Olmert's Self-confidence

The government's silence on the circumstances of Thursday's alleged aerial incursion into Syrian airspace is a show of self-confidence. Politically speaking, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak can afford to be complacent, because it seems they stand only to gain from the incident.

Regardless of how they rank in opinion polls, Barak and Olmert are not commenting on the mysterious occurrence. It appears that they favor security considerations over political gains in the media. Over the weekend, they tried to demonstrate their leadership through silence. Only Barak's predecessor, Amir Peretz, couldn't restrain himself and issued a vague statement.

The first and least likely scenario is entanglement and escalation. Even if this occurs, Olmert's critics could scarcely repeat accusations of hasty and hotheaded decision-making, as they alleged after the Second Lebanon War.

Olmert could point to marathon ministerial deliberations on the preferable policy toward Syria, and to extensive preparatory training by the Israel Defense Forces in the Golan Heights in case of a conflagration.

Olmert would no doubt mention his numerous warnings to Syrian President Bashar Assad on the dangers of miscalculation that could lead to conflict. He could even boast efforts to "test the Syrian intentions for resuming negotiations" through Turkey.

The Israeli public has undergone months of preparations for another crisis in the north. It's a far cry from the hasty response to Hezbollah's attack that sparked the war 14 months ago.

If the matter subsides, Olmert and Barak can expect to fare even batter. The media would give them high scores for defusing the situation. The feeling of failure following the Second Lebanon War will be replaced to some extent with the sense of accomplishment and trust in the current leadership.

The Winograd Committee, which is investigating the performance of decision-makers in the Second Labanon War, will be knocked out of the headlines for a while, thereby damping its significance.

But the incident will probably have little effect on the prospect of renewing peace talks with Assad, or on negotiations with the Palestinians. After carrying out the vastly popular pullout from Lebanon in 2001, then-prime minister Barak's coalition collapsed over the Camp David summit with Yasser Arafat. This proved the Israeli public is capable of distinguishing between the different circumstances of the northern front and the conflict with the Palestinians.

As for the Golan, those in favor of talking to Assad will go on maintaining that Olmert drove him into the arms of the extremists by refusing to negotiate. Those opposed to jumpstarting talks with Damascus will reiterate their position, that Assad is an extremist with whom the only way to communicate is by force.