Israel and Syria / Threats' Silver Lining

The threats of war that Israel and Syria are slinging at each other have a positive side. Finally, the Israeli public will know the truth: Is Israel's leadership willing to make painful territorial concessions on the Golan Heights? And, is there any basis to the message Jerusalem sent to Damascus about its genuine intentions to negotiate?

Israel will also know more. It will know what all its intelligence branches have not been able to decipher, namely, what Bashar Assad's intentions are. Israel will be able to understand better what Assad is willing to forgo, in terms of the support Syria gives to terrorist organizations operating against Israel, and how far he is willing to distance himself from Syria's strategic ties with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The precondition for this is that Israel should not be deterred from dialogue with the Syrians: both in the form of a direct exchange, and also within the framework of the Arab League proposal.

There is another positive aspect about the beating of the war drums: This is an important opportunity for Israel to better prepare the home front in the north. By knowing what the threats are, it must make a supreme effort to bolster the home front, and to limit the damages in case of war. This requires the government to remove this sensitive subject from the hands of Finance Ministry officials and appoint a minister in charge of things. Currently, this is being handled by Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, but he is constrained by the treasury, which is backed by the prime minister.

Meanwhile, both sides are trying to sound scary and are issuing mixed signals. In Damascus, they are warning that if the peace talk proposals are left unanswered and Israel does not relinquish the Golan Heights, it will have to undertake "resistance" activities. Israel is not threatening, but its last two governments rejected the possibility of negotiations, knowing full well the price Israel will be asked to pay. During the Second Lebanon War, Syria essentially attacked Israel through its direct assistance to Hezbollah. On the other hand, Israel is very careful not to harm Syria. One of the reasons for the mistaken decision not to call up reserves early in the war stemmed from the concern that Damascus would interpret this move as Israel planning to attack Syria.

Israel and Syria are dancing around war. Even if neither side is ready to initiate, a conflict could break out because of a miscalculation, poor intelligence or a trick by an interested party to create a provocation that would lead Israel and Syria to war. It is only natural that the two sides are preparing for the worst eventuality, which is war.

Israel cannot blame Syria for training its forces, when it is doing the same. The IDF is also carrying out intensive training, and it is also on alert in the Golan Heights, even more so than the Syrians are. Israel's intelligence knows a great deal about what is going on in Syria, but the impression is that it lacks sufficient information about what Bashar Assad thinks and says to his aides and military commanders - and what the Alawi minority leadership, which controls Syria, is saying, in view of the possibility that a war may bring an end to its rule.