Israeli leaders as seriously as most Israelis do. Otherwise, it could end in disaster.