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Tensions Between Israel, Syria Rise Amid Warnings of Conflict

August 21, 1996
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Weeks after Syria and Lebanon rejected a proposal from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for withdrawing Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, increasingly ominous warnings are emanating from Jerusalem and Syria.

The increase in saber-rattling on both sides has led several observers here, including the head of one of Israel’s leading think tanks, to question whether an Israeli-Syrian military clash can be far off.

The questioning intensified Monday, when reports surfaced in the Israeli press that Damascus had recently test-launched Scud C ground-to-ground missiles.

With a range of more than 300 miles, the missiles are capable of striking targets anywhere in Israel.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu declared that the missiles did not in any way pose a new threat to Israel.

“There is no basic change in the strategic capabilities of Syria,” Netanyahu told reporters after he took part in a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

“Syria has been arming itself for quite some time. What it’s doing now is moving from purchasing to manufacturing.”

Syria had obtained the Scuds, and a factory for manufacturing them, from North Korea, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

On Tuesday, in a move that appeared to be far from coincidental, Israel successfully test-launched a weapons system designed to destroy incoming Scuds: the Arrow 2 anti-missile missile.

It was the third test of the system being jointly developed by Israel and the United States, and the first in which the Arrow struck a target missile.

Meanwhile, Israel’s defense and foreign ministers stressed that Israel remains committed to peace negotiations with Damascus, even though Syria appeared to be signaling otherwise.

“If Syria wants peace, the tone and style is not with missiles or weapons like that,” Foreign Minister David Levy said of the Scud tests.

He added that the Jewish state’s “strategy is to reach peace. It has passed messages in that direction. We expect that Syria will prove its intention for peace by answering the Israeli message and we will be able to sit and talk peace.”

Meanwhile, the official Syrian press Tuesday accused Israel of “beating the drums of war” and of “escalating tension and waving flagrant threats against Lebanon and Syria.”

The sharp words came a day after Netanyahu toured southern Lebanon and warned of a possible escalation of hostilities on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

“We have proposed to Syria, Lebanon and Hezbollah to resolve this conflict,” Netanyahu told reporters.

“If we don’t, it will no doubt lead to an escalation which will be painful for the other side.”

Netanyahu’s statement echoed similar warnings issued by Israeli officials during the past week of the harsh Israeli retaliation that would come if Hezbollah launched attacks on northern Israel.

The warnings came after the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week that Hezbollah might have obtained longer-range Katyusha rockets.

Earlier this month, Syria and Lebanon flatly rejected Netanyahu’s “Lebanon First” proposal, which called for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon in exchange for the disbanding of Hezbollah militias there.

Syrian President Hafez Assad viewed the proposal as an attempt by Netanyahu to avoid the central issue: an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a full peace with Syria and Lebanon.

Netanyahu was quoted Tuesday as telling the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Syria was using Hezbollah as a proxy to fight a war with Israel in southern Lebanon.

The head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Ze’ev Maoz, said this week that Netanyahu’s positions regarding the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track had increased the probability of war breaking out between Israel and Syria.

“The current position of Israel represents a complete withdrawal to before” the 1991 Madrid peace talks, Maoz told Israel Radio.

Maoz said Assad had come to believe that the Netanyahu government had abandoned the land-for-peace principle with regard to the Golan.

As a result, Maoz said, Assad would try to force a political solution through armed conflict.

Writing in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz this week, Maoz said that even if Syrian military capabilities were lower than Israel’s, Assad could try to break the stalemated negotiations through a limited war.

“If the political deadlock continues for a long time, and Syria reaches the conclusion that there is no solution in the political option, it may reconsider the military option as a viable one,” he wrote.

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