In Israel these days, everyone is talking about the next war.
For more than a week now, the daily press and the electronic media have focussed on the tough talk emanating from Jerusalem and Damascus, the movements of Syrian troops, the test firing of Syria’s new Scud-C missiles, and the impending visit of U.S. peace emissary Dennis Ross to the region. The talk of war itself has been news; the Syrian government says that the Israeli government builds up war fears as a way to justify a pre-emptive strike, as in 1967.
But all this talk of war has had an abstract feel to it. As if war was something that would happen far, far away — the way the Gulf War must have felt to most Americans, for example. Most Israelis have no personal memory of the last time the country faced a life-threatening war, back in October 1973.
I think it’s time to talk openly and honestly about what another war would mean for Israel and the Middle East.
Let’s begin by saying right out: This is going to be a war unlike anything Israel has experienced before.
Like the Yom Kippur war (1973), we are likely to see a Syrian armored offensive against the Golan. It must be noted that Syria today has a regular army significantly larger than the IDF’s regular forces. (Israel has a larger force of reserve soldiers.) And while the IDF must maintain extensive forces in the occupied territories and somewhat smaller forces along Israel’s southern and eastern borders, the Syrians can throw virtually their whole weight against the Golan front. While nearly everyone expects the IDF to repell such a Syrian attack, the cost will no doubt be high. (In the bloody 1973 war, more than 2,000 Israeli soldiers were killed.)
For years now we have assumed that a war with Syria would be a one-front war for the IDF, unlike the 1973 war when forces (in particular, planes) had to be moved around from Sinai to the Golan and back. But the Syrians have never gone into war against Israel alone, and if they do attack in the Golan, they will want to do it with help from somewhere else. Libya, Iran and Iraq can be counted on for moral support at least, if not actually firing missiles and sending troops. It seems unlikely that Jordan and Egypt would join in the fray, but anything can happen in the months to come — including the fall of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. The Syrians will also want to make use of uncoventional forces, such as the Hizbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian terrorist groups in the occupied territories — and abroad.
Unlike the 1973 war, but like the 1991 Gulf War, we can expect missile attacks against the Israeli rear. Such attacks, when launched from Iraq using fairly primitive mobile Scud launchers, did relatively little harm. Very few Israelis were killed, though many buildings were damaged. But the effect on morale in Israel was catastrophic, as the vast Tel Aviv metropolis emptied out. We now know that Iraq had chemical warheads but did not use them in the attacks on Israel. Syria too has chemical warheads. In this context, it is interesting to note that the Netanyahu government — against the advice of the IDF — plans to stop giving out gas masks to the population.
Most observers believe that Israel would reply to a chemical attack on its cities by exercising its nuclear option. Even if this horrendous prospect were to be realized, who can guarantee that the razing of Damascus would have a Hiroshima effect — i.e., cause the Arab world to cringe before Israeli power and thereby lead to decades of peace? Such a use of non-conventional weapons by Syria and Israel could also trigger a cycle of ever-increasing horror, including the use of nuclear weapons by the Arabs — weapons which can probably be obtained in the former Soviet Union today for a price.
The rapid escalation of the conflict from conventional to non-conventional weapons, including chemical, nuclear and possibly biological weapons, is not inevitable. But neither is it unlikely. If such a scenario were to be realized, then there would be no winners nor losers. To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, in the short run we would all be dead.
Back in the days of the Rabin-Peres government (and that now seems such a long time ago), Israelis had the feeling that while Islamic terrorists could cause the loss of life in our cities, there was no immediate military threat to the survival of Israel as a nation. Individuals may not have felt secure riding buses in Jerusalem, but as a nation, we were relatively secure. We seemed to be moving ever so slowly toward a reconciliation with the whole Arab world, including — eventually — Syria. And at that head of our government stood men like Rabin and Peres who had been tested in the nation’s gravest hours. Those men knew what war in the Middle East on the eve of the twenty-first century might mean.
Today’s Israeli government is in the hands of an untried crew (except for Sharon and Eitan, and we’d rather not discuss their war records). Its relationship with the IDF is strained, and top ranking IDF officers — for the first time — are not part of the decision-making process. One third of the cabinet ministers have never even served in the armed forces. And our government is headed up by a boastful and self-confident politician who seems more eager to score points with the U.S. Congress and the international media than to guarantee his country’s security.
Barely three months after his election to the post of Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu has brought the country to the edge of an abyss.