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In the last few weeks, Israel has been at pains to cool tensions with Syria and prevent misunderstandings that could spiral into confrontation on its northern border.

A huge central command training exercise, "Firestones 12", which took place in the north last week, conspicuously omitted simulations of war with Syria. Instead, the IDF fought mock battles in preparation for clashes with Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The army also cancelled emergency call-up drills for large numbers of regular forces and reserves, fearing Syria might mistake such a move as mobilization for war. At the same time, the government exploited both public and covert channels to send soothing messages to Damascus.

Recent weeks have seen increasingly frequent references by senior figures in Iran, Syria and Hezbollah of the prospect of war with Israel, which they accuse of planning a confrontation.

Last week the Syrian and Iranian presidents held talks with the heads of Hamas and Hezbollah in Damascus, where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed in a speech that the "Zionist regime" was approaching its demise.

Israel's effort to avert another escalation in the north, closely coordinated with the United States, is twofold, combining both assuagement and deterrence. The government is placating Syria with the message that it has no interest in war; but it also making threatening noises about the need to prevent arms smuggling to Hezbollah.

A senior IDF intelligence officer told the Knesset this week that Syria had supplied Hezbollah with "components" more significantly sophisticated than in the past. And the Lebanese newspaper Al-Hayat reported that that U.S. Secretary of state Hilary Clinton had warned Nabih Beri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, that the U.S. might be hard pushed to restrain Israel from an excessive response if the flow of arms to Hezbollah continued.

Participants in last week's exercises returned encouraged by IDF commanders' professionalism - but depressed by the underlying reality. If war returns to the north, Israel may struggle to find a winning formula. Certainly, the air force could easily rain destruction on Lebanon and its infrastructure ? but there is no way of cutting drastically Hezbollah's ability to bombard northern Israel with Katyusha rockets at, or launch even heavier ordnance at Tel Aviv.

In a report this week for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, David Schenker and Matthew Levitt write that it has Syria likely supplied Hezbollah with Russian shoulder-launched Igla antiaircraft missiles, which, they say, could threaten Israeli F-16 fighter planes over Lebanon.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said last week at a Washington Institute memorial lecture for Haaretz correspondent Ze'ev Schiff that Hezbollah has around 45,000 missiles and rockets in Lebanon. This is considerably higher than Israel's previous estimates.

"We cannot accept these artificial differentiations between the terrorists of Hezbollah and the state of Lebanon and their sponsors," Barak said.

He continued: "We don?t need this conflict but if it is imposed upon us, we will not run after every individual terrorist but we will take both the Lebanese government and other sources of sponsorship, but mainly the Lebanese government and the Lebanese infrastructure, as part of the equation facing us."

Growing divisions over Iran

Meanwhile, there are signs of a deepening split in the senior ranks of the security forces over Israel's strategy for dealing with Iran. Barak has personal differences with Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi - but they are also divided over strategy.

Tensions between the defense minister and his commander flared when their advisers clashed publicly a few weeks ago and have not since returned to normal. Secretive and provocative briefings from a range of sources are feeding the worsening feud. Friends of Ashkenazi, including former generals, claim the army chief is victim to serial and carefully directed harassment from Barak's staff. The defense minister's team continues to ridicule the charges and insists relations are fine, with regular joint meetings are taking take place as usual.

Ashkenazi, says one of his confidants, knows that history will not forgive him if he is seen as failing to prepare the IDF adequately for an offensive war. On the other hand, he is aware of the limitations of Israel's forces. Is he capable of supplying a clear plan of action? Detractors are infuriated by his habit of presenting decision makers with a menu of options, without committing himself to any of them.

In his visit to Israel last week, U.S. Senator John Kerry finally drew the veil fromm a series of mysterious trips to Israel by senior American officials when he hinted that their purpose was to urge Israel to shelve any plans to attack Iran - at least for now. The Americans, of course, need to wave the Israeli stick if they are to convince a doubting China to back sanctions - but they are genuinely worried Israel might act rashly. Israel, from the outset skeptical over President Barack Obama's attempt to engage the Ayatollahs, has begun (quietly) to voice mistrust in the efficacy of sanctions, now set to come into force in April at the earliest.

The Obama administration erred in playing down the military option while it tried to negotiate with Iran, which has been allowed to stall repeatedly. When finally in October the IAEA put forward a compromise, under which Iran would send uranium aboard for enrichment, it was the Iranians who wriggled out of the deal. It seems the decision was taken by the regime's spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, who doubted the America's sincerity. As a result, the main outcome of U.S. strategy so far is that Iran has bought itself another year and a half of breathing space, during which its centrifuges never stopped spinning.

Posted by Amos Harel on March 5, 2010

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