Did the IAF's Sunday's bombing of the Ein Saheb terrorist base in Syria turn a new page in Israel's war on terrorism? Both Israel's critics and Israel's friends seem to think it did.
On the critics' side, we have condemnations from Europe and the UN and others who've adopted Damascus's whining and mendacious line. In this version of events, Israel committed naked aggression against an innocent state in an act that could lead the region to all-out war. For this, these critics claim, Israel should be condemned by the Security Council and all right-thinking people.
In answer, supporters of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon point out that Syria is the home base of over a dozen Palestinian terrorist organizations; that it is the primary enabler of the Iranian Hizbullah in Lebanon; and that if it weren't for Syrian support, groups such as Islamic Jihad, which carried out Saturday's massacre in Haifa, or Hamas, which carried out last month's massacres in Jerusalem and Tzrifin, would be hard pressed to operate. Strike Syria, and the terrorists' financial, political, and military bases are dealt a strategic blow.
As for the US, George W. Bush made it clear that his heart is with Israel's supporters. When the president said that, under similar circumstances the US would act as Israel did, he gave the firmest recognition to date that America and Israel are fighting the same war on terrorism. Yet by warning Ariel Sharon to avoid escalation, Bush also signaled that our critics are right to claim that we are responsible for endangering regional stability.
All these reactions – critical, supportive, or hedged – are, of course, utterly predictable.
From the UN, the EU, the international Left, and their supporters in the media, one has come to expect condemnation for any step Israel takes to defend itself. These critics usually offer pro forma condemnations of terrorist attacks against Israelis. But they will always leave open the question of whether Israel isn't actually responsible for the murder of its own citizens.
The reaction of Sharon's supporters is also predictable. By bringing its counteroffensive against state sponsors of terrorism, they say, Israel can be viewed as moving in a direction that can bring us victory in this long war of attrition.
From Bush there were no surprises, either. As usual, the president said that Israel is allowed to strike back in a limited manner. And as usual, the president warned Israel that its reactions should not go beyond the point of saber rattling.
In other words, far from turning a new leaf, Israel's war on terrorism stands pretty much exactly where it did before the Haifa massacre.
As the IDF was quick to point out after the strike, Syria is literally chock full of high-impact operational terrorist targets – everything from the homes of terrorist leaders to their headquarters. But instead of attacking actual targets, we went after an empty camp. In the process, we once again demonstrated – to ourselves as well as to our enemies – that we are unwilling to take the steps needed to win this war.
What are those steps?
Terrorists and their state sponsors fight by operating where they are strongest and their enemy is weakest. While the Syrian air force is no match against Israel's, an Islamic Jihad terrorist with an explosive belt strapped to her waist is a match for a security guard in a restaurant. And since terrorists wish to see Israel destroyed, there is no difference to them between an F-16 and a baby. Both are valued targets.
On such a battleground, Israel cannot win. All the security guards in the world cannot prevent a lone bomber from finding a restaurant or a bus to bomb or a home to attack.
What Israel can do is fight the war on a battlefield where it can win. A suicide bomber may indeed be "undeterrable." But his (or her) minders and paymasters and supporters may nonetheless be demoralized if they are hounded and killed, if their safe houses are destroyed, if their financial assets are frozen, and if they lose faith in their own invincibility.
By identifying Syria and Iran and the Palestinian Authority along with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizbullah as legitimate targets in the war on terror, the government has shown it knows where to train its sights – in theory.
In practice, however, the government contents itself with sending signals: surrounding but not storming the Mukata, dropping empty munitions on Sheikh Yassin's house, firing missiles at empty camps in Syria, negotiating with Arafat's handpicked emissaries, and so on.
According to Sharon's supporters, the value of this is that it simultaneously sends a warning to Israel's enemies while placating the relevant arbiters of Israel's right to self-defense. Such a strategy, they add, allows Israel to ratchet up its responses gradually without losing US support.
But as the reactions to Sunday's air strike show, this strategy brings about precisely the opposite set of results. On the one hand, we placate our enemies by showing exactly where our self-imposed limits lie. On the other, we invite the usual hysterical reactions from our critics and only the tepid support of the Bush administration.
Predictability has many uses in politics, diplomacy, commerce, and friendship. This is not so in the war on terrorism. As we have for over three years – ever since former prime minister Ehud Barak started issuing, and then backing away from, ultimatums to Arafat – we have shown that we will not take the steps that need to be taken; that we will always wait until the next terrorist outrage to act; that we will brandish our big stick but never use it. Far from deterring terrorists, we embolden them.
In the meantime, Israel's enemies blame us for the crime of existing. They continue to indoctrinate, arm, and finance cadres who will soon find their battle in the field of their choosing – a cafe, a school, a hospital, or a home. At least we don't have to scratch our heads about what will happen in the aftermath of the next attack. It is all so maddeningly predictable.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.