- The Washington Times - Friday, July 27, 2001

JERUSALEM — An Israeli army decision to set up contact offices in nine cities throughout the world for reservists living or traveling abroad is the most concrete indication yet that Israel is preparing for a wider conflict in the Middle East.
Military officials denied it was a sign that war was imminent but this week confirmed that Israel had established bureaus in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Johannesburg, Bombay, Bangkok and Frankfurt, Germany — cities where Israeli immigrants or tourists number in the thousands.
Envoys working at the offices will help Israeli reservists to return home in the event of a war, the officials said.
Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz said the measure would ensure that Israel is ready for any escalation in the fighting against Palestinians, which has gone on for nearly 10 months.
"The recruitment offices shouldn't be taken as a signal that war is coming," said Col. Rafowicz, who serves as the army's foreign press spokesman.
"This conflict has been going on for a long time, and there's always a chance for deterioration, so this is part of the readiness. But we're not defining this as marking a change or something in the current situation," he said.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has come under increasing pressure from hard-liners in his government and from Jewish settlers to mount a large-scale offensive in the West Bank and Gaza that would force the collapse of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's self-rule administration.
Officials have said Israel was poised to overrun the Palestinian Authority last month after a suicide bomber killed 21 Israelis at the entrance to a Tel Aviv nightclub. The offensive was aborted when Mr. Arafat announced he accepted a cease-fire, but the truce never materialized.
Many Israelis believe the next substantial Palestinian strike will prompt an Israeli onslaught.
"One large-scale attack in Israel or on the border can produce a strategic situation," said a top Israeli army officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It's a very precarious situation."
Soldiers in Israel's standing army — most Israeli men are drafted at age 18 for three years of service — have handled the bulk of combat duties in the West Bank and Gaza since the fighting erupted in September.
Reservists are called up for about a month of service every year, but the last time Israel mobilized its entire reserve force — estimated to number around 500,000 — was during the 1973 Middle East war.
Analysts say Israel is able to wage a wide-scale war against the Palestinians without marshaling its reservist force. Israel invaded Lebanon 19 years ago with its standing army alone.
But the army might be concerned that countries like Syria and Iraq, which fought Israel in previous campaigns and are still officially at war with the Jewish state, would join the fighting.
"I think there would be concern that the fighting would spread to other borders," said political scientist Ephraim Inbar of Israel's Bar-Ilan university.
"Israel might need to mobilize the reserves just in case," he said. Mr. Inbar said at least 18,000 reservists at any one time are in India alone, where Israeli backpackers flock after their army service.
Several American attempts to broker a cease-fire, including intensive mediation last month by CIA chief George Tenet, have come up short. Each Palestinian bombing or Israeli assault triggers a new round of vengeance attacks.
Last week, in yet another deterioration in the West Bank and Gaza, gunmen suspected of being Jewish settlers shot dead three Palestinians, including a 3-month-old baby.
"We don't see the light at the end of the tunnel," said the military officer. "In fact, many people don't see a tunnel at all anymore."
Palestinians had no immediate reaction to the Israeli move, but Mr. Arafat, commenting on other Israeli measures, called on the international community to censure the Jewish state.
Nearly 600 people have been killed in fighting that erupted in September — 128 of them Israelis and the rest Palestinian.

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