Mistaking Cause and Effect in Syria
Russia's President Vladimir Putin called Prime Minister Netanyahu during Mr. Netanyahu's visit to China, surely a diplomatic oddity. (Chinese Premier Li Kegiang answers the hotline in Beijing and says, "Oh, sure. Hey, Bibi, it's for you.") President Obama called him there as well, making Netanyahu appear to be the most important man in the world at the moment. Both conversations were reportedly about Syria and what appears to have been Israel's demonstration of the utility of red lines and the inutility of Syria's Russian air defenses.
At least one report says Putin told Israel in no uncertain terms that Russia would not let Israel, the U.S., Turkey or anyone else overthrow Assad. Another press report suggests that Putin told Netanyahu that the (presumed) Israeli strike would result in the sale to Syria of an SS-300 missile battery -- something Syria has long sought and Russia has previously denied Assad. This upgrade, analysts said, "would make international intervention in Syria far more complicated."
There is a handy fig leaf in the suggestion that Israel is making it harder for the U.S. to take resolute action against Assad. It opens the door for the Obama administration to say, "It's not that we're worried about Sunni Islamic radicals, and not that we're worried about Russia's response, and not that we're worried about being dragged full-scale into a war with no good options. No, no, the problem is that Israel struck that cache of M-600 missiles in Syrian territory. They made the Russians look impotent, and they were forced to upgrade the air defenses."
The Washington Post quickly took up the theme that Israel's elimination of an unacceptable threat will cause trouble rather than protect its citizens. The headline read: "Western Officials Fear Retaliation for Airstrikes in Syria Attributed to Israel: Experts say Israeli tourists and other civilian targets could be targeted by Hezbollah operatives." Attributing future Israeli casualties to the Israeli strike makes Israel, not Hezb'allah, responsible.
In fact, though, Iran and Hezb'allah have been targeting Israelis abroad for more than two decades, starting with the 1992 Israeli Embassy bombing in Argentina and the 1994 Argentine Jewish Center bombing. There have been attacks and planned attacks in Turkey and Cyprus. Hezb'allah bombed a tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria last summer, long before crossing Israel's "red lines" at home.
Defining the violence of Israel's enemies as "retaliation" for Israeli behavior confuses cause and effect, offense and defense. War was declared against Israel at its birth by its neighbors, before there were "occupied territories," before there were "settlements." By joining the Palestinian boycott of Israeli academic institutions, Professor Steven Hawking, whether out of ignorance or venality, lays blame on Israel for the war the Arabs started.
In 1967, Egypt committed an internationally recognized act of war by closing the Strait of Tiran, while Cairo and Damascus threatened to "throw the Jews into the sea." Israel struck (back?) at both, plus Jordan, which unwisely entered the war on the third day of six. In 1973, on the other hand, Israel waited for the attack to happen, and then repulsed it, taking staggering casualties. Whether striking first or waiting to strike, Israel has remained without the "secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force" that are the promise of U.N. Resolution 242.
Calling Palestinian violence "retaliation" for Israeli behavior, or calling it "the birthright and duty" of Palestinians, blames Israel even though the PLO was established before Israel acquired the West Bank and Gaza. Blaming Israeli "occupation" for fourth- and fifth-generation Palestinian refugees languishing in UNRWA prisons in every Arab country surrounding Israel (including territories governed by Palestinians for more than a decade) ignores the fact that Palestinians who remained in Israel after 1948 are citizens.
The "useful idiots" who want to break the Israeli/Egyptian blockade of Gaza or dismantle the West Bank Security Fence forget or never knew that tens of thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel until the Palestinians opened the bloody so-called "second intifada" in late 2000. Hamas rocket attacks aren't "retaliation" for Israeli behavior; they are the advantage Hamas took of Israel's departure from Gaza in 2005.
Twisting cause and effect is designed to stop Israel (or the United States) from taking action in its own defense by suggesting that Arab or Iranian "retaliation" will be worse than the evil Israel eliminates. The alternative is to hunker down and hope for the best.
There are those, including friends, who want to dissuade Israel from attacking elements of Iran's nuclear program for fear of "retaliation" from Iran/Hezb'allah. They know that to do nothing risks the day Iran will have a nuclear weapons capability and decide to use it. At that point, which would have been worse, to have tried to set the program back and suffered the conventional "retaliation," or to have waited to face a nuclear Iran? It is unlikely that Israel can wait to answer the question.
Israel has stayed quiet for two years of Syrian fighting, hoping not to have to choose sides. Bashar Assad made that impossible, Hezb'allah made that impossible, and Vladimir Putin may be raising the stakes.
As long as the Arab war against Israel war goes on, Israel is entitled -- required -- to defend its people, no matter if the threat is in Syria, Lebanon, or Iran. And if that complicates life for the United States, so be it.
Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center.