Israel’s former head of military intelligence, Major-General Shlomo Gazit, has broken ranks and taken the unprecedented step of warning Ariel Sharon to stop threatening Syria.
Gazit, now a respected elder of the Israeli intelligence community, spoke publicly in Tel Aviv last weekend.
He accused Sharon of running an “orchestrated campaign to incite and humiliate Damascus. It is only going to be a matter of time until the Syrians are unable to hold back and then the big blaze will begin”.
He cited as an example of the “jab, jab policy” of Sharon, the recent incident when Israeli fighter planes buzzed the palace of Basha al-Assad, the Syrian president.
Gazit’s blunt warning has sent a shock wave through Israel’s military command structure. Sharon’s cabinet office has dismissed Gazit as “someone out of touch with reality”.
“But the reality is that Sharon IS preparing for a short, sharp offensive against Syria”, insisted Gazit.
Support for this came only last Sunday when General Moshe Yaalon, chief of staff of the IDF, Israeli armed forces, also hinted at “further action” against Syria.
“If Damascus continues to ignore the message that Israel and other countries have sent to Syria, then it may be necessary to send messages of a different kind”, said Yaalon in an address to the faculty of Tel Aviv university.
The reference to “other countries” was intended to convey that Washington would support an attack on Syria”, Yaalon later admitted.
An hour after he had spoken, eight Israeli F-15 jets crossed the international border with Lebanon and flew over Beirut. There are 25,000 heavily armed Syrian troops in and around the city.
This was the latest incursion to deepen the crisis with Syria. Last month, F-15 jets dropped satellite-guided bombs on an empty Palestinian training base near Damascus. It was the first assault on the country’s soil in 30 years.
Damascus promised to retaliate. It has not done so yet.
But Syrian vice-president Abd al-Halim joined in the war of words this week. He accused Sharon of “staging psychological warfare” against Syria.
Next day, more Israeli jets swept over Syria’s forces in Lebanon.
Sources close to Sharon have said he was now convinced by hawkish generals like Yaalon that Israel should next strike at Syria’s missile sites hidden in Lebanon.
But Gazit, once a renowned hawk, has predicted such an attack could have deadly consequences.
“It would be wrong for Israel to underestimate Syria’s military strength. Damascus could retaliate with a ferocity that would surprise us.
“The Syrians possess hundreds of ballistic missiles with conventional, maybe also chemical, warheads which are targeted on all of Israel”, he said.
Bush’s tacit support for an attack on Syria – together with his signalled readiness to introduce the Syrian Accountability Act in Congress – shows how closely Israel has veered towards war with Syria.
The Accountability Act calls for sanctions against Syria until Washington “decides” if Syria has stopped supporting terrorism, has withdrawn all its troops from Lebanon, has ceased the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction and is ready to enter into “serious unconditional peace talks with Israel”.
The Act is the handiwork of the neo-conservatives around Bush, led by Paul Wolfowitz.
It is welcomed by Sharon as the first move for a “regime change” in Syria.
But men like Gazit now see the “Israelisation” of America as a dangerous ingredient in the already poisonous Middle East brew.
With the situation in Iraq increasingly eating away at Bush’s prospects of election for a second term, he will be more accommodating than ever to Israel. In turn, the powerful Jewish American lobby will pressurise the White House to allow Sharon a free hand in dealing with Syria.
For strategists like Gazit, one thing is clear: if America cannot quickly extricate itself from Iraq, for Washington to remain an Israeli partner in this most counter-productive of alliances in the Middle East will be a high price to pay for Bush.
Gordon Thomas is a writer on intelligence – his many books include :
Gideon’s Spies_The Secret History of Mossad
Robert Maxwell – Israel’s Superspy
Seeds of Fire – China and the Story Behind the Attack on America