‘Shock and shush’ strategy, meant to mollify Assad, may have run its course

After three strikes in three months, can Israel continue to keep quiet about air raids over Syria in the hope Damascus won’t respond?

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli pilots in the cockpit of an F-15 fighter jet in an Israeli Air Force base. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Israeli pilots in the cockpit of an F-15 fighter jet in an Israeli Air Force base. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

On June 7, 1981, eight F-16s destroyed Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor in Baghdad. Less than a day later, the government of prime minister Menachem Begin acknowledged that the Israel Air Force was behind the attack, acting on the imperative to prevent an enemy state from obtaining nuclear weapons.

In 2013, three airstrikes were carried out in Syria — one on January 30 and two over the past weekend — that reportedly destroyed weapons convoys on their way to Israel’s enemies in Lebanon. All three attacks were blamed on Israel, but the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained radio silence. (In February, then-defense minister Ehud Barak hinted at Israeli involvement in the earlier strike but stopped short of directly acknowledging it.)

The silence seems to be consistent with Jerusalem’s view of the region as an unstable powder keg that can explode into war at a moment’s notice. By keeping mum, some say Netanyahu is betting that Damascus will take the benefit of the doubt and won’t feel compelled to respond.

“Israel was trying to maintain a responsible and thoughtful policy of maintaining its deterrence, while at the same time not trying to cause any escalation, war, difficulties and turmoil by putting any actor into a corner in which they would feel compelled to strike out,” said Dr. Benjamin Molov, who teaches international relations and conflict resolution at Bar-Ilan University.

This week, no official dared to so much as insinuate that Israel was behind the air raids. Netanyahu told reporters on Monday that he was “prevented” from commenting on the issue.

Speaking on Army Radio the same day, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni clammed up too. “It isn’t right, it isn’t proper, and it is harmful [to talk about the issue], period,” she said. “I am not going to make hints in either direction, so don’t ask any questions,” she added, scolding the interviewer for even bringing up the topic. “What I’d like to say is that all the noise, all the statements and comments, are merely adding tension to a region that is already explosive, and therefore I won’t take part in this.”

This policy of ambiguity worked in 2007 when Israel bombed a plutonium nuclear reactor deep inside Syria. No one in Jerusalem took credit for the attack. And Assad — not yet neck-deep in a civil war — did not respond with force, although he knew his reactor was not a casualty of spontaneous combustion.

How long will Israel get away with a military doctrine that has been called “shock and shush”? The official silence can only go so far until it becomes a charade and Assad knows that everyone knows. After three strikes in three months, all the “no comments” in the world won’t shelter Assad from questions about why he is not retaliating.

“The real question is, how much humble pie can Assad eat and still keep his svelte figure,” Nathan Thrall, an analyst for the International Crisis Group in Jerusalem, told The New York Times on Monday.

Netanyahu, too, has found himself under increasing pressure to fess up from some quarters.

“One can understand Israel’s assumed initial position that ambiguity could reduce the chance of a Syrian response,” Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel wrote. “It’s harder to understand stubbornly sticking to that position after the secret is out… The bottom line — if the reports of Israeli involvement are correct — is that Israel is now more involved in the Syrian civil war than ever, and after three attacks attributed to the Israel Defense Forces in three months, Israel is at greater risk of getting pulled into the fighting.”

Most Israelis have not feared being dragged into the Syrian civil war, but with this becoming more likely with every additional airstrike, Harel argues, “wouldn’t it be prudent for the premier to explain to Israelis, if only in general terms, what’s going on in the north?”

Two of the men who took part in for Menachem Begin’s decision to acknowledge Israel was behind the 1981 strike at Osirak, however, said openness was the right choice at that time, and Netanyahu’s silence was the right option today.

“Back then, we decided we’d publicize [that we’d bombed Osirak] if any Arab media outlet published it, and that’s exactly what happened,” said Shlomo Nakdimon, who was Begin’s media adviser in 1981.

Only US president Ronald Reagan and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat knew about the attack in advance, and Jerusalem decided  not to make any statements if nobody in the Arab world first blamed Israel. However, mere hours after the attack, a Jordanian radio station hinted that Israel blew up the reactor. As soon as the cat was out of the bag, Begin himself made the decision to publish a statement that had been prepared in advance.

“There was a discussion afterward” about whether it was the right thing to do, Nakdimon recalled. “But we’re not going to look like thieves in the night.”

Yet Syria in 2013 is not Iraq in 1981, added Nakdimon, a journalist and historian of the state of Israel. Netanyahu, he said, has good reasons for not owning up to the airstrikes now.

Begin’s former Cabinet secretary, Professor Aryeh Naor, fully agreed.

“So far it works,” Naor said of Netanyahu’s shock-and-shush tactics.

But will it continue working in the weeks and months to come, as more and more sophisticated weapons might be sent on their way to Israel’s enemies, and Israel may feel the need to intercept them?

“It’s impossible to know,” said Naor, who chairs the politics and communications department at Hadassah Academic College Jerusalem. “But in the mean time, it’s like the Americans say: if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

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