MI and Mossad Disagree Over Assad's Intentions

Military Intelligence believes that Syrian President Bashar Assad is serious about wanting to make peace with Israel, but the Mossad disagrees.

Brigadier General Yossi Baiditz, the head of MI's research division, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee yesterday, "Syria's signals about peace are genuine, and are intended to send Israel the message that they [the Syrians] are interested in peace in order to improve their regional situation."

But last week, Mossad chief Meir Dagan told the committee that he does not take Syria's peace overtures seriously. Every time Assad comes under international pressure, Dagan said, he pulls a "rabbit" out of his hat regarding his readiness to begin peace talks. "But I don't see Syria offering to resume negotiations with Israel," he said. "They have made public statements, but they have not made any attempt to turn to the U.S. and Europe to try to advance the diplomatic proces."

And Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking at a meeting of his Kadima faction yesterday, said he "has no doubt that it is possible to begin speaking with Syria if it commits itself to ending violence and its support for terror, for Hamas and Hezbollah, and severs its connection with Iran." However, he said, he expects Assad to stop making "bombastic declarations" with nothing behind them and to take concrete action that would lead to a diplomatic process.

But Baiditz told the Foreign Affairs Committee that Syria is reluctant to make any gestures because it identifies no willingness on the part of the United States and Israel to meet it halfway.

Baiditz acknowledged that Syria is also building up its forces in preparation for a possible conflict with Israel, in part by acquiring weapons that could hit Israel's home front. However, he said, Damascus is not interested in such a conflict, and negotiations with Israel are in Syria's interests.

Committee members sounded rather confused by the Dagan-Baiditz disagreement. MK Danny Yatom (Labor), himself a former Mossad chief, said that Olmert should sit the two men down in one room and demand that each explain "how he interprets the exact same intelligence material in the opposite fashion - and then make a decision." In Olmert's place, he added, he would accept MI's interpretation.

In response to a query from MK Ran Cohen (Meretz), Baiditz confirmed that MI's view has been presented to Olmert.

A source in the Prime Minister's Office responded: "We believe the Syrians want to obtain the Golan Heights. The question - which MI doesn't answer - is whether negotiations with Syria would lead to the achievement of our goals, such as expulsion of the terrorist headquarters from Damascus and a severing of Syria's ties with Iran."

Baiditz, added the source, also failed to address Dagan's claim that talks with Syria would damage Israel's relations with Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Amir Peretz commented yesterday on a statement by army intelligence, reported in the media a few weeks ago, that war could erupt with Syria this summer. "There is no intelligence that a war is going to break out with Syria this summer," Peretz said.