It was not the result of a breakdown of communication or misunderstanding of intentions. In fact hostilities were expected for so long that in 1901 an observer of European affairs wrote: "../...trade relations../..., which by making [Europeans] cut-throat rivals../..., have brought you within reasonable distance of a general war of extermination."
By the end of 1913, the French envoy to Austria observed, "The feeling that the nations are moving towards a conflict urged by an irresistible force grows from day to day." Judging by the German plans for territorial and political expansion and the Austrian aim of crushing Serbia, it is inconceivable that war could have been prevented merely by governments reassuring each other, as some have suggested.
War could have been deterred, however.
The key powers were Germany and Great Britain. Without German support, Austria-Hungary would not have gone to war. Germany, to the very end, tried to dislodge Great Britain from the Triple Entente, knowing that Britain's entry into a war could cause Germany's defeat.
Therefore, had Britain prepared long before the war the sizable army it was forced to conscript during the conflict and had the government made it quite plain that it was prepared to support France with this land force, it is highly questionable that Germany would have entered a war to further Austrian ambitions.
Instead it did neither of these, committing the mistakes with regard to deterrence that it would repeat prior to World War II. Deterrence depends on capability - superior military force - and credibility, a perceived willingness to use it. An aggressor must be convinced that he will be denied success on the battlefield, and that the cost of an attempt will be devastating.
Yet there are those who counsel a minimum of preparedness for Israel. Such members of the "peace" camp seem to consider Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt no longer a threat to Israel's existence, now or in the future. They discount what is obvious: the Arab attempt, led by Egypt and Syria, to degrade components of Israel's deterrence, including land and armaments. Convinced that a peace treaty is adequate replacement for strategic territory, they reject anything they view as an impediment to that single goal.
Therefore negotiating with Syria while it supported terrorists and employed the Hizbullah to bleed Israel was acceptable. A promise to deliver all of the Golan Heights was acceptable. Thus the Rabin and Peres governments were acceptable. What is not acceptable to the "peace" camp is a government that refuses to relinquish Israel's only strategic territory, or that calls an aggressor by the proper name.
How do you not label as wicked a mass murderer and torturer of his own people, an instigator and supporter of terrorism, a participant in drug trafficking, a vicious occupier of a sovereign country, a threat to regional peace and a would-be destroyer of Israel?
Yet one member of the "peace" camp cautions that demonizing Syria (which means Hafez Assad), sounding the alarm about Syrian arms acquisition, production and testing, noting potentially dangerous troop movements and suggesting the containment of Syria could be misconstrued by Syria as hostile actions, producing a spiral of threat. The misreading of intentions could produce a war.
The preventive he proposes is to stop describing reality and instead reassure Syria by resuming negotiations, agreeing beforehand to give up the Golan. While it is imperative to keep communications open with an enemy, eschew inflammatory rhetoric and strive to prevent misunderstanding, these are no more potential causes of a major war than they were in the period preceding World War I.
Syria's strategic aim is the creation of Greater Syria, which means the liquidation of Israel and Jordan. Therefore the danger of a war erupting arises not from a mistaken Syrian belief that Israel is about to take offensive action. War will come when the goal of decisively defeating Israel is made plausible by the perception of an irresolute, disunited Israel, lacking the will and/or the capability to act militarily.
Israel can learn from Britain's mistakes prior to two world wars.
In order to deter a war, Israel must possess overwhelming military superiority. It is, moreover, crucial to make it unmistakably clear to Syria - quietly, through diplomatic channels - that Israel is willing to react with massive destructive force should the Syrians choose to initiate war, exacting from them a price they are in no way prepared to pay.
The preservation of the current state of nonaggression depends on the certainty in Syrian minds of Israel's intentions and capability.
Bernard Smith is a member of the board of directors of the Jerusalem Institute For Western Defense.