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Israelis See Growing Possibility of War with Syria

March 18, 1986

MOUNT AVITAL, Golan Heights (AP) _ For nearly 12 years, quiet has prevailed along the U.N.-patrolled buffer strip separating the armies of Israel and Syria on the bush-dotted volcanic plain of the Golan Heights.

But Israelis at all levels express growing conviction that they will have to fight a new war with Syria. For many the question is not whether, but when.

This belief has been evolving since Israeli jets shot down two Syrian planes Nov. 19. It coincides with the increasing sense of failure surrounding U.S.-supported efforts to start negotiations on ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Despite a Damascus-Jerusalem war of words, there are no signs of military buildups along the confrontation line. No new violations have been reported of agreements policed by U.N. observers to limit soldiers and weaponry on either side of the frontier.

The two Mideast adversaries have a history of periodic saber-rattling. Some analysts view Israel’s public alarm-sounding as a precaution aimed at preventing complacency, leaving Israel open to the kind of surprise attack Syria and Egypt launched on Oct. 6, 1973.

Israel is nonetheless alarmed by recent trends:

-Syria’s army, equipped with new Soviet missiles and warplanes, has grown from 300,000 to 450,000 men in a three-year rebuilding program begun after a humiliating defeat in Lebanon, according to Israeli estimates.

-Damascus is backing Palestinian and Lebanese Shiite Moslem guerrillas who have been attacking Israel’s northern border and a buffer zone inside Lebanon.

-President Hafez Assad hews to a hard line that rejects negotiations and sets Syria’s No. 1 goal as building enough military might to fight a war to regain the Golan Heights lost in 1967 and annexed by Israel in 1981.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres told northern Israel residents Tuesday he would pull remaining troops from Lebanon if Syria stops supporting the anti-Israel guerrilla campaign. But he said Israel had to take Assad’s extremism seriously.

″Syria,″ Peres said, ″remains the most radical state around us, and I have no doubt that in the long run Syria’s president has not abandoned the idea of defeating Israel.″

An Israeli official touring the Golan Heights with foreign reporters said the Syrian army’s goal would probably be narrower than Israel’s total defeat.

He stood at the foot of Mount Avital and pointed to a cluster of white buildings two miles away near the war-ravaged ruins of Quneitra, onetime capital of Syria’s Golan Heights.

It is one of 10 recently completed but still empty Syrian settlements which Israeli officials fear could be used to conceal military forces.

″The idea is that they might be used for commandos who would try to launch a suprise attack and grab territory,″ said the official, who demanded anonymity. ″They could try to hold it for a few days, long enough for international pressure to force a cease-fire.″

According to the Israeli scenario, such a victory would allow Syria to go to the United Nations and impose a solution on Israel for return to Arab control of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

The official said Syria had 2,000 tanks and six divisions, comprising 72,000 men, between Quneitra and Damascus, 42 miles to the northeast. ″They can switch on and go,″ he said, adding that the attack force could be ready in two to eight hours and a decision to make war rested solely with Assad.

Israel radio quoted Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin as telling a Parliament committee last week that warfare could break out along the frontier as early as this spring or summer.

Itamar Rabinovich, head of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Mideast Studies, wrote in the liberal Haaretz newspaper that Assad’s hardline speeches Feb. 27 and March 8 vowing to retake the Golan Heights and supporting guerrilla attacks on Israel raised fears that Syria was preparing for military action.

Moshe Zak, a senior editor of the conservative daily Maariv, argued that Assad’s words were ″bluster″ designed to disguise a growing economic crisis and attract Arab oil money.

Israeli officials say Syria is unable to pay interest on $12 billion owed the Kremlin for arms and economic aid and $1 billion owed Iran for oil.

The Socialist daily Al-Hamishmar said in a March 12 editorial that ″instead of engaging in slanging matches, ... (Israel) had better offer the Syrians negotiations for a political settlement.″

Critics note the debate in Israeli news media comes as the U.S. Congress is taking up Israel’s aid requests for 1987.

Sources, who demanded anonymity, said the Reagan administration wants to hold aid at roughly $1.8 billion in military grants and $1.2 billion in economic aid, while Israel seeks $3.3 billion, including $2 billion military aid.

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