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Despite Rumors, Israel Minimizes War Threat : Officials Blame 'Media Hype,' Other Factors for Growing Fear of Possible Conflict With Syria

May 18, 1986|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

HA ON, Israeli-Occupied Golan Heights — Seen from this vantage point on what used to be the border between Israel and Syria, the lush farmland around the Sea of Galilee looks like deep-green eye shadow applied to a giant silver-blue eye.

Until the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, when the Israelis took it, the view from Ha On's lookout point could be appreciated only by the Syrian soldiers who manned a forward artillery post. The cannon used by the Syrians to shell the lake-side kibbutzim below is still here but, rusted now, it points unthreateningly at a field of wheat tended by Israeli farmers.

Tours of the Golan Heights often stop here. An Israeli briefing paper for military escorts says there is a need to "convince visitors, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, of the strategic importance of the Golan and of the impossibility of handing back the area to Syria."

"Now you can see why the Golan is so important to us," the escort officer said to a recent visitor. "From here, the Syrians used to constantly shell our settlements on the shore."

Israel's determination to keep the Golan, and Syria's determination to recapture it, have led analysts on both sides of the Arab-Israeli dispute to the conclusion that a fifth Middle East war will eventually have to be fought.

Indeed, the state of permanent tension on the border is such that every spring, as the earth thaws, the poppies bloom and conditions for modern warfare improve in this roller-coaster terrain, both sides go on a heightened state of alert.

Several Causes

This spring, however, it is not just the weather that has warmed. In Jerusalem, Damascus and Washington, there has been talk of war.

The tension stems from the confluence of several events, none particularly alarming in itself. But there is significance in the way these events have piled up and acted upon one another.

The tension began to build after the U.S. air strike on Libya on April 15 and the warning by President Reagan that he might be inclined to react similarly toward Syria if offered conclusive proof that the Damascus regime has supported terrorist activities.

Then there was a concerted Israeli effort to widen the focus of Reagan's anti-Libya campaign to include Syria, which Israel has accused of involvement in last December's terrorist attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports. The Israeli position is that Syria, not Libya, is the principal architect of terrorism in the Middle East.

Warning to Syria

When the British produced evidence that seemed to implicate Syria in an attempt to place a bomb on board an El Al Israel Airlines jumbo jet in London on April 17, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres warned Damascus that it would have to pay the price for its continued support of terrorism.

All this, along with statements by other Israeli officials, created "real alarm in Damascus," a senior Israeli military official said, speaking on the condition that he not be further identified. "I think the Syrians really thought that we would follow the American example and attack them."

Despite official Israeli denials that war was imminent, the concern was evidently shared by officials in Washington, who feared that the Israeli leadership was painting itself into a corner and that the only way out would be a retaliatory strike against Syrian targets, most probably in Lebanon.

When it was disclosed last week that Syria was building new fortifications and emplacements for tanks and artillery in southeastern Lebanon, Washington sought to defuse what Secretary of State George P. Shultz described as a highly tense situation.

Cautioned by U.S.

Citing the fortifications as evidence of a "big Syrian buildup" in southern Lebanon just north of what Israel calls its security zone, Shultz said the United States had cautioned both sides against starting a war that he said would be in neither's interest.

Although both sides took steps to lessen the tension, the most surprising and disturbing feature of this latest crisis was the way it grew, feeding on statements and headlines, without any military movements by either side to justify it.

Shultz referred to the Syrian fortifications in southern Lebanon as evidence of a buildup. But senior Israeli military officials, who had known about the fortifications for months, described them as defensive in nature, part of what appeared to be a Syrian plan to shore up weak points in southern Lebanon after the lessons learned from the Israeli invasion of 1982.

The Israeli officials expressed concern that the fortifications could be used as a springboard for a future Syrian attack on the Israeli security zone, but they noted that construction had begun long before the present crisis and could not be characterized as part of Syria's reaction to it. The officials noted that the fortifications were not yet manned and posed no immediate security threat. Nor, they said, was there any evidence that Syria was deploying troops on either front--in Lebanon or the Golan Heights --in preparation for an attack.

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