Lieberman Urges Forming Emergency Unity Gov't to Face Iranian Threat

Strategic Threats Min. responds to report Assad agreed to halt peace process for $1B in Iranian military aid.

Minister of Strategic Threats Avigdor Lieberman on Saturday called for the establishment of an emergency national unity government in light of the strategic threat posed by the tightening ties between Syria and Iran.

The right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu patry head urged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the chairman of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu to form an alliance after the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Ashraq Al-Awsat reported Saturday that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had pledged to help Syria conduct nuclear research during a visit to Damascus earlier this week.

In exchange, Syria agreed not to engage in peace talks with Israel, the newspaper reported. According to the report, Iran also pledged to provide Syria with $1 billion in military aid to purchase arms from Russia and North Korea.

In response to this report, Lieberman said that the relations between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Ahmadinejad "require Israel to reevaluate the political and military preparation" and added that "the Iranian threat is situated outside any political discussion, and therefore I urge Prime Minister Olmert and opposition chair Netanyahu to consider forming an emergency national unity government."

The Likud party, Netanyahu, did not embrace Lieberman's call for an emergency unity government.

"The Likud's stance hasn't changed. We are working toward holding early elections," a party statement said.

However, it appears that Kadima, the party headed by Olmert, is ready to consider joining the opposition in a national unity government.

Chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima) said "the continued oppositional and adventurous policies of the 'axis of evil' states, requires strategic thinking among central Israeli powers." He added that there are similarities between Israel's current situation in the face of Iran, and the situation Israel faced 40 years ago on the eve of the Six-Day War, and back then an emergency government was established. He said that then, like today, a fundamentalist yet inexperienced regime was developing in Arab nations, and it could result in confrontation.

Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin called for reopening a channel for peace talks with Syria. He said that "an ever growing threat from the north is developing right before our eyes, and the only response from Israel's government is the clapping of hands and refusing direct or indirect negotiations with the Syrians, and giving in to American agendas rather than operating in the best interest of the Israeli people. This may result in an unnecessary bloody round in the region."

On Friday, Olmert called on Assad to begin direct peace negotiations, without American mediation.

The Ashraq Al-Awsat report was filed by the newspaper's internationally respected Iranian correspondent Ali Nouri Zadeh, and is based comments made by an Iranian source who followed the talks in Damascus.

It stated that Syria would purchase 400 Russian tanks, 18 MIG-31 fighter jets, and additional up-to-date military equipment.

Ahmadinejad also promised to train Syrian air force and naval officers in Iran, and pledged to construct a factory in Syria that would produce medium-range missiles. Iran will also supply Syria's navy with missiles, and provide the Syrian army with Iranian-made tanks and armored vehicles.

Iran also pledged to continue supporting Syria's position on affairs concerning Lebanon.

During his visit to Damascus on Thursday, Ahmadinejad met with Assad, Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah, and Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal.

Ahmadinejad welcomed what he called Hezbollah's victory over Israel in last summer's war in Lebanon and called for a similar "victory" this summer.

The source stressed while the two countries close relations had in the past been based on mutual animosity toward former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the relations are now based on the fact that both countries face threats by the United States and Israel.

In addition, the source said that Tehran realizes that Syria currently has no allies in the Arab world, other than Qatar, or in Europe.

Iran and Syria are main backers of Hezbollah, a Shi'ite group that fought a war with Israel last year and holds two Israel Defense Forces soldiers it wants to exchange for Arab prisoners held by Israel. Syria has denied Western accusations of an alleged flow through its territory of Iranian-supplied weapons to Hezbollah.

Syria is Iran's closest Arab ally. The two countries have had close relations since 1980 when Syria sided with Iran against Iraq in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Both countries face U.S. accusations of fueling violence in Iraq, supporting Hezbollah, which Washington labels a terrorist organization. They are also accused of supporting anti-Israeli militant Palestinian groups, like the Islamic Hamas.

Although Syria's isolation by the West has eased in recent months, Damascus has shown no signs of curbing its ties with Tehran as Israel and Washington demand.

The two have growing economic ties, with the annual two-way trade estimated at about $200 million. Iranian companies have invested more than $1 billion in Syria, in sectors such as power generation, automobiles, cement and agriculture, Syrian newspapers reported Thursday.

Syria's most important exports to Iran are cotton and textiles, olive oil and fruits. Iranian exports to Syria are mainly industrial equipment, spare parts, chemicals and locomotives.

More than half a million Iranian tourists visit Syria annually, touring Shiite Muslim religious sites.