Step Back From the Brink of War

Israel's need to respond forcefully to an attack on its territory is understandable, but when such a response becomes an automatic move it starts to pose a threat and a danger in itself

Israeli troops at the northern Golan Heights on February 10, 2018 following the weekend's escalation.
Gil Eliahu

There’s no doubt the downing of an Iranian drone – which penetrated its airspace from Syria early Saturday morning – was a legitimate and necessary action. One might question whether the drone’s launch was planned for purposes of intelligence gathering, or a tactical error by the launchers. But when making the decision to intercept, there is very little time for deliberations.

This was not the case with regard to the subsequent Israeli response, which included attacking Iranian and other targets in Syria – during which an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was downed and its pilot and navigator had to eject, leaving the pilot in serious condition at press time.

This action and its outcome – which could have been even more tragic, and could have dragged Israel into large-scale military action in an effort to free the pilots if they had been captured by Syrian or Iranian forces – requires a reevaluation of the policy of response in particular, and the strategy guiding Israel in its conduct in the Syrian war in general.

Saturday’s events show once again that, despite rational considerations and a desire to avoid war, isolated incidents have explosive potential and can lead to military action that might get out of hand.

Israel’s need to respond forcefully to an attack on its territory or an attempt to violate its sovereignty is understandable, and is usually necessary to deter further violations. But when such a response becomes an automatic move, it starts to pose a threat and danger in itself.

In the Syrian war, a fragile balance of interests was established between Russia, Iran and Turkey. This is not an axis that is friendly to Israel, especially given the American withdrawal from the arena and its very limited ability to influence military action in a way that ensures Israel’s security.

Israel must steer very carefully between its desire to thwart further Iranian involvement in Syria and the outcome that this desire might produce. For example, Israel has so far received limited Russian permission to strike Hezbollah targets in Syria – but only those with the potential to hurt Israel. A military initiative that stretches the limits of Russian “permission” might lead to its cancellation, or at least place Israel on a collision course with Russia – the only country operating in Syria that is willing to take Israel’s interests into account.

Israel recently delivered a series of very clear messages, according to which it is prepared to act military to stop the growing threats against it in Syria and Lebanon. At the same time, it states it does not want war. The balance between these two strategies requires huge military caution, good judgment and increased restraint when feeling angry and vengeful. The brink of war is too close, and we must step back from it.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.