This Time, the IDF Favors Syria

Events in the Israeli-Syrian theater in recent months have obligated the IDF, and especially Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, to reconsider the relationships among the permanent and variable elements of the equation.

Ehud Olmert is superfluous at Annapolis. And not only superfluous, but detrimental. The substantial gap between the Israeli and Palestinian positions is currently unbridgeable; it is like the "safe passage" between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank - not currently applicable. Diplomatically, there is no marvelous juggling act that only Olmert can perform, because a reasonable and stable deal between nations must be able to stand on its own, independent of the identities of the negotiators. Politically, Olmert's presence at the head of the government harms the chances of obtaining and implementing an agreement. The criminal investigations against him - which are wholesale, as opposed to the retail probes of several of his predecessors - make him "damaged goods," as the Americans say. His motives will always be suspect.

But with or without Olmert, Israel cannot improve either its security or its diplomatic situation by storming the Palestinian front. All the alternatives are bad, from tolerating the ongoing Qassam rocket attacks and the strengthening of Hamas to attacking built-up areas of Gaza - which would be even worse, as it would exact a heavy price and leave the Israel Defense Forces there for a long time, with no effective exit. The General Staff will eventually second the Southern Command's recommendation to launch such an operation, but only when forced to do so by a change in the balance among these alternatives, not because it is seeking a pretext or an opportunity.

It is not only the Egyptians who are to blame for the sieve that their border with Gaza has become. The Americans share the blame, as they have not exerted their full force to solve the problem. After all, it does not really affect them.

Over the past few months, President George W. Bush has invested great effort, as well as $550 million, in the Merida Initiative, named after the Mexican city that hosted this year's summit of leaders of North and Central America. Bush is trying to block the drug smuggling routes into his country. He understands that the battle will be lost if it begins at Mexico's border with California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas; it must be waged, financed and made more efficient, including by cleansing armies and police forces of corruption, far away, in the drugs' countries of origin.

In order to block Hamas in the Egyptian part of Rafah or the depths of Sinai, what is needed is a Middle Eastern "Merida Initiative" - even if it is gray, dusty and generally less photogenic than the Bush-Blair-Olmert-Abbas speeches we can expect at Annapolis.

Faced with this feeling of constant siege - which one can survive with a mixture of ease and suffocation, but which it is better to break out of, into a different life - the IDF favors accelerating peace talks with Syria. The calculation is simple and practical: Such a move could sever extremist elements in the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon from external support by breaking the chain that leads from Iran via Damascus to Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Events in the Israeli-Syrian theater in recent months have obligated the IDF, and especially Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, to reconsider the relationships among the permanent and variable elements of the equation.

Ashkenazi, who was GOC Northern Command toward the end of Israel's presence in Lebanon, is known to support an agreement with Syria at the specified price, which in his view is steep, but worth paying in exchange for Israel's national security. As chief of staff, Ashkenazi returned to an army that was afraid of sliding, whether deliberately or accidentally, into war with Syria.

But another factor was suddenly inserted into the complex web: the necessity of coping with the intelligence, operational and diplomatic challenge of what foreign publications have described as Syria's nuclear ties with North Korea. It was like a sniper faced with a nearby enemy who is holding a hand grenade and sitting on a bomb: The goal is to hit only the grenade, not the man, as he is liable to fall on the bomb and set it off, killing them both. Or in this case, to conduct a pinpoint operation against a specific threat while also containing the larger conflict.

After 60 years of fighting, the IDF's top brass does not delude itself that military successes are an end in themselves. Without diplomatic follow-up - "leverage" is the fashionable term - military operations, regardless of whether they succeed or fail, will continue forever. Just as Anwar Sadat leveraged the Yom Kippur War to achieve peace with Jerusalem (and Washington), the General Staff believes that this is an opportune time to leverage the IDF's power to achieve peace with Bashar Assad.