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Syria threat over Golan puts Israel on war alert

Harry de Quetteville / London Telegraph | September 30 2006

Israel has gone on heightened alert over a possible war with Syria amid reports that President Bashar Assad may be considering military strikes to regain the Golan Heights.

For years Israeli military intelligence has down-played Syria's capacity to launch a meaningful attack against Israel, and the threat level has been kept "low".

But Israeli reports have revealed that the threat level had been raised after intelligence assessments that Damascus is "seriously examining" military action.

The raised threat level comes as Israel prepares for Monday's Day of Atonement, known as Yom Kippur, a solemn Jewish holiday when the entire country effectively shuts down as residents fast and seek forgiveness for sins.

It was on Yom Kippur in 1973 that Israel was caught by surprise as Syrian and Egyptian forces launched a joint attack and inflicted heavy losses before being repelled.

"The first two days of that war were huge defeats for Israel," said Prof Uri Bar-Joseph, an expert on the 1973 conflict. "All the intelligence analysts failed."

Israel is determined to make sure that it is not surprised again, flagging up Syrian military preparations and signals from President Assad that his country might be readying for war.

The Syrian leader said this week that he "wanted to make peace with Israel". But he warned that his "hopes for peace could change one day".

"And if this hope disappears, then war may really be the only solution," he added.

That mixed message has proved divisive in Israel, renewing debate about whether to stay tough, or engage with Syria and solve the decades-long dispute over the strategically important Golan Heights, which Israel first captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Jewish settlers now populate the territory, which is crucial to Israel as a buffer zone with Syria and as a vantage point over its hostile neighbour, as well as providing Israel with a large proportion of its water supply.

Senior Israeli politicians and commentators are split about whether the time is right to start negotiations which would lead to a peace deal between the countries.

Few doubt that such talks would end with Israel returning the occupied land.

In return, however, Israeli advocates of the handover say the deal would split Syria from Iran, and would constrain Hizbollah and Palestinian militant groups which have headquarters in Damascus.

The Speaker of the Israeli parliament, Dalia Itzik, is one of those pleading for talks to begin. "Syria is sending signals all the time and I am not sure that we have the luxury of wasting opportunities like those," she said. "Imagine a new alliance with Syria. It is possible. Should we miss it?"

But the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has dismissed such calls. Mr Olmert, who is politically vulnerable after his much-criticised handling of this summer's war in Lebanon, is in no mood to make territorial concessions.

He fuelled tension this week by insisting that "the Golan Heights will remain in our hands forever".

"Ehud Olmert is not strong enough to make a deal right now," said Shlomo Brom, a former strategy chief for the Israeli army. He said Israel would have to give up the Golan Heights to satisfy Syria, "but Mr Olmert is overloaded with Palestinian problems".

Mr Olmert has threatened to dismiss any cabinet minister who suggests negotiations with Syria.

"Assad wants to use threats as leverage to build on Israel's failures in Lebanon," said Mr Brom. "But any sane observer understands that Syrian military forces cannot match Israel, mostly due to our air superiority."

•The United Nations confirmed yesterday that four peacekeepers killed in Lebanon in July were hit by a half-ton Israeli precision guided missile.


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