Palestinian and Israeli negotiators may be meeting in Washington, but the atmosphere of Arab-Israeli relations today remains fundamentally altered from what it was three months ago. In fact, it resembles the bad old days of pre-1967.
Back then, Israel's enemies widely believed that they could dispatch the Jewish state with one good blow. Their overconfidence explains why, with no one planning or wanting it, full-scale war broke out in June 1967. Israel's astonishing victory in the Six-Day War then seemingly destroyed Arab exuberance and forever closed the question of its permanent existence.
But it was not to be. The Oslo process, along with other signals of Israeli demoralization over the past seven years, reignited Arab overconfidence and wakened the sleeping dogs of war. During the past two months, especially, in ways reminiscent of the years before 1967, the enemies of Israel are again tempted by the military option.
In brief, the security that war had achieved for Israel, diplomacy has undone.
Listen to how, over the past two months, making war on Israel has become a real choice for the Arab states and Iran. As usual, Iraq acts the boldest, calling for a jihad to "liberate Palestine" and "put an end to Zionism." Saddam Hussein has noisily recruited two million volunteers to fight Israel and sent a division of soldiers to his border closest with Israel.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, has called Israel a "cancerous tumor" that must "be removed." The untried Syrian regime of Bashar Assad has rattled sabers with talk of war. In Cairo, reports the Middle East Newsline, the current debate is about "whether the Israeli-Palestinian mini-war will escalate into a regional confrontation. At that point, the question is whether Egypt will enter the fray."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak denies plans to make total war ("A war until the last Egyptian soldier is definitely not in the cards") but makes ominous-sounding threats about "entering the tunnel of the unknown."
Israeli analysts recognize this danger. For example, Yuval Steinitz, the thoughtful Likud member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, observes that "Egypt is preparing for a conflict with Israel, though not necessarily an all-out war." The US government has, in the person of Martin Indyk - its ambassador to Israel - acknowledged this danger. Indyk noted how the Israeli-Palestinian clashes of recent weeks have caused some in the Arab world to float the idea of resorting to a military option against Israel. He calls these "a very dangerous challenge."
How might a full-scale war actually come about? Hizbullah, the Lebanese Islamist organization that expelled Israel's forces from south Lebanon earlier this year, is probably the key, for Israel has promised to punish Hizbullah aggression by hitting Syrian targets.
Here is one scenario of a conflict starting without anyone intending it to (as in 1967) from The Jerusalem Report's cover story, "What Could Trigger War": Palestinian snipers kill Jewish children, Israeli forces respond with artillery shells, one of which goes astray and kills 20 Palestinian children. Furious demonstrators pour into the streets across the Middle East. Riding these sentiments, Hizbullah attacks northern Israel. As promised, Israel retaliates against Syrian targets, prompting a mobilization of Syrian, Egyptian, and other forces, including Israel's. At this point, concludes the Report, "All-out war on all fronts is one pull of the trigger away." Who would pull the trigger? Saddam is a likely candidate. A Palestinian source notes that "What Saddam wants is to spark a regional war which he can lead." Israelis agree: a senior military officer expects that the Iraqis "would love to participate" in a conflict against Israel.
If such a descent into war is not to take place, Israel must carefully calibrate its actions to achieve two nearly contradictory goals: deter potential enemies (be willing to use force and lose lives); and not agitate the Arab street (deploy violence in an intelligent and controlled way). This is an exceedingly difficult pair of objectives and they are getting even harder to achieve as each new day of violence simultaneously diminishes Israeli deterrence and heightens Arab anger.
To be sure, the government of Israel has taken some steps (for example, sending a private warning to Damascus and reinforcing troops on the Golan Heights) but such easy gestures alone will not suffice. The sooner Israel begins the effort to seriously dissuade its potential enemies, the better its chances to dispel the winds of war.