JERUSALEM (Mar. 31)
Premier Menachem Begin said today that Israel “certainly has no intention” to attack Syria, nor does he believe Syria intends to attack Israel. He made those comments to reporters in response to a warning carried by the official Soviet news agency, Tass, yesterday, claiming that Israel was preparing a “piratic strike” against Syria and assuring Damascus that it had the Communist bloc countries and the Arabs on its side.
Begin’s press spokesman, Uri Porat, said Israel should “neither treat the Soviet statement lightly nor be frightened by it.” He said Israeli analysts were studying the Tass statement but were frankly puzzled by its nature and timing.
Israel Radio reported today that the government sees the Soviet warning aimed at the U.S., although it was addressed to Israel. Porat denied that the report was inspired by the Prime Minister’s Office. The Tass statement alleged Israel-American collusion against Syria and warned that Syria was “not alone.”
Tass spoke of Israel’s “barbarous aggression” against Lebanon and claimed that Washington’s “unconditional support” for Israeli aggression was a prelude to U.S.-Israeli domination of the entire Middle East. (U.S. reaction, P. 2.)
SHARP TONE SHOULD BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY
Begin met with reporters briefly after conferring with Shimon Peres, chairman of the opposition Labor Party. They are believed to have discussed Peres’ recent meeting with President Nicolai Ceausescu of Rumania. Peres said afterwards that Israel was not planning any attack, but warned that the sharp tone of the Soviet statement should be taken seriously.
The Tass statement said Israel’s “criminal designs” against Syria must be foiled, but did not say Moscow would take any action if Israel did attack Syria. There have been reports in recent weeks that Israel might be contemplating a preemptive strike to knock out the Soviet-built SAM-5 anti-aircraft missiles deployed in Syria.
The SAM-5s have sufficient range to hit Israeli aircraft in Israel air space or off the Syrian coast. The fact that the missile launchers are manned by Soviet rather than Syrian technicians was seen as a deterrent to an Israeli attack.
Begin said today that the Tass warning was based on “a totally artificial foundation.” But it recalled to some Israelis the critical period of April-June, 1967 when similar Soviet allegations of an imminent Israeli attack on Syria were a key factor in raising tension in the area prior to the outbreak of the Six-Day War.
VERY CONCERNED BY SOVIET RHETORIC
Gideon Rafael, a senior diplomat at that time who was sent to Moscow to try to ward off Soviet provocations, said today that he was “very concerned” by the current escalation of Soviet rhetoric. He said the Russians had proved by the complicity with Syria and Egypt in the 1973 war that on occasion they would not object to an outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East if they thought it would serve their interests.
Rafael pointed out that Yuri Andropov, a new and still untested Soviet leader, might be seeking a peripheral showdown with the U.S. in an area where Soviet arms employed by Syria were decisively defeated by American-armed Israeli forces in Lebanon.
But Rafael and other analyists do not predict Soviet-provoked hostilities between Israel and Syria this spring, although they do not rule out the possibility. They contend that Moscow’s basic aim is to restore its position of power and influence in Middle East politics to match the influence of the U.S.
SIGNS OF INCREASED SOVIET ACTIVISM
The stepped-up Soviet rhetoric is consonant with that aim, Israeli analysts say. They noted several recent developments in the region pointing to increased Soviet activism.
These are an expanded Russian military presence in Syria; Soviet wooing of Egypt; the recent Syrian-Soviet joint statement denouncing President Reagan’s Middle East peace initiative; and energetic Soviet efforts to influence the Palestine Liberation Organization away from participation from enforcement of the American initiative.