Israel sends conciliatory messages to Damascus
Intelligence agencies: Chances of Syrian incursion aimed at capturing part of Golan Heights have decreased.
Israel has sent several messages to Damascus in recent weeks reiterating that it has no desire to attack Syria, in an effort to keep Syria from misreading Israel's intentions and therefore deciding to launch a war.
The messages have been sent via various foreign channels, a senior government source said. In addition, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made public statements to this effect.
But while doing its best to reassure Syria, the government also has been preparing intensively for the possibility that war might nevertheless break out: Wednesday, the ministerial committee on the northern front held its sixth meeting in the past two months.
As yet, there are no signs of progress that would enable a resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Nevertheless, a senior European diplomat said, "European officials who have given Olmert messages from Damascus regarding its desire to resume negotiations have received the impression that he is keeping an open mind."
"The situation on the northern border is fragile and sensitive, but the European Union believes there is no danger of war, since neither side wants to start a conflict," the diplomat added. Nevertheless, he said, "in the present atmosphere, it is important that there not be confusing messages."
The ministerial committee, which includes Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and ministers Eli Yishai, Avi Dichter, Shaul Mofaz, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Rafi Eitan and Avigdor Lieberman, is preparing for a possible conflict with either Syria or Hezbollah.
It has been discussing issues including intelligence reports on the deployment of the Syrian army and on Hezbollah's efforts to rebuild following last summer's war in Lebanon; intelligence reports on Syria's network of rockets and surface-to-surface missiles, which threaten Israel's home front; and the home front's preparations for a missile attack, including installing additional warning systems, renovating bomb shelters and assessing the ability of the nation's infrastructure to withstand a rocket attack.
The Prime Minister's Office stressed Wednesday that these meetings are being held solely to prepare for any eventuality; they do not indicate any Israeli intention of attacking Syria or any Syrian intention of attacking Israel. A senior government source explained that the Second Lebanon War revealed major gaps in Israel's home front defenses, "and that's the major issue we're trying to solve now."
Intelligence reports indicate that the Syrian army has embarked on its largest purchasing spree in years, and that army units have stepped up their activities and improved their preparedness, but that no units have shifted positions. "The Syrians also are doing their best to lower their profile, in order not to scare Israel," the government source said. "They are still convinced that we're the ones who will attack them."
The intelligence agencies believe that the chances of a limited Syrian incursion aimed at capturing a small part of the Golan Heights in order to force Israel into talks has decreased. The more likely scenario, they say, is terror attacks on the Golan, carried out by cells set up by Syria for this purpose; in such a scenario, Israel's response could potentially lead to an unwanted escalation, they say. Thus far, however, there is no evidence that any such terrorist cells exist.
Olmert also sent reassuring messages to Israelis Wednesday, telling activists from his Kadima Party that the situation in the north "is better than it has been for decades," and "I believe we will have a quiet summer, a quiet fall and a quiet winter."
"There has never been quiet like that of the past year," he told the activists, who had gathered in his home in Jerusalem. "The commanders of the international forces in southern Lebanon also say this."