Welcome to the Middle East

Although war did not break out, joy is premature: No basic problem has been solved. To move ahead to a solution, talk, not silence, is needed.

Two young Israel Defense Forces majors, Oron and Liron, got married Wednesday might, at a wedding hall on Moshav Beit Hanan. Oron is the representative of the IDF Spokesman in the Central Command; Liron is the assistant to Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. The latter came to the wedding, but returned to work later that evening. Exactly what he did, and who helped him do it, is unknown. Hours later, the Syrians made their announcement and Israel maintained an official silence, which it is still maintaining 72 hours later.

The world has grown accustomed to media deluges, and to appearance being more important than substance. In such a world, this silence is a surprising, if transitory, change. The dam can break at any time, allowing the words to pour forth. For one moment, the reality is perceived as less dangerous than its reflection. The Middle East was revealed as a place where blows can be traded, even below the belt if the film is a silent one, without an insulting and embarrassing soundtrack egging on the participants.

An old lesson, set aside long ago for reasons of political correctness, has prohibited the use of old-fashioned terms tainted with arrogance such as "Arab pride" - a cousin to "Oriental imagination." In 1964, Peter Naffsinger published an article in the CIA journal about personal, tribal and national prestige - "saving face" - as an important concept for Westerners to understand. Shame and embarrassment, he noted, as many experts had before, shape behavior in Muslim society and in Asia. In such cultures, it is prohibited to admit one's mistakes. Consequences may be deemed acceptable that elsewhere would be considered a loss (and in the East, they can be attributed to God's will), as long as they do not involve humiliation.

Israel has tripped itself up before with the boasting that accompanied its defeats of Arab countries, even when the defeats were justified. Thus Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser said "what was taken by force will be returned by force," after the Six-Day War, while Saddam Hussein was determined to attack us with dozens of missiles as payback for his own loss of face. Without a ruler being able to market an agreement with dignity to his people and his power base, there is no chance for Israeli-Arab peace. After each achievement by the IDF comes a timeout, which the defeated use to grow stronger and tighten alliances. Syria has not buckled under, despite its weakness vis-a-vis Israel. When its fighter planes and ground-to-air missiles suffered a heavy blow in June 1982, it ramped up its terrorism and its acquisition of other weapons, including ground-to-ground missiles and chemical and biological arms.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) marks its 50th anniversary next week. Following the celebrations, as usual, delegates will discuss, among other things, the Arab-Israeli disagreement over a nuclear non-proliferation zone. Egypt, Syria and the rest of the Arab states want it now; Israel demands a gradual process toward overall peace and mutual trust ahead of the creation of a non-proliferation zone.

Former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton, who in years past was the most suspicious in the U.S. administration of Syria's nuclearization, warned a week ago in The Wall Street Journal that Syria and Iran might provide safe haven for prohibited nuclear materials smuggled from North Korea. Syria is uncomfortable appearing at the IAEA conference as a suspect in nuclear offenses, which conflicts with its obligations as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the West is having a hard time breaking the Tehran-Damascus axis. In the past two years, since its forces withdrew from Lebanon, Syria's armament rate has equaled that of the previous seven years.

In an interview published in the current issue of the Israel Air Force journal, IAF Air Directorate Commander Brigadier General Yochanan Loker praised some of the IAF's abilities to strike its targets. These are indeed impressive, especially the IAF's superior intelligence and ability to surprise its targets and their defenses. But their strategic impact is limited. It is very difficult to deliver a fatal blow to the will of a government, people or organization to go on fighting until it achieves its political or religious goals.

The present crisis may blow over, but the fragile nature of relations between Israel and Syria will continue threatening to ignite at any moment. Although war did not break out, joy is premature: No basic problem has been solved. To move ahead to a solution, talk, not silence, is needed.