The Consistency of Error

The Haaretz request yesterday morning to the military censor for permission - which it could no longer justifiably ban - to report about the IDF operation in Syria on September 6 without referring to foreign sources was finally approved. Any conspiracy theories behind the motive for this newfound openness are ridiculous. After Benjamin Netanyahu and the BBC, a negative answer would have been more stupid than what the Israeli press had become accustomed to hearing over the past month.

Following many weeks of feverish work the censors decided to take a break.

Since the operation the censors have fought on two fronts. One, external, against the Israeli media, which hoped to fulfill its duty and publish as many details as possible on the operation.

The second, internal, had to do with the raison d'etre of the censor - which under government pressure, and particularly from Defense Minister Ehud Barak, sought to seal the mouths of Israeli journalists. Were they to fail in their stringent guarding of secrecy, the matter may have been brought to the courts, which would have made the censorship redundant and put an end to the dispute over how necessary it is.

Consequently, while plenty of light was shone on the incident in the world press, the Israeli press had to feel its way in the dark.

The farce came to a partial end yesterday, and even though there is still a gag order on most of the juicy details, we can safely say that behind the successful blackout campaign lies an enormous failure. The silence of official Israel was not meant to protect military secrets. The victim of the operation knows full well what he had and what happened to him.

Policy was shaped on the basis of a certain assumption about Bashar Assad's behavior in response to the operation. Since one option was chosen - silence - and not others, it is impossible to say with certainty what would have happened had Israel talked and thus added insult to the blow. Still, it seems that once again Assad surprised Israel; whoever expected him to respond to the operation in a military operation was wrong.

If there is one quality characterizing Israel's efforts to decipher the actions of the Assad dynasty in the past four decades, it is the consistency of error. Collecting information about Syrian capabilities has normally been very good. Forecasting the intentions of the Syrian leader has been very bad. Nearly everything Israeli experts expected Hafez Assad to do - up to his death in 2000 - and subsequently Bashar, were either not done, or the opposite was done.

The intelligence assessment for 1973 was finalized in late 1972: No Syrian - or Egyptian - decision was expected on going to war. In September 1973 the signs on the ground were interpreted as Syrian concerns that Israel would attack. In the Yom Kippur War, even though Military Intelligence kept a plan on Syria's expected war plan, both the General Staff and Northern Command were wrong about the Syrian forces' moves on the Golan.

In early 1981, the IDF shot down Syrian helicopters that supported fighting against the Phalange militia in Lebanon. In a surprise response, Syria slipped anti-aircraft missiles into the Bekaa Valley. In the end, Menachem Begin carried out the official annexation of the Golan. One of his aims was to lead to war with Syria and push the new Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, to freeze relations with Israel and offer him an excuse not to evacuate Yamit in the Sinai.

Assad was expected to respond to the annexation with force. In the war maps of the divisions in the North, the lines on which the IDF would counter the Syrian forces - all the way to Beirut - had already been marked. Much to the Israelis' chagrin, Assad frustrated their planning and did not move. In June 1982 the IDF planned to outflank the Syrian army in the Bekaa, "which would have forced them to withdraw without battle," according to the military journal Maarachot. Once more, the Syrians refused to play the roles we had assigned them.

Throughout the 1980s, and especially after Assad surprised by deploying SAM-5 antiaircraft missile batteries around Damascus, Israeli experts warned that the Syrians would attack any minute. Israel prepared for another Yom Kippur onslaught, which never came.

Israel was surprised when Assad joined the alliance against Iraq in 1991, which included the deployment of a division to assist Syria in the American war effort. And after the war was over Israel was surprised by Assad's willingness to send a delegation to the Madrid peace conference.

In 1996, after the failure of the Rabin-Peres government's negotiations with Assad, Israel scared itself into expecting another Syrian attack. This was in part because of Syrian military movements on the ground and a great deal because of the false information their Mossad spy handler, Yehuda Gil, brought them.

We can go on listing the failures, all the way to the present, which begins with last year's assumption that there would be war in the North in the summer of 2007. The failures end (for now) with assessments by experts that Assad will not refrain from responding to the September operation - the only question remaining was the degree of his response.

If the Syrians are mistaken in their assessments of Israel's intentions as often as Israel is about Syria, the mutual mistakes will lead to disaster in the end. To prevent this there is no need for censorship, just greater openness.