Question asked of Jerusalem Post columnists: "Both Jerusalem and Damascus say they want to prevent war, and yet are preparing for an attack by the other side and escalating their rhetoric. What are the chances that a war nobody claims to want would actually erupt? If a war is coming, how can it be prevented?" For all replies, see "Burning Issues #34: War with Syria?"
The talk of war and negotiations simultaneously points to the extraordinary instability and fluidity these days of Syrian-Israeli relations. Under severe pressure for his government's and perhaps his personal role in the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri, Syria's Bashar al-Assad is desperately trying to change the subject. But his ambivalence in not knowing whether to change it to war or peace showcases his limitations as a leader. As I keep saying, let's hope he was a better ophthalmologist than he is a dictator.
As for Ehud Olmert, he proved himself to be such a terrible military chief last year in Lebanon that a Syrian intifada on the Golan Heights now looms as a real possibility. And his severe political unpopularity makes him receptive to negotiations that a stronger Israeli prime minister would scorn.
This unusual combination of circumstances makes the Damascus-Jerusalem confrontation unusually volatile. Incompetence has a way of generating unpredictability. I cannot assess the chances of war beyond saying they are worrisomely real.
Deterrence offers the best chances of avoiding warfare. The Israeli government should assemble such convincing arguments that even al-Assad can understand the folly of his playing with this particular fire. (June 7, 2007)