Syria Vows to Respond to Any Israeli 'Aggression'

Netanyahu: Israel seeks peace with all neighbors; Saudi paper says Hezbollah has raised alert in Lebanon.

Syrian President Bashar Assad on Sunday vowed to stand by Lebanon's side against any Israeli "aggression," in an escalating war of words between Damascus and Jerusalem.

Assad's remarks to Lebanon Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri were the latest in a renewed round of threats and counter-threats that began last week.

Earlier Sunday, Syrian Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal told a seminar near the Israeli border that Syria would "stand in the face of Israeli ambitions."

Speaking just kilometers from the Golan Heights - a strategically important plateau at the intersection of Israel, Syria and Lebanon seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War - Bilal said the contentious area was at "the core" of Syria's interests and vowed it would return to Syria.

The Golan Heights "will not remain under occupation," he said.

Bilal reiterated Syria's position that peace could be achieved only with the return of all territories Israel captured in 1967.

"We are working tirelessly towards true and lasting just peace, in which the occupation ends and the land is returned," the minister said, dismissing Israel's 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights as "worthless."

Earlier Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to further calm the war of words, telling his cabinet that Israel aspired to peace with all its neighbors, and that he was open to fresh talks with Syria.

"Israel aspires to reach peace with all its neighbors," Netanyahu said at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "We did so with Egypt and Jordan and we aspire to do so with Syria and the Palestinians. We can achieve this with two conditions: The first is that we hold negotiations without preconditions. We will not accept the notion that Israel makes major concessions in advance. We will not enter negotiations for which everything is decided in advance.

"The second condition is that any agreement will safeguard Israel's security interests... Solid security arrangements will help maintain a strong peace. I hope that we are now looking at the renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians, and we are open to new talks with the Syrians as well."

Jerusalem and Damascus continued their verbal sparring over the weekend, albeit in more subdued tones. Official Syrian newspaper Tishrin said in an editorial that "the threats from Israel make it clear that it intends to initiate a new war whose limits are unknown."

U.S. State Department officials were quoted by Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, a London-based Saudi newspaper, as saying that the exchange of threats between Syria and Israel was making it hard to renew negotiations between the two sides.

This latest round of threats and counter-threats was triggered by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who warned last week that an Israeli attack against Syria would result in all-out war. His Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, said in response that the next war would mean the demise of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

Hezbollah has raised its state of alert in Lebanon in the wake of the increased tensions between Israel and Syria, according to a report in a Saudi daily.