The possibility of initiating a diplomatic process with Syria passed before our eyes almost without notice. The president of the United States publicly declared his disinterest in participating in such a move, Israel's prime minister has more urgent matters, and Syrian President Bashar Assad, as we know full well, has no real military option against Israel. Therefore Syrian threats to pursue the military option if the path of negotiations is closed off evoke little fear on Israel's part.
This indifference is a mistake. History teaches that on at least three occasions we believed our adversary did not have a military option, and Israel could do what it pleased. On each occasion, we were proved wrong. For each mistake, we paid a high price. Those who are in charge of the country's security would be well-advised to take this into account and avoid the need to learn this lesson a fourth time.
From 1962 to 1967, the dominant concept ("kontzeptzia") within the Israeli military establishment was that as long as one-third of the Egyptian army was bogged down in the long-running civil war in Yemen, President Gamal Abdel Nasser had no military option against Israel. The concept withstood several tests, during which Israel escalated its conflict with Syria. The situation reached its peak on April 7, 1967, when six Syrian MiG-21 fighter jets were downed in dogfights, some of them directly above Damascus.
Even before that, the Israel Defense Forces had raided the Jordanian village of Samua, humiliating King Hussein's army. Nasser, the defender of the Arab world, could do nothing because one-third of his army was stuck in Yemen.
It is thus not surprising that in March 1967 Israeli Military Intelligence (MI) judged that war was unlikely before 1972 or 1973. Slightly more than two months later, the Egyptian army entered Sinai, and the rest is history. Why did Nasser take a political decision that defied military logic? There are many reasons, but the most important one was the pressure on him to take action to stop what the Arab world saw as Israeli arrogance. In other words, Israel went too far, and Nasser reacted.
Slightly more than two years later, in the War of Attrition at the Suez Canal, Israel began freely using its air force as "aerial artillery," and soon tipped the scales of battle in its favor. The skies over Egypt opened up completely, and toward the end of 1969 a decision was made to strike deep into Egyptian territory to force Nasser into a cease-fire or bring about his downfall by portraying him as being unable to defend even Cairo or Alexandria.
MI believed the Soviet Union would not interfere in the conflict, both because it lacked the means to do so and because it sought to avoid a confrontation with the U.S. Early 1970 saw the start of bombings deep into Egyptian territory, greatly increasing the pressure on Egypt and the USSR. In March 1970 it became clear that, contrary to Israeli assessments, the Soviet Union did have a military option and used it. A 10,000-strong Soviet antitank division with about 25 ground-to-air missile batteries and about 100 fighter aircraft was deployed in Egypt. At the end of the day, to avoid an escalation, Israel agreed to a cease-fire and the initiation of negotiations.
By October 1973, all attempts to move a partial or full agreement forward failed. From the Israeli perspective, there was no real military risk in burying the diplomatic process, since the Arabs, as everyone knew, had no military option. Just days before the start of the Yom Kippur War, the head of MI judged that Egypt could not wage an all-out war within the next five years, while the defense minister believed there would be no major war in the next 10 years. And then the war came. Once more, we were proved wrong, and once more we paid in blood for believing that the other side did not have a military option.
The situation today is not very different. The IDF is stronger than the Syrian army, but that does not mean Syria does not have the ability to hurt Israel or that if it had no choice, Syria would not exercise this ability despite the risks. The military logic dominating Israel's strategic thinking tends to downplay the weight of political considerations pushing Syria into turning to the use of force. If it does turn in that direction, and if Israel pays a high price for it, in a few more years we can sit and cry once more over the error of neglecting the diplomatic route because of the adversary's lack of military options and over the heavy price we have paid.
Dr. Bar-Yosef teaches in the Department of International Relations at Haifa University.