AS the Israeli barrage of mortar fire began pounding the Hizbullah and the villages of southern Lebanon earlier last week, observers the world over repeatedly asked themselves, "Why this?" And more importantly, "Why now?"
One possible answer is, perhaps, unexpected: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is preparing for peace; he is preparing the Israeli population to bite the bullet and to anticipate the loss of a substantial part of the Golan Heights in return for a treaty with Syria. Though the argument appears to be counter-intuitive, there are plenty of precedents in the region for such actions.
For example, nearly 20 years ago, on Oct. 6, 1973, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat launched an unanticipated offensive - the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war. The action was founded upon three primary objectives.
First, Mr. Sadat sought to show the Israelis that, despite the 1967 Six Day War debacle, Egypt was still the number one military power in the Arab world, ready and willing to face the Israelis against all odds.
Second, Sadat hoped through this attack to show the Arab world, and more importantly the Egyptian people, that Egypt could stand tall and proud in the face of Israeli military might, and that he was not reluctant to make war if conditions necessitated it.
A third objective was to cross the Suez Canal on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and catch the Israelis off guard.
Why pursue such a limited objective? Because Sadat knew it could be done. But more to the point, he knew that it was all he needed to do to accomplish his first two objectives. Thus, having made war in 1973, Sadat opened the door for making peace, beginning with his famous trip to Jerusalem in 1977. Only through making war could Sadat recapture the pride of the Arab world trampled upon in `67; only through making war could he begin the process of making a lasting peace with Egypt's greatest enemy.
Mr. Rabin's present situation at home is not unlike Sadat's position in the fall of 1973.
It is well known that Rabin's predecessor and 1992 election rival, Yitzhak Shamir, had no great intention of moving the peace process along, despite Israel's active participation in the October 1991 Madrid talks and those that took place thereafter under his reign. Rather, Mr. Shamir's Likud Party saw any ground-breaking agreements with the Palestinians or Arab states as first steps toward Israel's slow but sure weakening, and ultimate demise.
Therefore, Shamir sought to bide his time and remain obstinate by making clearly unacceptable demands, while continuing to actively settle the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But this kind of resistance to change was no longer seen as a viable approach by a majority of the Israeli population in the spring of 1992. Thus, Shamir's downfall and Rabin's ascent.
Rabin's primary commitment to the Israeli people was clear: to quickly end the intifadah, to end the ongoing terrorism against Israeli civilians, and to finally make peace with Israel's Arab neighbors.
Yet, since the Labour government took office, little has changed. In some ways, things have in fact worsened.
Terrorism inside Israel is on the rise, and the peace talks appear to be going nowhere fast. It appears that Rabin's greatest strategic success was in closing off the territories, in effect reestablishing the Green Line of 1967 and appearing to concede to the will of intifadah activists.
Thus, over a year after he promised an end to the state of war that has pervaded his country since its inception, Rabin is now sending a message via the hated Hizbullah, both to the Arab world, as well as to his constituency. To the countries that neighbor Israel, Rabin is saying flatly, "We are willing and able to make war against our enemies whenever necessary. Don't underestimate us, or see our increasing flexibility at the negotiating table as a sign of weakness."
But to the Israeli people, he is saying more. Rabin is saying, in effect, "Look. See how the fighting with our neighbors will never end until we have peace, how ten years after Operation `Peace for the Galilee,' our northern border is still endangered.
But more importantly, see how the Syrians stay out of the present fray. They protect Lebanon, they own Lebanon, yet they stay out. Why? Because they love us? No, because they fear us. And when we return the Golan, they will still fear us, because they haven't forgotten what we can do. And we haven't forgotten that when our interests are at stake, we will protect them - at all costs."
Thus, when asked what the purpose was in undertaking this new initiative, one Israeli official answered somewhat ironically:
"We want [the villagers] to flee these villages and head straight to Beirut. There, they can go [to their leadership] and demand an end to this."
But the Israeli government's message isn't intended to be heard only in Beirut. It will be forwarded, not only on to the true government of Lebanon in Damascus, but throughout the Arab world. How this message is received in Tunis, Amman, and Cairo - not to mention on the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Be'er Sheva - will likely dictate Rabin's next gambit: making peace.