Tough Israeli Line on Syria Sparks War of Words

A military conflict appears unlikely despite the cooling of peace diplomacy. Syria wants Israel to return to its pre-election stance.

Judging just by the angry rhetoric, the next Middle East war - this time between Syria and Israel - could begin at any time.

With hopes for peace talks on hold after the May election in Israel of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, these two foes - which only months ago appeared on the verge of peace - are raising tensions with threats and bluster. Diplomatic sources and most analysts agree, however, that the saber rattling is just that: a din designed to keep pressure on an enemy.

Still, after five years of on-and-off peace talks between Syria and Israel, the hard words have surprised many. Both sides have made clear that they are ready to retaliate forcefully, if attacked.

"We haven't heard this language for a long time," says a Syrian analyst. "Even when the Israelis attacked Lebanon during 'grapes of wrath' last spring, there was no talk of war."

Such games of rhetorical brinkmanship are common to the Middle East, but they have burst before into conflict.

Zeev Maoz, the head of Israel's best-known think tank, the Tel Aviv-based Jaffee Center, has said that the reversal of Israel's Syria policy indicates that it could happen again: "The main meaning of this diplomatic about-face on the Syrian track is a considerable increase in the probability of war with Syria," he said. If Netanyahu continues this policy, he "must prepare the Israeli Army and Israeli citizens for war in the not-too-distant future," he said.

Priorities no longer match

But the blunt talk belies the true positions of each side, diplomats say. Syria says it is willing to resume peace talks exactly where they broke off with the previous government when the strategic Golan Heights, taken by Israel in 1967, was to be exchanged for peace.

Israel says it also wants to talk - but with different priorities. It would first deal with southern Lebanon, where it occupies a "security zone" and where Hizbullah guerrillas regularly attack Israeli soldiers. And Israel would rather deal with the Golan later. But Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, whose 35,000 troops in Lebanon make Syria the power-broker on any pact, has rejected this idea.

In an attempt to calm the situation, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy this week asked the US ambassador to Israel to pass on to Syria that Israel was still committed to US-sponsored peace process.

But recent signals are discouraging:

*During a visit this week to the Israeli-occupied "security zone" of southern Lebanon, Mr. Netanyahu warned that Syria would pay a high price for any military confrontation.

Just days before, he ordered the Israeli Army to be more aggressive with Hizbullah and called for increased raids and preemptive strikes. He also asked the Army to draw up plans for massive Israeli retaliation if Hizbullah attacked Israel with rockets.

*Syria's official Al-Baath newspaper responded in kind: "Israel ... has retracted from all its peace process commitments and guarantees and returned to its traditional course of escalating tension ... and beating the drums of war...," it said. "There is no doubt that Israel, after killing the peace process, will try to set off new wars in the region..."

*Adding to the fusillade, the Israeli military said Syria had tested a Scud-C missile, calling it a "threat" to most strategic sites in Israel. And Army chief Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak blamed Syria for allowing Hizbullah to stockpile 1,000 Katyusha rockets.

*In a diplomatic counteroffensive that puts another Syrian chip on the bargaining table, Syrian Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Zou'bi this week visited Iran, which rejects the peace process and is the subject of a new US "antiterrorism" sanctions law.

This visit was reportedly put off several times by the Syrians, who hoped that there might first be some progress toward peace with Israel. Iran's ambassador to Syria said that Damascus and Tehran "will cooperate to oppose the sanctions and take a strategic stance against Zionism and American imperialism."

Peace may have to wait

These signals indicate the optimism about peace, which peaked in Syria during President Clinton's October 1994 visit to Damascus, has all but evaporated.

Now, one diplomatic source said, Israel makes "public statements which everyday contradict each other." The result is that President Assad will wait.

"The motif is patience, or as the Syrians say: 'steadfastness,' " the diplomatic source said. "They have decided peace with Israel is desirable, but not essential for Syria."

There is great anxiety in Israel that Syria is capable of launching an attack against Israeli forces, though analysts here say that would be "suicide." The Israeli concern has been bolstered by fresh reports from defense experts that Syria's large inventory of dated combat aircraft and missiles could launch a lethal first-strike against Israel's far-more modern forces.

"Syria is striving to create a credible deterrent from an Israeli first-strike," said the diplomatic source. "These people are not going to initiate a war. They know where it leads." Still, in Damascus there seems little question about who is behind for the escalation.

"It's the Israelis who've changed, not the Arabs," said one intellectual who asked not to be named. "The radicals in this case are the people who are changing the entire equation: the Israelis, not us."

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