Syria, Iran and Hizbullah are preparing for the possibility of a war with Israel on the Syrian front, Channel Two reported on Wednesday night. Reportedly, Damascus has set August as the month for final war preparations. The report followed an earlier security cabinet meeting devoted almost exclusively to Syria, during which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: "Israel seeks peace with Syria but we must be wary of miscalculations which could bring about an unwanted escalation." The Prime Minister's Office said Israel has no belligerent intentions toward Syria and has relayed this message to Damascus through various diplomatic channels. The results of the meeting that ended around noon Wednesday were kept secret except for an announcement regarding a special forum that would be devoted to analyzing Syria's intentions and relaying them to the prime minister. The forum would receive updates from military intelligence sources and other agencies. The members of the forum would be Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Labor, Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai. The meeting on Wednesday morning followed weeks of conflicting signals regarding whether Israel is, or should, look into the meaning of Syria's declared interest in negotiations. The ministers are expected to hear briefings from various governmental agencies - the Mossad, the National Security Council, military intelligence and the Foreign Ministry - regarding Syria's intentions. In recent weeks, more and more voices - including central figures in the IDF such as Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen Gabi Ashkenazi - have advocated discreetly talking to the Syrians. Various IDF officials have been quoted as saying that Syria may opt for war if its overtures were not positively received.
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Others, however, foremost among them Mossad head Meir Dagan, have come out against responding to Syrian President Bashar Assad's overtures, saying that they were meant only to relieve international pressure on Assad, pressure likely to increase now with the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
However, those in favor talking to the Syrians, such as Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, argue that doing so discreetly does not "cost" anything, and that Israel would then be in a better position to evaluate whether an agreement with Syria would pull it out of Iran's orbit, get it to close its border to arms shipments to Hizbullah, lead it to drop its support for Palestinian terrorism and bring it into the "moderate" Arab camp.
Olmert's position for months has been that the Syrians were interested in the "peace process" in order to end their international isolation, but not in peace itself. According to his argument, Syria's policy of housing terrorist organizations, having a close alliance with Iran and shipping arms to Hizbullah were not indications of a regime that was truly interested in peace with Israel.
This position is very much in line with that of the Bush Administration, which - despite a meeting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had recently with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem - continues to want to see Damascus isolated.
The US also believes that the focus of attention now should be on the Palestinian track, rather than the Syrian one, on the assumption that Israel cannot work on both tracks at the same time, and that the Palestinian situation is more urgent.
No decisions are expected to be made at Wednesday's security cabinet meeting.
In a related development, Olmert spoke by phone Tuesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Olmert, according to his office, discussed his planned meeting Thursday with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. On Wednesday the Prime Minister's office confirmed that the meeting has been postponed to a later date at the request of the Palestinians.