Whereas under secretary of state William J. Burns headed again to Beirut, in an attempt to manage the looming crisis between Israel and Syria via Lebanon , due to Hizbullah renewed activity in Shabaa farms and Israel harsh retaliation in the Bekaa , where a raid against a syrian radar has aggravated a confused situation , the israeli Prime Minister contrived what was thought to be a quite difficult mission to Europe.
Many observers agree on the gravity of the situation in the Lebanon where Syria is held responsible for all Hizbullah operations. The last israeli raid – :July 1- occurred after less than three months of another which also had targeted a syrian radar and killed three soldiers. The Israelis think that in acting this way they put the new and young Syrian President Bachar Al Assad under high pressure from inside his own camp: for if he does not react, he would be perceived as weak, on the one hand. And if he chooses the escalation, he would face the reality of the Syrian backwardness vis-é-vis the IDF, on the other hand. What are actually the chances of any confrontation with Israel for Syria? None, everybody knows it; and Al Assad more than anyone else. It is obvious then that Damascus is not seeking a traditional war with Israel, albeit with General Sharon as Prime Minister, such a probability cannot be really ruled out. Israel has repeatedly emphasized that it could not afford an attrition war, which is exactly what Hizbullah along with other Islamist Palestinian organizations are leading. There is a feeling in Israel that the Arabs are somehow behaving like the dwarfs with the little giant that is not Gulliver but Israel! Since they are as backward as powerless and are quite frightful of a war that could toss the shaky and dictatorial regimes, they try the old tactics of guerilla which have not been vain during the French and British ruling period. The point is that the Israelis themselves had experimented these methods against the British. The last developments show anyway that against this kind of terror, the Israelis are not defenseless. For every Israeli, there are at least six Arabs killed. The bloodshed could thus continue endlessly. Besides, with the recurring suicide bombings, Israel is being pushed to the edge of the psychosis. Here too the high pressure put Ariel Sharon in a no-win situation much similar to what Bachar Al Assad is contrived to endure: for if he does not react he would be deemed weak, and if he does he would be faced with the over stretching – maybe uncontrolled- lethal power of his army. Otherwise, it is a very slippery ground, where any step could go far beyond it was initially intended to be.
It is thus a vicious circle, where both camps are being held as hostages by the extremists. In this quagmire, some truths emerge however:
1- Nobody in the Western world – not to speak of the Arabs- can really admit as credible Sharon’s pretensions that Arafat is heading a power of terror and not willing to negotiate. Arafat is a moderate leader, everybody knows it, and the Israeli press itself has reported about a turmoil in the government over toppling the chief of the PLO. And it appears that Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Perez, took the defense of Arafat in the Cabinet reunion and threatened to leave the government, for his colleagues – he acknowledged it- were speaking of “how the uprising can be ended at the drop of a hat”, to use his own terms. That was indeed an euphemism, but the real meaning cannot be hidden: they were actually speaking of assassinating Arafat, and if it was not in these crude words, then with a covert: e.g. While launching a massive military strike against the PA. Whether the option is still holding or no longer after Perez threats, remains ambiguous. Yet, Sharon is said to be in favor if there is a further Palestinian “outrage”. The point is that Perez opinion would not really matter for the Israeli Prime Minister if, to break the vicious circle, he tries a spectacular maneuver and launches his troops against Arafat headquarters.
2- This scenario is not as fictive as it may sound. Sharon is an extremist, everybody knows it and he knows that they do too. That is why he tried two public relations maneuvers; the first towards the USA, and the second towards Europe:
This done, it is up to the Americans now to play. How are they going to tackle the situation, remains the question?
In his last visit to Washington, Israeli Chief of General Staff, Shaul Mofaz, was faced with the American refusal of condoning the killing of suspected Palestinian militants. Furthermore, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice told him : ” We cannot afford a second front right now”, referring to Israel’s northern border, and urged him to refrain from attacking the Syrians. But if the Americans are committed to defending their interests and their Arab allies, the picture is different seen from Israel. The risk of slipping from a low graduated retaliation to a highly one is still great. In the absence of any real control, Sharon can still be attracted by the idea of a surprise offensive against the PA or even against the Syrians, for anyway at his age, he is not going to last indefinitely on the political scene. Moreover, once reassured that no court is seeking him, shouldn’t he find a military operation well planned more rewarding than waiting until the end of the crisis?
Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.