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Arbitrary Censorship of Israel's Aerial Incursion into Syria Print E-mail
By Jay Bushinsky
October 1, 2007

JERUSALEM -- Official secrecy is the nemesis of free journalism.  It contradicts the news media's raison d'etre in a a genuine democracy: the public's right to know.One of its consequences is the citizens' inability to judge the wisdom of their government's policies.  Another is the consequent ignorance of their leaders' decisions and performance regarding real or imaginary threats to their national security.  Israel, which repeatedly is described by its political movers and shakers as a Jewish democratic state, has been reveling in the gag order imposed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert regarding the alleged violation of Syrian air space by its air force a month ago.

When the authorities in Damascus announced that Israeli warplanes operated over Syrian territory, the military spokespersons here reacted with a coy and laconic statement. "We are not accustomed to comment about publications of that kind," they said.  The result was predictable: One after another several of major American and British television networks and newspapers came out with sensational reports that put smug smiles on the faces of Israeli military commanders and cabinet members.  And as the detail profligated, the public here went gaga about their leaders' exceptional ability to keep their mouths shut.

Predictably, however, the story assumed ever-greater dimensions, involved an incredible array of foreign powers ranging from the U.S. to North Korea, conjured up notions of the most diabolical intentions on Syria's part, including its purported involvement in nuclear weaponry subsized by its main ally (with which it has had a mutual defense treaty for the past decade), Iran. It started with CNN, moved to The New York Times, was picked up by The Washington Post, was embellished by London's Daily Telegraph and expanded upon by the United Kingdom's version of the American "gray lady," The Times.  Their main sources were unidentified Pentagon officials who were presented as being in the know to the point of outright collaboration with the Israelis.
  
The target was identified as a secret arsenal in northeastern Syria.  Elite Israeli troops reportedly wearing Syrian uniforms were said to have been on the ground when the jets came overhead, North Korean technical advisers purportedly were mowed down when the action started, the secret bombing runs left a deep crater in place of a building that contained advanced missiles were stored -- either to be equipped with nuclear warheads or to be trans-shipped to southern Lebanon's Hizbollah guerrillas.  
  
Turkish military intelligence was credited with having facilitated the operation, U.S. warplanes based in Iraq reportedly were overhead while their Israeli counterparts delivered their payload just in case unfriendly aircraft tried to intervene and the North Korean regime was depicted as having a nefarious relationship with Syria on the basis of which it was able to deposit nuclear gear which it has promised the Bush Administration to give up.  Typically, the Israeli press, radio and TV gave all of these disclosures top billing.
 
It was as if the international news media were doing the job that Israel's own journalists were orbidden to do.  And all the while, Olmert, whose popularity and ratings wit prospective voters were abysmal, was gaining political altitude.  The local public opinion polls began presenting him as a serious candidate for a second term, able to stand up against such rivals as the leader of the right-wing Likud party opposition, ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or incumbent Defense Minister Ehud Barak who doubles as chairman of the left-of-center Labor party which belongs to his catch-all coalition.
  
Israel's clandestine operation had a flip side, however,  Although they did not elaborate about its impact on the ground, Syrian officials vowed revenge.  The tense situation along the tenuous cease fire line in the Golan Heights nearly boiled over.  A Syrian jet that disappeared from Israeli radar screens made air force pilots on this side scramble.  This kind of nervousness was repeated when another Syrian jet seemed to be veering into Israeli air space.  Local media pundits began to speculate about an imminent terrorist extravaganza of the type carried out in neighboring Lebanon by Syrian or pro-Syrian agents. 
 
Russia sounded angry diplomatic noises about references to its missiles having been stored at the targeted installation.  Olmert found it necessary to tout Syrian President B'shar Assad, whose international standing had been crimped by the alleged incursion, as an admirable person with whom he would be pleased to negotiate -- what hypocrisy!  And Olmert's popularity began to decline as a result.
  
Rumors began to fly locally about what actually happened as loose-tongued Israelis whose claim to fame or social ranking is based on their knowing it all let on that they were in on the secret.  The entire affair became a parody of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's dictum, "Those who have to know, know and those who don't have to know, don't know." Israel's well-briefed press corps became a pitiful lot, unable to report what their own country was doing in it own back yard and the foreign correspondents based here were no less frustrated.  All this could have been avoided if Israel's military spokesperson would have been allowed to issue a dignified rejoinder to the original Syrian disclosure -- words to the effect that Israeli warplanes carried out a mission that entailed entry into Syrian air space and upon its completion returned safely to base.
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