(photo credit: AP [file])
Defense Minister Ehud Barak sent contradictory messages about Syria to members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday. In his first address to the committee since becoming defense minister in June, he said Hizbullah, which receives its rockets via Syria, had increased its supply from an estimated 10,000-15,000 before the Second Lebanon War to some 20,000 today.
He said Hizbullah had also acquired antitank missiles and was trying to reestablish its infrastructure in southern Lebanon.
On the other hand, Barak said Syria was "showing preliminary signs of easing tensions with Israel." He said Syrian President Bashar Assad was acting like his father, former Syrian president Hafez Assad.
Barak said four Israeli governments had made diplomatic progress in talks with the father, adding that the son could not be ruled out as a future peace partner.
"Israel does not have an interest in escalating tensions with Syria, and I think the Syrians don't have an interest in escalating tensions with us," he told the committee. "Assad junior is like Assad senior: coolheaded, careful and willing to check opportunities. He has positive elements that could allow for talks to develop. The key to beginning negotiations is in his hands."
Barak's associates said the Syrians had received messages from Israel that its training maneuvers in the North were not intended to threaten them. They said Barak purposely spoke in an ambiguous manner to the committee, knowing that every word he said behind closed doors would be leaked to the press. Committee members on the Right and Left said many of Barak's remarks could be interpreted in completely different ways.
"If Syria is engaged in rearming Hizbullah, it's not exactly less threatening," Likud MK Yuval Steinitz said. "If Hizbullah has 50 percent more rockets than before the war, it proves that UN Resolution 1701, which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were so proud of, is not being implemented and is a total failure."
He said with the constant tensions in the Gaza Strip, it was unacceptable that Barak had waited so long to speak to the committee, and that he must address the public immediately.
"It's unacceptable that he's not speaking to the public for political reasons," Steinitz said. "It was an accomplishment that he came and spoke to us."
On the Palestinian front, Barak said the IDF would continue to be given freedom to operate in the Gaza Strip, while ensuring that the humanitarian situation there would not deteriorate. He said gestures would continue to be made to strengthen Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, but they were limited by security needs.
"Our left hand must leave no stone unturned to find a diplomatic horizon, while our right hand must remain on the trigger," he said.
Barak warned that Hamas could try to carry out terrorist attacks to sabotage November's Mideast summit in Washington. He said he supported Olmert's efforts to reach an agreement with Abbas ahead of the summit, but suggested that no territorial concessions could be made until an anti-rocket system would be ready in two and a half years.
Committee chairman Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima) congratulated Barak on 25 years of regular meetings with the committee, noting that the first time he addressed the committee was as an intelligence officer in 1982.
Lt.-Col. Eli Ben-Meir, the deputy head of Military Intelligence's research division, warned that Hamas might return to attacking Israel regularly with suicide attacks and Kassam rockets. He said Hamas had already resumed mortar attacks on the civilian population, as well as attacks on soldiers.
Regarding the Philadelphi corridor, Ben-Meir said antitank missiles, explosives and other weapons were being smuggled across the border from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. He said Hamas was also using tunnels under the border to smuggle in terrorists who had received training in Iran and other countries.
Former defense minister Amir Peretz made his first appearance at the committee since he left his post. He did not address the committee, but outside the room he defended his performance as defense minister to reporters.
Before the war, Peretz said, the IDF was "in a state of coma" due to the performance of his predecessors. Under his watch, he said, the army had succeeded in forcing Hizbullah to retreat northward, deeper into Lebanon.