Olmert's Gamble

Ehud Olmert will have quite a good case when he stands before the Winograd Committee, the state comptroller, or any other body investigating the Lebanon War. He can claim, with much justification, that his decisions were reasonable under the circumstances: a surprise attack on a secondary front that was neglected for years; wide political, public and international consensus that Hezbollah had to be hit hard; and the participation of other cabinet ministers in the discussions and the decisions. Despite the disappointment with the results of the war, it is difficult to see its investigation forcing Olmert to resign as prime minister.

His situation will be much worse if he faces a future commission of inquiry, or the judgment of history, over his behavior toward Syria since the cease-fire in Lebanon took effect. Here Olmert will find it hard to explain his decisions and the way he arrived at them.

At the end of the summer of 2006, Olmert made a strategic decision that retaining the Golan Heights is worthwhile for Israel, even at the price of war with Syria, and that there is no point in exploring diplomatic options with Syria ("delusional talks about peace," as he put it). Olmert's assessment is that Bashar Assad will not dare to attack; and if he does, "we'll break his bones," as then chief of staff David Elazar promised during the Yom Kippur War.

Olmert is in good company. All of his predecessors since 1967 have preferred the Golan Heights to any arrangement with Syria. Since Israel's victory on the northern front in 1973, the Golan Heights have been quiet, and the calm was not disrupted even when peace talks stalled in the 1990s.

This summer, however, circumstances changed. The younger Assad is proposing an arrangement, and unlike his father, is also warning of war and "resistance" on the Golan Heights if his proposal is rejected. The Israel Defense Forces takes his threats seriously, but Olmert has responded with provocative scorn, in the style of Menachem Begin's 1981 election campaign: "Assad, beware! Yanosh and Raful [Israeli generals] are waiting for you!"

The prime minister and his advisors have a wealth of explanations for this policy: Assad supports Hezbollah and Hamas; he is trying to undermine Fouad Siniora's government in Lebanon and a prisoner exchange deal with the Palestinians; the United States has vetoed talks with him; our intelligence assessments predict that Syria will remain part of the "Axis of Evil" and support terrorism even if it does get the Golan Heights back.

Perhaps Olmert is right, and the Golan is better than peace. Perhaps, as well, Assad is a weak leader and his threats are empty - and in any event, we should not panic and give in to pressure. But what was the basis for Olmert's strategic decision? And in what forum was it made? The Olmert who has wrapped himself in the minutes of government meetings and inner cabinet sessions in order to justify his version of events regarding the war in Lebanon will find it difficult to whip such minutes out when it comes to the Syrian front. His office reports that he discussed the Syrian issue with the defense minister and the chief of staff and allowed the ministers to express themselves at cabinet meetings. It is hard to see that as an orderly and serious discussion in which options are presented and weighed. After all, now there is time, and there is no reason to act precipitously - unlike the day the soldiers were abducted in the North.

But the discussion is not taking place, and the questions are disturbing. Did Israel try discreetly to confirm Assad's peace proposals? Has Olmert examined the IDF's plans for a war with Syria? Or the preparedness of the home front for a Syrian Scud attack? Or Israel's response to "resistance" (read: terrorism) on the Golan Heights? Or the arrogant IDF promise to destroy Syrian power stations and military infrastructure if Assad attacks? Or perhaps it is the other way around, and Olmert has learned the lessons of the army's failure in Lebanon and fears that it will not be able to protect the country without holding the high ground on the Golan?

The Israeli public, which is still recovering from the war this summer, deserves serious answers from its leader. They are no less important than promoting a constitution or bolstering Shabbat.