Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has sent messages to Syrian President Bashar Assad in recent weeks in an attempt to convince him that Israel is seriously intent on renewing the negotiations between the two countries. There has, however, been no specific response to these messages.
Ben-Eliezer has asked Jordan's King Abdullah, among others, to use his good offices to convince the Syrian president of the sincerity of the messages. The defense minister has spoken in a similar vein with the Turkish government and military leaders as well.
According to sources in Jordan who are in touch with the defense minister and his bureau, Assad's silence can be linked to the negative influence of the Syrian regime's old guard, headed by Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass. Another cardinal reason for the lack of response, government analysts say, is that the Arab states attach importance mainly to the positions of the Israeli prime minister and give little weight to those of others, including senior ministers and opposition leaders. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has never come out in favor of the readiness expressed in Ben-Eliezer's messages to withdraw to the pre-June 1967 lines.
The Jordanians are appreciative of the channels of communication established by Ben-Eliezer with the monarch and with the Jordanian chief of staff: Only last week, the defense minister was asked once again to bear in mind the sensitivity of the Hashemite kingdom to the unrest of the Palestinian population on both sides of the river.
One of Ben-Eliezer's considerations in his efforts to convince Syria to return to the negotiating table is the ability of Hezbollah to hit at Israel's civilian heartland in the event that terrorist attacks in the north and Israeli reprisals build up to a fullscale escalation. The head of the IDF's Northern Command has warned that Hezbollah attacks could resume shortly and the defense minister has information that Hezbollah has stockpiled more than 8,000 Katyushas that could hit the Galilee region.
The range of ground-to-ground Fajr rockets has recently been said to include Zichron Yaakov if they are fired from positions in southern Lebanon, near the western Galilee. A more updated assessment says they could hit targets even further south, including Netanya.
Ben-Eliezer believes an agreement with Syria would have the added benefits of relieving the pressure in the confrontation with the Palestinians and the future threat of Iran as a nuclear power. He is concerned about Iran's potential ability to achieve - by the year 2005, in his opinion - the ability to fire accurate missiles, with nuclear warheads, to hit Israeli targets. Israel, he believes, must act to thwart hostile states from arming themselves with nuclear weapons.
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