Hanadi Tayseer Jaradat, who walked into Maxim’s restaurant in Haifa last Saturday and blew herself up, killing 19 others and injuring 50, was born and raised in the West Bank and never left Israeli-ruled territory in her life. Nobody can cross the heavily fortified border between Syria and Israel except the United Nations team that has observed the demilitarized zone since 1973. So why did Israel “retaliate” for the atrocity she committed in Haifa by bombing Syria for the first time in 30 years'
Israel’s attack on what Damascus calls a civilian area and Jerusalem calls a Palestinian training camp was a small action militarily, but it is a very big deal. A 30-year cease-fire has been breached, and a precipice beckons. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, less than three years in the job that his father held for 30 years, is feeling deeply insecure. He has a hostile Israel to the west and now a large American army to his east in Iraq, but the elders of the Syrian Ba’ath Party will not forgive him if he appears weak. This could end in a war.
Syria would lose the war, of course, and Assad would likely end up dead, so he will do all he can to avoid it. There may be a few worried neo-cons in Washington, watching the slide in George W. Bush’s ratings and looking around for another plausible war against a “terrorist state” to mobilize public support for next year’s election, who would be willing to take out an option on Syria, but the smart money in that race is on an American attack on Iran.
What Israel wants
And Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, probably doesn’t want a war with Syria either. It’s just that he has a problem with Israeli public opinion as a result of the latest terrorist attack. Sharon has always insisted that Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority and for over 30 years the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, is behind the bomb attacks that have killed hundreds of Israeli civilians since the peace process broke down three years ago.
After the big bombing last month, Sharon’s government said that it was considering the expulsion or assassination of Yasser Arafat. Now there has been another ghastly slaughter, and a lot of Israelis are waiting for him to put his money where his mouth was.
He would love to, other things being equal, but other things are not. The United States of America, Israel’s only real ally, does not want the violent upheavals that would ensue in the Arab world if Arafat were murdered or driven into exile. Nor does it necessarily serve Israel’s purposes to destroy the only secular authority in the occupied territories and drive Palestinians into the arms of the Islamists who actually do most of the bombing.
Back and forth the argument rages, with the hardest of Israeli hardliners insisting that handing the Palestinians over to the likes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad would not be all that bad. A few more Israelis might get blown up, but it would end once and for all the threat of a compromise peace involving the abandonment of some or all of the occupied territories, for the Islamists are no more interested in that kind of peace than Sharon is. Only he can decide — and he cannot decide.
Sharon never rose to the highest command positions in the Israeli army because his fellow officers judged that he had no feel for deeper questions of long-term strategy. He still doesn’t, and it’s plain that he cannot choose which way to jump. Kill Arafat, strangle what remains of the “roadmap” peace process, and infuriate Washington' Or carry on with the salami tactics that have served him so well so far, expanding the settlements on the West Bank and extending the wall that will ultimately place almost all of them on the Israeli side while talking vaguely of peace'
He wants to postpone the choice, and so, to deflect Israeli popular demands for revenge, he has engaged in a displacement activity: an unprovoked and unprecedented but essentially meaningless attack on Syria. With any luck, it will remain meaningless. With a lot of bad luck, it could end up as a real war.