Analysis

As Syria Heats Up, Netanyahu Goes Missing in Action

The prime minister has decided that a trip to America is far more important than the northern front, where matters could quickly ignite

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking during a dedication ceremony for a new interchange in Jerusalem, September 7, 2017.
RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

September 1973. Prime Minister Golda Meir meets with King Hussein of Jordan at a Mossad guesthouse. He tells her the Syrian army is poised to attack, and the war is likely to include Egypt as well. Her response: The Rosh Hashanah holiday, a trip to Strasbourg, a side trip to a transit camp for Jews from the Soviet Union and belittlement of the warning. Her deputy, Yigal Allon, wasn’t informed of most of the intelligence during that fateful week.

December 1987. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin is touring Latin America. In the Gaza Strip, and later the West Bank, a strange kind of unrest erupts, an “intifada.” Rabin doesn’t cut short his trip. If you’re already bothering to go so far away, it’s a pity to offend your hosts – and in any case, there’s an acting defense minister, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The army fails to control the disturbances; Rabin’s belated arrival is fateful for the effort to diagnose the new situation and set a suitable policy.

September 2017. Syria claims the Israel Air Force attacked a facility in its territory. A forceful response is possible, albeit not guaranteed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu packs his bags for a long trip to both North and South America. It’s truly essential to visit Colombia and Argentina right now, when he has no permanent, fully briefed deputy, no foreign minister and an unserious defense minister. The latter, Avigdor Lieberman, is more interested in media broadcasts than missile launches. And Netanyahu is far from being on the same level as Meir and Rabin, or Shamir’s judgment in a crisis.

One could understand a day and a half at the UN General Assembly and another pointless meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. But to take time for touring and entertainment, when Tierra del Fuego (the Land of Fire) is here? When the northern front is liable to ignite? Just to be intoxicated by the views and leave his tresses with a New York hairstylist? And who will be in charge back home when his crony, coalition whip David Bitan, has yet to even be sworn in as a cabinet minister?

Logic dictates that there will be no escalation. This isn’t the right moment for Syrian President Bashar Assad to avenge his wounded pride. The House of Assad has always known how to keep its priorities straight. Staying in power comes first; the conflict with Israel, including regaining the Golan Heights or a military conflict, only afterward.

Now that he’s on the verge of winning Syria’s civil war, it would be wrong for Assad to open a new front with a strong country that has hitherto restrained itself, especially since it’s not clear the Russians would let him.

But logic doesn’t obligate Assad. He’s capable of shedding his brutal coolness and acting emotionally, with planes or missiles targeting Israeli targets near or far, with or without an official announcement.

In the last terror attack Syria was accused of planning, in 1986, an El Al plane was nearly blown up (the plot was ultimately thwarted). Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, wouldn’t confirm that he was involved, but nevertheless let everyone know he was and that Syria wasn’t powerless, even if in the last aerial battle between the two militaries a few months earlier, Israel had won 2-0.

Israel’s defense establishment must be on alert for a possible Syrian response, and it seems the Israel Defense Forces is prepared for this. The Northern Command’s war drill this week was originally and arbitrarily aimed solely at the Lebanese front. A different scenario would seemingly have been called for, one that began at the Lebanese border but then developed and spread to the neighboring Syrian arena, since this was a rare opportunity to drill both halves of Northern Command. But separating these theaters enables the command to focus on one simulated effort while remaining attentive to other developments – which could arise during a war.

Unlike with Trump’s barrage of Tomahawk missiles at Syria’s chemical weaponry in April, not a peep has been heard from Israel’s leadership. The order to maintain radio silence has been obeyed, for the sake of creating a space of plausible deniability within which Assad can maneuver. The U.S. strike, which was meant to punish Assad for using chemical weapons as opposed to merely making them, seemingly legitimized Israel’s operation.

In contrast, the reports of Iranian missile facilities in Lebanon don’t seem ripe for action. There’s a substantive difference between plans and preparations, and between both of those and intent to carry out what was planned and prepared.

The missile factories, as far as is known, haven’t yet passed the stage of plans on paper and excavating some dirt. Any preemptive strike on them is still a long way off. But this week’s alleged operation reminded everyone that, when the time comes, this won’t be science fiction.

Israel believes Assad. When he threatens, it’s not mere boasting. And he issued his first threat to “respond next time” nearly 15 years ago, following an airstrike on the outskirts of Damascus. If he didn’t carry out his threat, it’s because Israel learned to refrain from verbal provocations. Veterans of the Northern Command know that generals from the generation of Rabin, David Elazar and Motta Gur wouldn’t have missed the opportunity for a public announcement over an event like this. But the new head of Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, refrained from teasing.

Improving on the advice to novice diplomats to send lots of cables lauding even fictitious activity (“If you did it and didn’t report it, you didn’t do it; if you did it and reported it, you did it”), one could say that Israeli policy for the past two or three prime ministers, three or four defense ministers, and three or four chiefs of staff has been: “If you did it and didn’t announce it, you didn’t push the enemy to respond.” You don’t mix words with missiles. If you talk, don’t shoot, and if you shoot, keep quiet.

IDF operations don’t always have to be aerial – and if they are aerial, they don’t always have to involve fighter planes. There are other means, in the air and on the ground, at sea and in cyberspace. But to the extent that the spotlight is trained on the air force, this seems to have been a smooth entry into office for its new commander, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin.

Until a few months ago, the General Staff contained two other air force generals in addition to Norkin’s predecessor, Amir Eshel – Norkin himself in the planning directorate and Hagai Topolansky in the manpower directorate. Eshel and Topolansky have resigned and no brigadier general from the air force has yet been promoted, so Norkin remains the only air force veteran in the national cockpit. We can rely on him, and on the chief of staff and Military Intelligence.

Nevertheless, it would be nice – even if it’s just a matter of tradition and custom – to also have a prime minister in the vicinity to exercise authority and take responsibility.