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Israel Wary of Syrian Moves in Period Before Yom Kippur

September 17, 1996
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Israel says it is “carefully watching” Syrian troop movements in Lebanon and is sending diplomatic messages to Damascus in a bid to ease tensions between the two countries.

Coming in the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur, the Syrian troop movements have caused anxiety among Israelis who fear a repetition of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Israeli-Syrian tensions come as Arab states and the Palestinians are coordinating their policies against the Netanyahu government.

Arab foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo over the weekend, resolved that further normalization of ties with Israel must be contingent on progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Informed sources in Israel said some 10,000-12,000 Syrian forces have been redeployed from the Beirut area to positions close to the Lebanon-Syria border, where they are protected by a thick shield of ground-to-air missiles.

A senior Israeli military official said Israel Defense Force units on the Lebanese border had been put on alert.

Syrian sources have said the redeployment was intended to fend off a possible Israeli attack.

But Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said last week that the troop movements were, in any case, “none of Israel’s business. They concern only Syria and Lebanon.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel was sending a message to Damascus via American intermediaries that “our intentions are peaceable.”

The U.S. State Department’s special Middle East coordinator, Dennis Ross, was scheduled to visit the region this week in an effort to restart the Israeli- Syrian negotiations.

His mission comes days after Netanyahu confirmed that the late Yitzhak Rabin made an oral commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal with Syria.

Speaking at the Sept. 12 weekly Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu emphasized that the commitment had not been made in writing and did not bind his own government to abide by it.

Netanyahu’s comments came a day after it was disclosed in a new book that Rabin had made the commitment without the knowledge of his then-foreign minister, Shimon Peres.

The author, Orly Azulai-Katz, a political reporter for the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, claimed Rabin verbally committed Israel to withdraw from the Golan up to the pre-June 1967 border with Syria.

Azulai-Katz wrote that Peres learned of the commitment only after Rabin’s assassination, when President Clinton asked him whether he intended to abide by it.

In a Cabinet communique issued last week, Netanyahu was quoted as describing Rabin’s position as “hypothetical.”

“The position accepted by the U.S. administration today is that hypothetical statements made by the previous government do not bind the present government of Israel,” the communique added.

In Damascus last week, Sharaa issued a statement saying that it was not possible “to resume the talks without their being based on the principles and commitments achieved in the past.”

The Israeli-Syrian negotiations were suspended in March after Syria refused to condemn a series of Hamas suicide bombings in Israel.

As efforts continue to reconvene the talks, Syria is demanding that they resume from the point at which they broke off, apparently including the oral understandings reached during the Rabin-Peres years.

Meanwhile, the war of words between Israel and other Arab countries has been escalating.

The third-largest Egyptian newspaper, Al Goumhouriya, hit out hard at Netanyahu on Monday in the wake of the prime minister’s assertion last week in Washington that Egyptian threats to cancel a regional economic conference planned for November in Cairo would amount to cutting off its nose to spite its face.

The paper suggested that Netanyahu’s own nose be cut off — and his ears, too.

Egyptian officials have threatened to cancel the conference unless there is progress between Israel and the Palestinians.

On the ground, meanwhile, tensions mounted Monday in the West Bank town of Hebron, where Israeli security officials clashed with Palestinian demonstrators demanding that several shops near the city’s central market be returned to Palestinian ownership and reopened.

Last week, a group of Jewish settlers sought to take over these shops, claiming that they were originally Jewish property.

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