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Middle East: Tensions Build Between Syria, Israel As U.S. Pressures Damascus

Tensions appear to be rising between Israel and Syria. Last week, the Israeli leadership threatened to retaliate against Palestinian targets in Syria following a suicide bombing in Israel. At the same time, Damascus is coming under heightened pressure from both the United Nations Security Council and the United States to withdraw some 17,000 troops from Lebanon and cease the Syrian "occupation" of its neighbor. Washington also seeks an end to Syrian support for Palestinian militants and greater efforts to prevent anti-American guerrillas from entering Iraq. Analysts expect pressure on Damascus to continue to build, with possible Israeli strikes in Syria, as the Bush administration seeks to carry through on its plans to reshape the political landscape of the Middle East.

Prague, 8 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The latest diplomatic shots between the historic Middle East foes were fired yesterday when Israel rejected a reported offer from Damascus to restart peace talks.

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom rejected a purported peace overture made this week by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"Syria is a country that sponsors terror," Shalom said. "Syria directs terror towards Israel. The headquarters of extremist organizations there are still open, the training camps are still active. We cannot stand a situation in which there are two parallel tracks -- terror during the day and negotiations during the night."

Shalom's remarks echoed comments by Ariel Sharon. The Israeli prime minister said yesterday that Syria must crack down on militant groups allegedly under its control before negotiations that broke down in 2000 could be restarted.

Sharon also said Assad's overtures were merely a way to deflect rising international pressure on Syria. But United Nations special envoy Terje-Roed Larsen said yesterday that Syria is seriously interested in resuming peace talks.

Tensions between Israel and Damascus flared last week when the Jewish state threatened military strikes against Palestinian militants based in Syria after a major suicide bombing in Israel.

Damascus-based members of the militant group Hamas apparently went into hiding after the retaliatory threat. Israel blamed Hamas for a twin bus bombing that killed 16 people in the southern city of Beersheba on 31 August -- the first Palestinian attack inside Israel since March.
Despite the tensions, analysts are divided over whether they could lead to fresh violence, such as in October when Israel launched an air raid on a suspected Palestinian militant facility in Syria after a suicide bombing killed 23 Israelis.

But the rising tensions also come as pressure intensifies on Syria from the United States and United Nations.

On 2 September, the UN Security Council passed a U.S.-drafted resolution aimed at blocking a vote in Lebanon's parliament to extend the term of the Syrian-backed president, Emile Lahoud, for three years after his current six-year term expires.

The Bush administration hailed the UN vote, which included support from Syria's key European ally France. But the resolution proved in vain, as Lebanon's Syrian-controlled parliament ignored it and extended Lahoud's term.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the following about the vote in Beirut: "It's clear the Lebanese parliamentarians have been pressured and even threatened by Syria and its agents to make them comply. This makes a mockery of democratic principles and we would hope that they would be allowed to make their decision openly and fairly and, in that way, to have a free and fair presidential election process."

Nonetheless, former White House expert on the Middle East Raymond Tanter said, the resolution might have marked a turning point in U.S. efforts to increase international pressure on Syria. Bush approved U.S. economic sanctions against Syria in May, and Tanter told RFE/RL that pressure is building in Washington to "tighten the noose" on Assad's autocratic government.

"I think the Syrian Accountability Act is part of a package of measures on Capitol Hill," Tanter said. "There's tremendous political support on Capitol Hill, in the United States Congress, for the Bush administration to be tougher on Syria with respect to economic sanctions and to make sure that Syria does not align itself too much with Iran."

The State Department confirmed yesterday that a chief diplomat, William Burns, is due to visit Syria shortly for key talks. They are expected to focus on Washington's other key concerns in Syria, such as its support for Palestinian militant groups and the infiltration of anti-American guerrillas into Iraq.

Despite the tensions, analysts are divided over whether they could lead to fresh violence, such as in October when Israel launched an air raid on a suspected Palestinian militant facility in Syria after a suicide bombing killed 23 Israelis.

Akiva Eldar is chief political correspondent for the liberal Israeli daily "Haaretz." He told RFE/RL that the latest rhetorical exchange between Israel and Syria is political posturing more than anything else: "[The Israeli] government saw that there was an opportunity here to score a few points from the UN resolution against Syria. Since the Syrians had been targeted, why not add some flavor to this with an Israeli claim that the Syrians are behind the recent attack in the south, in Beersheba?"

But others disagree. Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-American scholar at George Washington University in the U.S. capital, was an adviser to the Syrian delegation at the last Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

"We cannot discount the fact that there is a lot of tension in the relationshipm," Jouejati said. "And we cannot discount the fact that Israel may wish to take advantage of the deterioration in U.S.-Syrian relations to take a swipe at Syria. It is not out of the question. Israel has done it before, as recently as last October, and Washington looked the other way. So there is no reason to believe that a recurrence of this could not happen. So I could not discount any violence taking place."

Still, Jouejati said, Syria has in fact curbed infiltration by militants into Iraq, a fact he said has been recognized by U.S. officials, who as a result have cooled off previous rhetoric that appeared to threaten Damascus.

For Eldar, the Israeli correspondent, Israel is unlikely to do anything bold before the U.S. presidential elections in November: "I don't think that Israel is going to make any move that can embarrass the Arab friends of the U.S. and to spoil the Bush campaign [promise] that he [is putting] everything in order in the Middle East. So I think that, at least until November, we are quite safe -- nobody is going to play games."

Syrian-Israeli talks broke down in 2000 largely over the issue of control over a sliver of land along the Sea of Galilee.

A key issue also remains the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel sees the territory near Lebanon as strategically important, but its army chief of staff said in August that it could return the land to Syria without compromising security on its northern border.