Analysis / Flying on a Wing and a Prayer

The Shin Bet's slogan is "Protecting, unseen." It's meant to send a message of power hidden from the eye, deployed in secret, spying on the terror plotters, spies and subversives; the Shin Bet is there, even if the enemy doesn't see it.

The Shin Bet's slogan is "Protecting, unseen." It's meant to send a message of power hidden from the eye, deployed in secret, spying on the terror plotters, spies and subversives; the Shin Bet is there, even if the enemy doesn't see it.

The Security Branch of the secret service has another slogan: "Protecting and seen." It refers to the security guards protecting the national assets - officials, planes, ships, embassies - ready to move to foil attacks. Two contradictory approaches that are complementary, both largely based on convincing the enemy not to dare attack. In a single word: deterrence.

The strategic attacks yesterday in Kenya and Beit She'an, are tidings - and not for the first time (Yom Kippur, the intifada, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin) that deterrence can fail.

The attacks deserve the description, "strategic," because they were meant to shape a new reality, to shock the entire Israeli system into changing course. In that context, it's better to consider the Arkia plane as not evading the missiles fired at it, but toppled by them with all 260 Israeli passengers on board - mass murder, like the planes smashing into the Twin Towers and Pentagon, the attack on the nightclub in Bali, and the takeover of the theater in Moscow.

The attack on the Likud headquarters in Beit She'an, on Likud election day, may not have been about reducing the number of voters to the point of threatening Ariel Sharon's anticipated victory, but it certainly was meant to prove that Sharon is not able to provide security even to his own supporters. Even if Yasser Arafat controls the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades more by default than by action, yesterday he managed to threaten Sharon and even cause him a few hours of anxiety about losing the primary elections in the Likud.

In his crisis, Sharon deepened his political use of the IDF, a blunt and blatant use best symbolized so far by his handing of the Defense Ministry portfolio to the former chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz. Yesterday, instead of calling the press to Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv, or to the Prime Minister's Office, Sharon turned the Defense Ministry into election scenery and drafted the commander of the air force, Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, into the prime minister's repertoire theater. It was strange that Halutz, even though he's a friend of Omri Sharon and a favorite of the prime minister, agreed to it.

The IDF was astonished yesterday to see Halutz beside the two politicians. Chief of Staff Mofaz

caught a plane home from Washington and landed shortly before the political show. Acting chief of staff, his deputy Gabi Ashkenazi, did not give his required approval for Halutz's appearance, an approval explicitly required by general staff regulations. Last night, the issue was still under examination, but apparently, Halutz obeyed a direct - and unauthorized - order from the political level.

In the air force, in fighter squadrons and anti-aircraft missile units, all the way back to the 1970s, they speak of "bouncing Betties" - landmines that pop up to slay a soldier - as a code name for a scenario in which a hijacked plane is flown into Tel Aviv or onto the Dimona nuclear reactor. It never happened, and the El Al and other airline hijackings gradually faded away, largely because of the successful security measures Israel undertook, which sent a message to the hostile organizations that they had no reason to believe they could succeed.

Anti-aircraft missiles like the SA-7s used by NATO, the Strelas made by the Soviets, or the Redeyes used by the Americans, have been around for decades, but only in one or two cases - and not since 1976 - were they used in attempted attacks on Israeli aircraft. Even the most sophisticated missiles have yet to be used as a threat. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Israeli targets around the world, and millions of Jewish targets, are outside the Israeli protection umbrella, but have not been attacked. Deterrence worked.

So what's changed, then? The circumstances, the opponents, the balance of forces and the balances of profit and loss have all changed. Iran occupied the American Embassy and held dozens of hostages for 444 days without punishment. Hezbollah proved in Lebanon, with attacks on Americans, the French, and Israelis, that two or three car bombs can make the West run home. Osama bin Laden brought the art of spectacular, massive, simultaneous attacks to a climax - or a low point. He brought the full weight of American wrath in its wake, just as the hijacking of the planes in September 1970 brought the wrath of Israel, Jordan and the superpowers down on the PLO. But the ruthless example given to a new generation of young zealots, ambitious for self-sacrifice and suicide, are now being imitated by the direct enemies of Israel.

And the trend is escalation, not calm, because the opponents are so far immune to a devastating blow - they have no bases that invite occupation or destruction, and no political lever that will dissuade them from further attacks. What happened, could happen again. And what hasn't happened, will yet take place.

Here's a tiny example: Out of the tens of thousands of foreign workers in Israel, from Kenya, Nigeria and the Philippines, a tiny minority - perhaps 2 percent - are believed to be Muslims. That's a few hundred, maybe a few thousand. The security forces haven't got a clue whether any of them has been paid off or extorted into participating in terror attacks.

The aggregation of the separate incidents - the attack on the passengers at the El Al station in Los Angeles, the amateurish passenger rage-cum-hijacking on the plane to Istanbul, the missiles fired in Mombasa - show that the era of a Israeli deterence power is over. The old faith, that those who harm Israel will be lethally paid back one of these days by Mossad fighters, or some Unit 101 led by Arik Sharon, has faded away.

Like the American pilots who limped home to their bases in Britain, full of German anti-aircraft shrapnel, "on a wing and a prayer," it has become evident to Israelis that their protective covering, and the nerves of their leaders in the whirlpool of political survival, is as thin as the metal skin of a passenger plane.