NEWS ANALYSIS

JERUSALEM, April 18 (JTA) – For those worried about the credibility of Israeli deterrence, the Israel Defense Force this week delivered two unmistakable messages – to Syria and the Palestinians – that it is willing to fight.

For those worried that military strength alone may not hold the answer to Israel’s problems, however, the week of escalation did nothing to allay their fears.

Many people belong to both groups – because on the tactical level, at least, there is no contradiction between them.

Escalation involves heightened risks, and the great majority of Israelis and Israel’s supporters abroad were united this week in support of the government’s deliberate decision to take these risks.

The second group, however, questions whether there is an overall strategy behind the tactics that can restore the hope of reaching a negotiated peace.

Israel’s aerial attack on a Syrian radar installation deep inside Lebanon on Monday, in response to the killing of an Israeli soldier over the weekend, was a careful and deliberate upping of the ante – a new “price list” for Arab attacks on Israel, in the words of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s spokesman, Ra’anan Gissin.

“There are new rules now,” Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer agreed, indicating that Israel would hold Syria directly responsible for Hezbollah attacks.

The action came after Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles across Lebanon’s border with Israel on Saturday, killing a soldier.

The incident took place at Har Dov, a rugged section of the Israel-Lebanon border near Shabaa Farms, an area that Hezbollah claims is Lebanese land still occupied by Israel.

Israel – backed by the United Nations – says the area is part of the Golan Heights that Israel conquered in 1967 from Syria, and whose fate should be determined in Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

Indeed, after Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon last May, the United Nations confirmed that Israel no longer had troops on Lebanese soil, forcing Israel to make even small redeployments of several feet in some places to conform rigorously to the international border.

This week, the U.N.’s Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, reiterated that Hezbollah’s claim flies in the face of U.N. decisions.

The United States adopted a similar stance Monday, calling Hezbollah’s cross-border attack “clear provocation designed to escalate an already-tense situation.”

Just the same, Israel’s decision to punish Syria for the incident represents a shift.

Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned after last May’s withdrawal that Israel would hold the Syrian and Lebanese governments responsible for any further Hezbollah attacks.

In practice, however, a series of Hezbollah kidnappings, shootings and bombings of Israeli soldiers went unanswered until this week.

Israel’s Security Cabinet decided, by a vote of 11-2, to hit Syrian military targets rather than Hezbollah, which locates its bases inside civilian areas in southern Lebanon.

Following the Israeli attack, Syria vowed revenge “at the appropriate time,” and put its 35,000 troops in Lebanon on high alert.

Israel, in turn, made it clear that it did not seek further escalation but is prepared to face a challenge from Syria if its still-green president, Bashar Assad, so decides.

Less than 24 hours later, Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers were moving into the Gaza Strip, cutting it into three separate sections and seizing a tactically important area of just under one square mile in the strip’s northeast corner.

The land, sea and air operation early Tuesday came in retaliation for a Monday attack in which Palestinians fired mortars on the Israeli town of Sderot.

The Palestinians in recent weeks have begun using mortars against Israeli residential communities, and the Sderot attack marked their deepest penetration into Israel since violence erupted last September.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, returning from a trip to Egypt on Tuesday, accused Israel of seeking to reoccupy Palestinian-held territory.

The Israeli government stated firmly that this was not its intention, and troops began withdrawing Tuesday night.

Shortly before the withdrawal, the Bush administration blasted Israel’s decision to take over portions of Gaza, issuing its strongest criticism of Israel since Israeli-Palestinian violence began last September.

“The Israeli response was excessive and disproportionate,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said. “We call upon both sides to respect the agreements that they’ve signed.”

By Wednesday, it became a matter of hot debate whether Israel decided to withdraw before or after Powell issued his comments.

Sharon’s spokesman said Israel made the decision hours before Powell’s statement was issued by the U.S. State Department. Gissin also criticized the Israeli commander in Gaza, Brig. Gen. Yair Naveh, for saying Tuesday that Israel planned to remain in Gaza “for as long as it takes – days, weeks, months.”

Meanwhile, a Palestinian peace negotiator gloated over the Israeli withdrawal, saying U.S. criticism had forced the humiliating move on the Jewish state. Calling Sharon “politically stupid,” Hassan Asfour said Wednesday that tough talk from Washington had forced Sharon “to order his army to retreat with its head in the ground.”

Hours after Israel withdrew its forces from northern Gaza, Palestinians fired mortars Wednesday from the area toward Israel.

And in southern Gaza, Palestinians fired mortars at the Neveh Dekalim settlement. This prompted Israeli soldiers with tanks and bulldozers to briefly enter the area, located near the Rafah border crossing into Egypt. In an operation that lasted less than an hour, the soldiers destroyed a police position that Israel said had been used as a base for gunfire directed at Israeli forces and Jewish settlers.

The IDF’s actions in Gaza plainly involved a calculated threat to previously signed agreements with the Palestinian Authority.

In politics, as in the military sphere, the week’s events demonstrated a clear distinction between the tactical and the strategic.

Tactically, Sharon continues to enjoy very broad public support. Apart from the Israeli Arab Knesset members – one of whom called the Israeli government “terrorist” and sent a letter of condolence to Assad – the decision to attack Syria enjoyed near-universal acclamation.

Even dove’s dove Yossi Beilin called the attack the logical and correct extension of last year’s decision to withdraw from Lebanon, which was supposed to remove any perceived legitimacy for Hezbollah attacks.

The peace camp, though uncomfortable, did not seem seriously disturbed by the escalation against the Palestinians either.

Israelis were shocked by the mortar shells that fell on the sleepy little town of Sderot, located three miles from the northern tip of the Gaza Strip – and close to Sharon’s Negev farm.

The attack appeared to be a provocation of ominous significance that could not go unpunished.

Regarding longer-term strategic thinking, however, the divisions are as deep as ever.

A reminder came last weekend in an interview the prime minister gave to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

Sharon offered the Palestinians – after a total cease-fire – a state on 42 percent of the territory, in return for an open-ended nonbelligerency accord.

A full peace treaty, Sharon said, did not seem a practicable objective in the foreseeable future.

This was a far cry indeed from the vision of full peace, in return for an almost total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, that sustained the former Barak government and that still represents the eventual goal of Israel’s “peace camp.”

Sharon’s words drew a welter of criticism, led by Ha’aretz.

The critics’ case is largely hypothetical, however, given the unpalatable fact that Arafat rejected the peace package proposed by Barak and President Clinton at Camp David last July and thereafter – and instead launched the violence that this week took a dangerous turn for the worse.

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