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Deja vu. Will Syria standoff be a repeat of Desert Storm?
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Deja vu. Will Syria standoff be a repeat of Desert Storm?

As the preparations for a US strike against Syria get underway, Israelis plunge into anxiety and prepare themselves for every possible outcome, conjuring up images reminiscent of the 1991 Desert Storm Gulf War and posing serious questions about the situation Israel once again finds itself facing. What to do? Follow the "policy of restraint" Yitzhak Shamir then begrudgingly adopted or conduct an unconstrained full-scale response in the event of a Syrian or a Lebanese attack?

The dilemma is huge because it depends on so many factors. First and foremost is the attitude of the Americans. In 1956, during the Suez campaign, then prime minister David Ben Gurion chose to ally with the French and the British in attacking Nasser's Egypt. The failure was a bitter one and Israel subsequently had to bow to US pressures and Russian threats as it swiftly withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula.

Since then, the Jewish state has chosen to fight on its own battles, a policy that has so far proven successful, with the IDF standing up to even the most severe challenges as it did during the Yom Kippur War 40 years ago.

In deciding to launch a punitive operation against Syria, President Barack Obama should keep in mind the previous wars in the region, paying special attention to the events leading up to the first Gulf War.

On 20 August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and a few months later, on 18 January 1991, a war broke out in which Israel never intervened. Facing strong American pressure, the Shamir government kept a low profile despite the attendant risks. For six weeks, Israel's entire population was confined nightly to sheltered rooms, wearing gas masks, for fear the Iraqi dictator would launch scud missiles armed with chemical warheads at its cities. The whole nation suffered in silence and showed remarkable fortitude. For the first time in its history, the IDF was not tasked with the defense of the Jewish state. Shamir's policy later bore fruit in the 1991 Madrid peace conference, where Israel scored a major diplomatic victory.

Today the geopolitical situation has changed completely. The Israeli army is able to defend the state against any threat. Thanks to US military aid, the IDF is equipped with the most sophisticated offensive and defensive capabilities.

The strategic relations with the US are in good health. Buttressed by mutual interests, Israel has the privilege to provide Americans with sensitive information and reliable first-hand intelligence.

Any operation in our region must, obviously, be carefully coordinated. To avoid the kind of misunderstanding with Washington that took place during the first Gulf War, this time Obama must notify us before launching any operation against Syria. Not only because this is the natural way between allies but it is also imperative to ready the home front, which, in the age of missiles, has become the first line of defense.

Though this is the first time that Israel will not be directly involved in an armed conflict with one of its neighbors, the IDF must take into account a possible escalation or a spillover that would engulf the entire region. Despite the fact that we have no desire to intervene in the Syrian conflict, our enemies have already threatened to attack us in the event of American strike.

Two decades after the first Gulf War, the Netanyahu government does not wish to adopt the "policy of restraint" but rather to exercise the right of self-defense. However, it is important to make sure our path is aligned with Obama's, so that we know how to advance the Palestinian issue and manage the Iranian nuclear threat. After all, and in spite of all the constraints and differences of opinion, America is still our true friend and our greatest ally.

Freddy Eytan is a former Israeli ambassador, a journalist and writer. He is the author of 20 books on the Israeli-Arab conflict and Franco-Israeli relations. He now heads the CAPE-JCPA, Jerusalem Center for State and Public Affairs.

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