Until Jan. 30, I was working on a story about reaction here in Israel to the Obama administration’s decision to provide advanced F-16 aircraft to Egypt. All that changed early Wednesday when I received a call from an Israeli friend who told me: “Last night, the [Israeli air force] carried out a raid on a weapons convoy in Syria.” He said the trucks were en route to Lebanon, making a “delivery of arms to Hezbollah,” and “all aircraft returned safely.” He then added, “Let’s see how long it takes for us to be condemned by the friends of terrorists for protecting ourselves.”
Less than two hours after that call, Syria's government-controlled media announced that “Israeli warplanes have violated international law and attacked a scientific research center in the Jamraya district of Damascus province.” The Assad regime’s state television claimed that “two innocent civilians were killed, and five were injured” in this “breach of Syrian sovereignty.” European and U.S. news agencies speculated that the target may have been chemical weapons being moved out of the grasp of rebels fighting Bashar Assad's Iranian-supported army.
In fairness to my media colleagues, straight answers to such questions are hard to come by. The Syrians routinely lie about anything. They blame “Zionist aggressors” and “occupiers” — meaning Israel — for everything. Moreover, unlike the leak-prone, chest-thumping O-Team in Washington, the government of Israel rarely confirms or denies reports of military operations outside the Jewish state’s borders.
“No comment” has become standard operating procedure for the Israeli government. In 2007, after reports surfaced in Western and Mideast media about an Israeli air force attack on a Syrian nuclear reactor, Israeli officials simply refused to talk about the event. In October, Sudan’s radical Islamist government protested an “Israeli air attack” that destroyed an Iranian-operated weapons depot in Khartoum. When asked about the validity of the claim, a spokesman for the Netanyahu government said, “We’re not going to talk about whether that happened or not.” They didn’t.
Though it’s tough to get official comments about specific actions Israel may take or has taken, there is no doubt that civilians and government officials here are increasingly concerned about the turmoil on their borders. On Tuesday, at an international space conference and just hours before the “event” in Syria, Gen. Amir Eshel, chief of staff of the Israeli air force, said Syria is an example of “the weakening governance in neighboring countries that heralds greater exposure to hostile activity.” He continued: “We work every day in order to lessen the immediate threats and to create better conditions so that we will be victorious in future wars. This is a struggle in which the air force is a central player, from here to thousands of kilometers away.”
To most of us, that sounds like a straightforward message to the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Egypt, radical Islamists in Lebanon, Syria, Sudan and Gaza, and the ayatollahs in Tehran. That doesn’t mean any of them are necessarily paying attention, though. On Wednesday, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, Syria’s ambassador in Lebanon, announced that the Zionist aggression gives Syria “the option and the capacity to surprise in retaliation.” Iranian state TV is threatening that the Israeli attack would have “serious consequences for Tel Aviv.” The 22-member Arab League, headquartered in Cairo, also issued a statement condemning “the cruel aggression in the invasion of Syrian air space.”
My calls to Israeli friends — in and out of government — shed little new light on what really happened in Syria this week. One, a now retired confidant to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chuckled when I asked him whether the Israeli air force target was a shipment of Russian-made man-portable surface-to-air missiles. His reply: “Oliver, I’m not going to answer that. But if you really need something, you may quote me as a former Israeli government official: ‘The Obama administration is committed to gun control. We are, too. Denying our sworn enemies a chance to use their weapons against us is our gun control policy.’ “
Unwilling to give up, I finally got Mark Regev, Mr. Netanyahu’s spokesman, to go on the record. I asked him about the reported air attack inside Syria, the sale of U.S. F-16s to Egypt and rumors of an “accident” at Iran’s Fordow underground nuclear facility. His responses have to be the most creative ways of saying “no comment” that I ever have heard.
Here’s the bottom line: Unlike the Obama administration’s self-congratulatory leaks, Israeli government officials aren’t about to risk operational security for future military or covert action by talking about recent events. Nor are they willing to jeopardize U.S. aid and cooperation by raising the ire of the Obama White House. One of my friends put it this way: “Our enemies are your enemies. The jihadists will come for us first because we’re closer. But they will also come for you again. Let us pray they do not come with nuclear weapons. But no matter what, America can count on Israel. I hope we can count on America.”
We all should have that hope.
Oliver North is host of “War Stories” on the Fox News Channel and author of the new novel “Heroes Proved” (Threshold Editions, 2012).
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