Ready for Everything but Peace

If Syria is really a threat and is planning war, what is the meaning of the panic that miscalculation may lead to war?

Two important headlines appeared in the official Syrian press last Thursday. A day after the big scare that engulfed the Israeli media, which reported on the possibility of war with Syria, the calling up of armored divisions and the movement of large military units that could not be explained, Bashar Assad had different worries: He issued an important decree on the supervision of construction irregularities in Syria.

Another report dealt with the great success of the Arab League summit in Damascus. Editorials in Syria discussed peace between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. policy in the Middle East, and the need for an Arab embargo on Israel, which is not willing to adopt the Arab peace initiative. War between Syria and Israel? An Israeli attack on Syria? Readiness for a conflagration this summer? Not a word.

In Israel, on the other hand, there was fear and trepidation. Once more the magic word is whispered: miscalculation. In other words, if Assad doesn't comprehend Israel's moves, or Israel fails to understand Assad's moves, or Hezbollah does not understand Israel's intent, suddenly a shot is fired, a shell, a counteraction, and suddenly, with no intention, there is a regional war. So the generals and political advisers are rushing to calm things down, rushed messages are issued to and from Damascus: Everything to make it clear that there is no - definitely no - room for worries. Maybe it will be a different war, but not one of miscalculation. Not this time.

The question isn't whether Syria is sufficiently strong to embark on a war with Israel, or whether Israel is prepared to respond, because Syria had gone to wars with Israel when it seemed it was not ready for them. And Israel, too, went to war a year and a half ago when it was not prepared. Israel's deterrent force also is not enough, because if Syria had really moved divisions to the border, that would have signaled that Israel's deterrent strength does not have an effect on it.

The point is the ease with which the mercury rises in the war thermometer between the two countries; even worse is the absence of a real mechanism for preventing such a miscalculation. The reason for this lies in the Israeli paradox that stems from a serious absence of common sense. It argues that as long as Syria is very weak it poses no threat, so there is no need to make peace with it. But if Syria is really a threat and is planning war, what is the meaning of the panic that miscalculation may lead to war? The other side of that paradox states that only when Syria is powerful and threatening is it worthwhile to make peace.

The main problem is that this paradox only examines relations between Israel and Syria through the prism of battle and not through a diplomatic prism. Peace with Syria is perceived as a tactical step, and the most important aspect is to avoid any miscalculation. If an alternative means were available, a hotline between Damascus and Jerusalem, for example, then there would be no need for peace. But to withdraw from the Golan Heights for a hotline, that is surely too heavy a price to pay.

The result is that Israel is seeking an appropriate tactical return for peace with Syria. Peace in and of itself is simply not "worth it." Peace with an Arab state that also affects Hezbollah, controls events in Lebanon, has close ties with Iran and close allies like Turkey, is party to the Arab initiative and will announce in advance any military maneuver it plans to carry out, and would invite Israeli observers - peace with such a state is considered by Israel as an empty peace.

Israel first wants a strategic change in the Middle East - that Iran breaks ties with Syria, that the Hamas leadership is evicted from Damascus, and that Hassan Nasrallah converts to Judaism. Only then will it "grant" Syria peace. Peace with Syria according to Israel needs to be a not-very-significant by-product, instead of the means by which strategic change is brought about.

This Israeli dream will not come true. Instead, every Arab or Israeli newspaper could rally a panel of Israeli generals that will make it clear that war with Syria is not going to happen. Nor is peace, God forbid. At most, there will be some kind of miscalculation. After all, as the deputy chief of staff said, we are ready for any eventuality. Except for that of peace.