Israel dismisses reports that it's headed for war with Syria

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres continued to try to defuse tensions between Israel and Syria Sunday. Speaking at the regular weekly meeting of the Israeli Cabinet, Mr. Peres said Israel had no intention of attacking Syria and no reason to believe that Syria was planning an attack. Peres had made a similar statement Friday, in the wake of press reports that an Israeli military assault on Syria was imminent.

Israeli military sources, who would not be quoted by name, also dismiss the possibility of war erupting anytime soon.

Western diplomatic sources in Tel Aviv say that in recent weeks the United States has ferried messages between Israel and Syria, seeking to cool down the situation. The danger, one diplomat says, lies in the possibility that the rhetorical war may get out of hand.

The US seemed to join in the verbal exchanges, however, when first President Reagan and then Vice-President George Bush warned that if Syria and Iran were found to be directly involved in terrorism, the two nations could be subject to the sort of military action the US unleashed on Libya last month.

One analyst here says he believes that Israel and the US are, in fact, increasing pressure on Syria in an effort to discourage the Syrians from mounting a concerted terrorist campaign against Western targets this summer.

In recent weeks, Israeli politicians have made a habit of issuing warnings to the Syrians, while at the same time repeating their belief that Syria is not yet prepared to go to war with Israel.

Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, visiting Washington last week, referred to Syria's alleged involvement in the April 17 attempted bombing of an Israeli El Al jet. Mr. Rabin said he did not know ``at what level Syria made the decision to plant a bomb in the El Al plane in London and what the decisionmaking echelon estimated would evolve if the tragic disaster did occur.'' He went on to warn Syria that what he alleges to be its support of terrorism ``increased the danger'' of a military clash with Israel.

Rumors of war between Syria and Israel gained credence last November, when Israel chased and shot down two Soviet-supplied Syrian fighter jets over Syria. Israel said the jets came too close to the Israeli planes as they flew a ``routine'' reconnaissance mission over the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Syria responded by temporarily deploying Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missiles in the Bekaa. The Israelis denounced the missile deployment as provocative.

There have been other provocations, Israel says. It points to Syria's alleged involvement in the April 17 attempted bombing of an Israeli El Al jet, and to what the Israelis consider Syrian incitement of Lebanese factions against Israel and its allies in the so-called ``security zone'' Israel patrols in southern Lebanon.

The Syrians have denied any involvement in the El Al bombing attempt. From a Syrian perspective, Israel is the provocateur in Lebanon -- aiding the anti-Syrian Christian factions that have wrecked Syria's efforts to end the 11-year-old Lebanese civil war. The Syrians have also accused Israel of being behind the spate of car bombings that killed more than 100 Syrians last month.

Any assessment of the chances for war between Syria and Israel must always be made with the sobering knowledge that the two nations are implacable foes, that they field the largest and best-equipped armies in the Middle East (see chart), and that Israel is holding territory -- the Golan Heights -- that belongs to Syria.

But both nations also are struggling with economic problems and a host of other internal problems that would make going to war difficult.

Syria-watchers in Israel also believe that cautious Syrian President Hafez Assad would be unlikely to go to war against Israel alone and is unable to find willing partners in the Arab world for even a limited action against Israel. Mr. Assad must also be uneasy about the Soviets' willingness to back him after Moscow's conspicuous failure to militarily back Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi before, during, or after the US bombing raid on Libya.

In an interview on Israel Army Radio last week, Lt. Gen. Moshe Levy, Israel's chief of staff, responded caustically when asked if relations between Israel and Syria had worsened recently.

``So a month or two ago . . . did the Syrians like us?'' the chief of staff asked. ``And [did they] want us to go on existing and agree to our being on the Golan Heights and like our being in Lebanon? They have never liked us, and they're always looking for a way to prevent our existence, so we are compelled to maintain our military force and its readiness.''

The same Israeli military analysts who say they believe Assad will eventually strike against Israel also note that for 12 years, the two Armies have confronted each other on the strategic Golan Heights, separated only by a thin band of UN forces. Yet there has never been a serious violation of the disengagement agreement negotiated by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1974.

``The Israelis respect Assad,'' says one political analyst. ``They hate him, and believe he is ruthless, but they also believe he is a smart and cautious man, a strong leader, and someone they can deal with.''

The war of words between the two states is seen here as part of the delicate and dangerous maneuvering that began almost as soon as the 1973 Arab-Israeli war ended. That war greatly shaped the way the two nations view each other today. It convinced the Israelis that they must avoid being surprised again, and the Syrians remember it as their moment of glory, when Syrian tanks broke through Israeli lines on the Golan Heights, exploding the myth of Israel's military invincibility.

Working through proxies in Lebanon or issuing threatening statements through the news media has allowed the Israelis and Syrians to challenge, infuriate, and even wound each other without the situation escalating into a full-scale war.

``There is always a danger, in such a situation, of miscalculations and misperceptions leading to things getting out of hand. It is a dangerous game,'' an Israeli military analyst says. ``But our policy remains the same: to prevent escalation and to avoid all-out war.''

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