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pm sends calming messages to syria

Israel is working through various diplomatic channels to assure Damascus that Jerusalem wants peace and is not interested in a war, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday after a three-hour security cabinet discussion on Syria. His comments come amid a flurry of reports about a Syrian military buildup and concern in the defense establishment that if various Syrian overtures were not well received in Israel, the Syrians might initiate military action to try and retain the Golan, or a piece of it. "Israel is not interested in a war with Syria, and we have to be careful about a scenario where a miscalculation could lead to a deterioration in the security situation," Olmert said at the end of the meeting. He added that Israel has sent this message to Damascus through "different diplomatic channels." Housing and Construction Minister Meir Sheetrit told reporters after the meeting that Olmert called for direct negotiations with Syria, something that was not reflected in the statement the Prime Minister's Office issued after the meeting. "I want to make clear that we have no aggressive intentions at all against Syria," Sheetrit said. "The prime minister made that clear, and even called for direct peace talks with the Syrians. All the comments about a possible war with Syria are unnecessary, everyone needs to cool down." The ministers received various intelligence and security briefings during the meeting, with military intelligence officials saying that the Syrians were on a defensive posture on the Golan. The ministers also heard estimations that if a war would break out with Damascus, it would include a renewed confrontation with Hizbullah. The security cabinet, which following the release of the Winograd Committee interim report has re-established weekly meetings, set up a subcommittee to oversee the IDF's plans for possible military action against Syria. In addition to Olmert, this committee includes Vice Premier Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Justice Minister Daniel Friedman and Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan. Sheetrit came out against the establishment of the committee, saying that it sends the wrong message at this time to the Syrians. Peretz also took pains to try and damp down tensions in the North, telling Army Radio that Israel had no plans to attack Syria. He said it was necessary for Israel to relay to Damascus that various military exercises under way now were "a matter of course" and did not reflect Israeli plans to attack Syria. Peretz also reiterated that he was in favor of opening a diplomatic channel with Damascus. In an interview with Israel Radio he said, "A diplomatic process with Syria could immediately and dramatically change the balance on three fronts, so picking up the gauntlet, or exploring any chance for sincere negotiations with Syria is, in my opinion, an option that absolutely must not be neglected."