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A Game-changer for Israel in the North - and It's Netanyahu's Responsibility

After the aerial exchange across the Syrian border last weekend, the challenge can’t be solved solely through public relations trips to the Kremlin, continued flattery of Putin and photo ops

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend an event in Moscow, Russia, January 29, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend an event in Moscow, Russia, January 29, 2018.Credit: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP

After Saturday’s events up north, Israel’s prime minister asserted, “We landed a severe blow on the Iranians and Syrians.” Israel’s military told the media, “We consider this weekend’s large-scale aerial operation a success.” The downing of an Israeli F-16 was termed “rare,” and Syria’s success in bringing it down was attributed to “exploitation of a weak point.”

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National morale is always important. But it’s worth considering a different view of Saturday’s events, in order to preserve the possibility of a sober debate on Israel’s foreign and defense policy and the limitations of using its military might.

The remains of an Israel F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses, February 10, 2018.Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP

The accepted wisdom is that the air force will investigate these events superbly. But the air force’s famed culture of inquiry isn’t authorized to delve into the realm of strategy, and certainly not that of policy. 

Therefore, we need a different type of inquiry, at the national level. Yet it seems unlikely that one will be established by the Netanyahu government in its current situation. This undermines Israel’s decision-making capabilities and, consequently, also its status and its image.

To begin this discussion, it’s necessary to dispel the fog of battle and understand one basic fact – what really happened on Saturday. And also what didn’t.

The daily Yedioth Ahronoth’s front page on the day after these events, headlined “A day of battle with Iran,” was inaccurate. Admittedly, this sounds more heroic and less humiliating, but the main battle was waged against Bashar Assad’s Syria, the one we’ve considered for the past several years to be falling apart, dependent on holding actions and devoid of any ability to respond and exact a price for Israel’s serial attacks on its territory.

What has changed recently, of course, is the Russian umbrella. Did the bastards change the rules without telling us? It’s hard to believe. Netanyahu visited Russian President Vladimir Putin less than two weeks before the incident, and Syria had fired defensive missiles at Israeli planes and missiles over the last few months. The writing was on the wall.

It’s true that what happened first was that the Iranians sent a drone into Israeli territory, near the Beit She’an Valley. But this isn’t the first time an Iranian drone has penetrated Israeli airspace. In the past, Hezbollah has launched such drones on the northern border.

The air force tracked the drone and brought it down. That, too, has happened in the past.

The question of whether the Iranian action was a trap coordinated with the Syrians that involved laying an ambush for the anticipated Israeli response is an important and interesting one. But regardless of the answer, we shouldn’t obscure the outcome. 

The downing of an Israeli fighter plane is a rare achievement for Syria’s aerial defense forces. It’s both a military and public relations achievement, the likes of which Syria hasn’t achieved since 1982. That time it occurred was over Lebanese skies, and it has never before happened to an F-16. 

Moreover, the Syrians managed to down the plane over Israeli territory, on the outskirts of an Israeli kibbutz. Israel was a hairbreadth away from a much greater disaster: The pilots managed to escape alive and were only wounded, the plane didn’t crash inside the kibbutz and no civilians were hurt.

This plane, whose estimated price tag is $50 million, was put into the air for a retaliatory strike against a drone-launching station; the strike’s main target was a hut. The IDF argues that in response to the downing of the plane, it destroyed about half of Syria’s aerial defense systems. Happy are the people who believe that.

What’s certainly worth knowing and remembering is that in recent years, the level of threat – both actual and theoretical – that anti-aircraft systems pose to Israel Air Force jets has changed fundamentally. This happened thanks to Russia’s involvement in Syria and America’s departure from the region. The right-wing morons who celebrated the Trump administration’s abandonment of, separation from and apathy toward the Palestinian issue are hereby invited to recognize the ancillary reality.

Russia has stationed batteries of advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missiles in Syria, signed a deal to give similar missiles to Saudi Arabia and provided Egypt with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Russia’s air force also requested and received Israeli permission to fly Russian planes into Israeli airspace, apparently for the maneuvering room needed for Russia’s bombing runs against rebel-held areas in Syria.

But as far back as April 2016, there were reports of at least two incidents in which Russian batteries fired anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli planes in Syrian airspace. In 2017, following Israeli complaints to Moscow about Iran’s consolidation in Syria, senior Putin administration officials reiterated that Iran is Russia’s ally and its presence in Syria is legitimate. On another occasion, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization and its presence in Syria is also legitimate.

And this week, immediately after the downing of the Israeli F-16 and Israel’s complaint to Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry lined up behind Assad and demanded that all parties “unconditionally respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and other countries of the region.” The Russians also explicitly warned against any attacks on their personnel in Syrian positions.

Practically, then, from Israel’s standpoint, there’s been a dramatic change in conditions. This is the true story that must be understood and analyzed. And it can’t be solved solely through public relations trips to the Kremlin, continued flattery of Putin and photo ops.

Following the air force’s initial inquiry, hints were quickly leaked to the press that the pilots had remained at a high altitude for too long or ejected too soon. This isn’t serious. Strategic responsibility for the blow Israel suffered last Saturday rests with the decision makers – those who permitted a quick, loose trigger finger on bombing runs in Syria failed to understand the changing conditions, scattered threats in the media and provoked war on the northern border.

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