News Analysis: Israel Warily Eyeing Syria As Tensions Rise and Abate

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had some sober words for Syria this week.

“Nobody should be under any illusions that they can surprise us in any way,” he told reporters on the deck of a navy missile boat.

“We see and we know everything that’s going on. We are taking all the necessary measures to defend ourselves. Our intentions are purely defensive. We have the ability to respond to any development.”

Speaking on Sunday, the eve of extensive Syrian military exercises on the Golan Heights, Netanyahu apparently wanted to signal Damascus that Israel is watchful and wary.

The message came amid a flurry of rumors that Syria was preparing to attack Israel. Tensions exacerbated with reports — later denied by Israel — that Jerusalem had approved exploratory oil drills on the Golan.

Israel, including its military and intelligence establishments, has been surprised at the speed with which relations with Syria have degenerated into dangerous military tension in the months since the Netanyahu government came to power.

The tension has generated much speculation as to whether Syria might be considering military action to force the stalled political process forward.

In recent days, after a series of ominous Syrian troop movements in Lebanon and on the Golan, and after a no less ominous escalation of hostile rhetoric between the two counties, Netanyahu and Assad are both exercising caution.

They are aware that the situation between their countries is much closer to armed conflagration than it has been for many years.

Netanyahu, for his part, has stopped publicly branding Syria a terrorist state and criticizing the Syrian style of autocratic government.

Moreover, while not changing the substance of his position on the Golan Heights, the Israeli leader has signaled that he wants to resume the long- stalled peace negotiations with Damascus without laying down at the outset his previously stated flat refusal to withdraw from the Golan.

Netanyahu pointedly described as “positive” a diplomatic message from Assad that was transmitted by French President Jacques Chirac, who visited Jerusalem last week after meeting with Assad in Damascus.

Media reports say Netanyahu has indicated that he is ready to “take into account” the progress made in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations during the previous Labor government.

That progress came in the form of oral, rather than written, understandings before the talks were broken off in March after Assad refused to condemn a series of Hamas terror attacks launched in Israel.

For his part, Assad has been signaling — through Chirac, through Edward Djerejian, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, and through other international figures — that his military maneuvers are not intended as a prelude to hostilities, and that he, too, wants the talks to resume.

Nevertheless, Syrian government circles and the Damascus media continue to warn that in the absence of negotiations, the situation could — and, indeed, is likely — to deteriorate quickly into a military confrontation.

A clear indicator of the extent to which things have changed came last week when the Israel Defense Force general staff pressed the prime minister for increased military spending.

The general staff said it asked for more than $1 billion in increased preparedness expenditures because war could no longer be put in the category “of low likelihood.”

Israeli experts say the change in the overall climate comes from Syrian President Hafez Assad’s realization that the current Israeli government, unlike its Labor-led predecessor, does not endorse the land-for-peace formula that underlay the drawn-out negotiations between the two countries during the previous four years.

Itamar Rabinovitch, the recently retired Israeli ambassador to Washington and head of the Israeli delegation to those talks for much of that period, says Assad made a major blunder in failing to heed warnings that the Rabin-Peres government might fall.

It is now clear, from Israeli and Syrian sources, that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had indicated to President Clinton back in 1993 that if Syria were to offer full peace, Israel might be prepared to countenance a full withdrawal from the Golan.

Rabin later said much the same thing publicly when he suggested that the extent of the Golan withdrawal would be proportional to the extent of the peace forged with Syria.

Israeli negotiators were apparently careful, though, to couch their equation in hypothetical terms.

Assad now insists that the talks, when and if they resume, begin from the point at which they broke off — with the hypothetical equation of the Golan in exchange for peace.

But Netanyahu, unencumbered by any binding written commitment signed by his predecessors, proposes a resumption “without preconditions” advanced by either side.

Israeli military analysts, assessing Syrian military thinking, say Damascus may be tempted to try launching a limited assault, perhaps on a defined swath of Golan territory.

They say Syria may do this with the specific intention of involving the United States and the international community in immediately ending the fighting and getting negotiations restarted.

The logic would be similar to that which served Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat back in 1973, when, with Assad, he launched the Yom Kippur War.

That war was launched with limited strategic aims and was intended as a means to jolt the dormant diplomatic process into frenetic action.

Then, of course, the two Arab allies were aided by the element of total surprise.

This time, as the prime minister stressed, Israel, permanently traumatized by the 1973 experience, would not be caught napping.

Nevertheless, according to experts, Syria could still achieve a measure of tactical surprise, enabling perhaps the capture of a small area of land and the infliction of significant numbers of Israeli casualties.

Syria, it is believed, is prepared to sustain much larger casualties, believing — rightly — that Israel is much more “casualty-sensitive.”

There is also concern about Syria’s known missile capacity. Haifa and its heavily populated industrial hinterland are within easy range of Syria’s store of missiles that were supplied over the years by Soviet, Iranian and North Korean sources.

Even if, as is presumed, the Syrians confine themselves to conventional warheads — for fear of triggering an overwhelming Israeli response to any non- conventional strike — damage and casualties could be extensive.

For now, however, the caution being exercised by both sides appeared to be containing the tense situation, informed sources say.

While Israel will be watching closely, the threat of danger appears to have passed — for now.

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