- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2007

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert huddled with Cabinet ministers yesterday to discuss Syria and Lebanon amid heightened speculation that Israel may be at a crossroads between war and renewed peace talks with Damascus.

While Syrian President Bashar Assad has dangled the possibility of renewed peace negotiations in recent months, Israeli intelligence officials have been monitoring what is viewed as disturbing signs of a coming conflict — new Russian-made military hardware in Syria and a bolstering of Syrian forces near the Golan Heights.

Worried about a loss of deterrence after last summer’s botched war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, some Israeli analysts have suggested that Syria may be preparing an attack to recover the strategic Golan Heights plateau captured by Israel 40 years ago this week.

Others fear that Iran, under the threat of a U.S. military strike, may try to provoke a war between Syria and Israel to open a second front. Israeli intelligence officials think Iran is paying for Syria’s new military hardware.

“It’s clear that there’s a concrete danger of war up north in the next one to two years,” said Ran Cohen, a parliament member from the dovish Meretz party who says Israel should open peace talks to reduce the possibility of war.

“The last war in Lebanon opened a big wound between Israel, Syria and Lebanon. And it hasn’t healed,” Mr. Cohen said.

Speculation about war escalated this week as the Israeli army televised a military dress rehearsal for a battle with Syria.

Interspersed with footage of helicopters firing missiles into simulated Syrian villages, Israel’s military chief of staff, Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said on Tuesday that the army was preparing for an escalation of tensions along the northern board.

“If you’re not fighting a war, you prepare for war,” he said.

The comments by security officials regarding heightened chances for war spurred warnings that the statements could become self-fulfilling prophecies.

At the conclusion of yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, Mr. Olmert said Israel was trying to defuse the tension by conveying calming messages to Syria through third parties.

The prime minister also said that Israel is ready to sit down to peace talks with Syria at any time without preconditions.

Israel does not want war with Syria,” Mr. Olmert said. “We must avoid miscalculations that are liable to lead to a security deterioration.”

Israel’s government has balked in the past at Mr. Assad’s entreaties to peace talks, even though many in Israel’s security establishment back negotiations.

“It sounds as if the obvious thing for Israel to do would be to negotiate with Syria,” said Dan Schueftan, a political science professor at Haifa University. “But when you look at it closely, the very fact you’re willing to negotiate with them requires serious risks. I don’t believe that you negotiate with radicals, you break them.”

Israel’s Channel 2 television news reported that despite the upgraded Syrian preparedness, Israeli military intelligence chiefs don’t think that Mr. Assad wants to initiate a war in the short term.

Three successive Israeli governments in the 1990s negotiated peace with Syria, hoping to reach an accord that would be infinitely more simple than a treaty with the Palestinians.

At the time, it was assumed that Syria wouldn’t dare challenge Israel’s military superiority by pushing war. But after Hezbollah succeeded in lobbing dozens of rockets into Israel from southern Lebanon last summer, Israel seemed vulnerable.

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