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Israel sends Middle East a message with Syrian airstrike

Analysts say Israel may now believe it can attack Iran's nuclear facilities without reprisal.

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He says the operation had several goals in mind. "One, get Iran to come back and start negotiating seriously and put better offers on the table. Two, restore Israel's deterrence to what it was before last year's war with Lebanon. I think it has done that, in a big way, because Syria has not responded."

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Not so fast, others say. Deterrence, one of the most important concepts in Israeli defense, is also one of its most amorphous. The Haaretz newspaper Tuesday criticized Israel's Director of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, for having declared Israel's deterrent capability restored in one fell swoop.

"A successful strike – if it did occur – could serve as a statement: anyone who places nuclear weapons near Israel's borders or within striking distances will have to pay a price," the paper's editorial read. But, it continued, "Israel's deterrence is measured day in and day out in the western Negev as well. Hundreds of Qassam rockets from Gaza strike the region every month, with Israel unable to come up with a deterrent response."

All of this comes at a time when there seemed to be increased signs of hope for an Israeli-Syrian rapprochement. The possibility of the two countries revisiting the negotiating table, abandoned more than seven years ago, has been in the offing in recent months, though the Bush administration has been encouraging Israel to focus on the Palestinian peace track instead.

Hebrew University professor Moshe Maoz, a supporter of the potential for Israeli-Syrian peace, worries that a strike could further radicalize Syria.

"This could restore deterrence, sure, but it might further undermine the chances of peace with Syria, and push them closer to the Shiite axis," he says. "Israel is pushing Syria, along with Bush, into the hands of Iran, by refusing to talk to them." In fact, some other Iran analysts say Israel's strike was a kind of victory for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, who has been able to turn to Syria sanctimoniously and say that his " 'advice' about Israel not wanting peace was true all along," Javedanfar explains.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters this week that he was ready to make peace with Syria if the conditions ripen, and that there was no reason to rule out dialogue.

"The Israeli deterrent track has always been kind of divorced from the political track, and they're always willing to put one ahead of the other if they think it's something urgent," says Kenneth Pollack at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They obviously knew about this site for a long time; they didn't discover it last week. It underlines a point that everyone knew: Israel doesn't want other countries to acquire nuclear weapons and it will do whatever it thinks is necessary to stop it," he adds.

"But no one knows what the Syrians were up to," he says. "People are wondering if it was a very nascent nuclear program and no one wants to see that."