Israel braced for war with Syria : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

December 17 2000 MIDDLE EAST

Israel braced for war with Syria Uzi Mahnaimi, Tel Aviv THE Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, faces a gruelling two months. While desperately trying to secure a deal with the Palestinians, which he believes is the only way to win forthcoming elections, he has been told by his generals to prepare for war if peace talks fail.

The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) fears the current conflict with the Palestinians could spread beyond Israel's borders to involve Syria. This would risk triggering a spiral of confrontation in the volatile region.

Military sources said Israel was taking the danger so seriously that it had sent a warning to Damascus earlier this month to try to head off a clash.

The message said Israel would go on the offensive against Syrian army positions in Lebanon if Hezbollah, the Syrian-backed Lebanese militia, launched attacks across the border. The army believes Hezbollah could decide to support the latest uprising that erupted nearly three months ago.

Anger has risen across the Arab world with the mounting death toll, which stood yesterday at 324. The vast majority of the dead are Palestinians.

In October, Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers, who are still being held. Earlier this month it ambushed an Israeli army patrol, killing one soldier and wounding another.

Alongside the warning to Damascus, the IDF has begun preparations for a "worst-case" outcome. Ten days ago, an armoured division received an emergency order that moved it to the Golan Heights, on the border with Syria, to reinforce troops based there.

Israel also placed its submarine flotilla on high alert. Military sources said three German-built submarines - the Tekuma, Dolphin and Leviathan -- had started a 21-day shift in the Persian Gulf. The submarines are believed to be equipped with nuclear warheads, but would only come into play in the event of an all-out regional war, which remains an unlikely prospect.

It is Hezbollah's co-operation with Syria in Lebanon that is causing the Israelis the gravest concern. Since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon last May, Hezbollah is thought to have doubled its military might.

The militia, which controls southern Lebanon, has acquired anti-tank missiles and long-range Katyusha rockets from Iran. Israel blames the Syrians for transporting Iranian weapons through Damascus airport.

Hezbollah has also built about 30 military posts on the Lebanese side of the border with Israel, creating a new frontline. There are about 1,000 fighters there, and a further 5,000 in other bases.

The Israeli army is still building an electronic fence, and needs to lay minefields. "Nobody in Israel wants to say this, but Hezbollah could walk into northern Israel tomorrow," said one military source.

Israeli intelligence has warned the army that the young President Bashar Assad, who has had close links with Hezbollah, is influenced by General Asef Shawqat and Bahajat Suleiman, the head of intelligence. Both men believe the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and the latest uprising are signs that Israel has grown weak.

The IDF is taking no chances. It is training to defend the Jordan Valley from the east, in the unlikely event that Iraqi tanks cross Jordan.

Barak's preoccupation in the run-up to elections, however, will be to try to resuscitate peace negotiations with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. If he secured an agreement with Arafat and calmed the violence, the threat of a wider war would disappear. It would also strengthen his chances of continuing as prime minister.

Without such a deal, polls show him running behind both of the two possible Likud candidates, the relatively hardline Ariel Sharon and Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the former prime minister.

Shlomo Ben Ami, Barak's acting foreign minister, talked late into the night last week with Arafat. Sources said they spoke of lifting Israel's blockade of the West Bank and Gaza to ease an economic crisis in the occupied territories. Barak is said to have abandoned his insistence that the intifada must end before he will resume talks.

The outline of the election should become clearer this week. Tomorrow the Knesset, Israel's parliament, votes on a so-called "Bibi" bill - a law that would allow Netanyahu to stand for prime minister even though he is not a member.

On Tuesday, Likud will meet to choose between Sharon and Netanyahu, who is far ahead in the polls. On Wednesday, the Knesset is expected to decide whether to call a general election. Netanyahu has said he will not run unless there are parliamentary as well as prime ministerial elections.

President Clinton and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat spoke by telephone yesterday about ways of restarting the Middle East peace preocess.

-- Martin Thompson (, December 16, 2000

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