The events in northern Israel on Saturday were a painful reminder of the limitations of Israel’s power. The downing of an F-16 fighter jet over the Galilee proved that there’s no war without risk, and that even after many cross-border attacks without damage or casualties, the enemy can still find a weak spot, even in a sophisticated military machine like the Israel Air Force.
But the problem is not just the ability to cope operationally with Syrian air defenses, but the definition of Israel’s strategic goals and the way to achieve them.
The public threats that Israel “would not permit” Iranian entrenchment in Syria or its construction of missile factories in Lebanon and the muscle-flexing during the security cabinet’s visit to the Golan Heights last week were a mistake. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman painted themselves into a corner and severely reduced their freedom of action. If Israel doesn’t act and Iran continues to be an influential force in Syria in general and on the Golan Heights in particular, Israel will project weakness and pressure will increase on the government and the army to “do something.” On the other hand, if Israel seeks a military solution to its strategic predicament, it may become embroiled in a war it will have difficulty winning.
Israel’s military might allows it to defend its borders and control the occupied territories. It isn’t enough to reshape reality in neighboring countries. Israel has failed in its previous ambitious efforts to impose a “new order” even on little Lebanon. Its power is insufficient to establish order in Syria, beyond maintaining the relative calm along the border. Repeated bombardments, even if they delay shipments of arms and the building of installations, will not prevent the enemy from growing stronger. The Assad regime won the Syrian civil war with the help of its Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese allies, and the fact is that even after seven years of fighting, the Syrian army’s air defenses are still effective.
Israel should not be tempted to seek “diplomatic retaliation,” by asking U.S. President Donald Trump to recognize the annexation of the Golan Heights the way he recognized Jerusalem. In recent years there have been many Israeli plans for exploiting Syria’s weakness to achieve diplomatic facts on the ground. But such proposals would only exacerbate the tension in the north and be a casus belli for Syria.
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The lesson from this weekend’s flare-up is that instead of marking more bombing targets, Israel should accept that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime is back at the Syrian helm, sponsored by Iran and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Israel must reconcile itself to this situation and find ways to prevent an escalation and restore the stable deterrence around the “basalt curtain” in the Golan Heights. Netanyahu, who generally disapproves of military adventures, must focus his diplomatic ties and skills on this goal.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.