The Spectator

Israel’s right to retaliate

The European condemnation of Israel’s air raid on Syria is unreasonable and offensive

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No country can be expected to sit idly by while its citizens are slaughtered by suicidal fanatics, as those of Israel are. Moreover, virtually by definition, the fanatics themselves cannot be deterred, since they court death rather than fear it. It follows that only the sponsors of the fanatics can be deterred, for they are usually rather more attached to their own lives than the people they send into so-called battle. Martyrdom is for others, not for them.

The European condemnation of Israel for its air raid on Syria in response to the latest suicide-bomb attack in Haifa is therefore unreasonable, unrealistic and offensive in its tone of moral superiority, which is so easy to assume from a safe distance. Israel, like other states, has the right of retaliation, provided it chooses the right targets. Israel’s intelligence about the region is generally a great deal better and more accurate than that of most Western states, because, among other reasons, good intelligence is a matter of life and death for it, and it is concentrated on one subject alone. Nothing concentrates the mind like a threat to survival.

Syria can hardly play the role of the injured innocent. It has supported groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad for many years, indeed decades. It proves its innocence of the attacks on American soldiers in Iraq by stating that the people of Iraq are quite capable themselves of resisting foreign occupation, and do not need Syrian assistance. Its protestations of a change of heart with regard to terrorism and promises of good behaviour are not to be taken at face value. Not only does Syria have a long history of deception, but the collapse of its former sponsor and patron, the Soviet Union, from which it obtained most of its arms, has left it militarily weak and vulnerable vis-à-vis Israel: and deception and double-dealing are the natural responses of the weak but belligerent.

Of course, Israel’s own dealings are not without reproach. It is distinctly two-faced about the settlements, on the one hand accepting that they will have to be given up in return for peace, and on the other allowing them to continue to be built. This will have to change. But there is an intrinsic asymmetry between Israel and the Arab states that confront it, and therefore a great moral difference: while Israel is fighting for its very survival, the Arab states are not. At most, regimes of little legitimacy, such as Syria’s, are manoeuvring to obtain prestige in the eyes of their own citizens and of the world at large by enmity towards Israel.

Nor can the Syrian government plead impotence with regard to the terrorist organisations. The Syrian regime, let it be remembered, has been quite capable for many years of suppressing internal opposition to itself with the utmost brutality, ruthlessness and efficacy, as the citizens of the city of Hama will attest. Thousands of their fellow citizens were slaughtered by the current president’s papa.

What would the Europeans have the Israelis do when they are subjected to suicide bombers? Turn the other cheek? Almost everyone agrees that Israel will have to make concessions if peace is ever to return to the region. But concessions alone are not enough. The aim of the fanatics is the extinction of Israel, not an accommodation with it. Israeli concessions must therefore be viewed as a necessary but not sufficient condition of the peace: the other necessary condition is that Syria and other Arab states do what it is well within their power to do, namely dismantle and interdict rather than support the terrorist networks.

Unfortunately, they are not willing to do this out of sheer good will. This is because the good will simply does not exist. The sponsors of terrorists need another motive, and only Israeli military power can provide such a motive. For it is only when it is made clear that Syria has more, indeed very much more, to lose than to gain from supporting terrorist groups that it will give up doing so.

Which should come first, Israeli concessions or Syrian dismantlement of terrorist networks? Israel is in the position of a fiancée who has been beaten by her husband-to-be. It is wiser for such a woman to demand a change in her would-be husband’s behaviour before marriage, rather than hope that he will change once she is married to him. Mere promises of reform in such circumstances are rarely kept, and are not to be believed. Israel is quite right, therefore, to retaliate militarily against Syria before offering concessions. It has previously attacked the monkey; now it is time to attack the organ-grinder.

The right of states to pre-emption against those who use surrogates to attack them is well recognised, and natural justice demands it. Israeli policy may not have been adroit in the past decade, and its present prime minister is not a man easy to like. But this should not blind us to the fact that for decades much Arab rhetoric has insisted on the destruction of the state of Israel and that countries such as Syria have in practice supported terrorist groups bent on that end. It is this reality that must change.