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Netanyahu Downplays Syria Troop Movement

Mideast: Premier says shift toward Golan Heights is a ploy to pressure Israel into concessions.

September 18, 1996|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Syria is moving troops toward Israeli-controlled territory as a form of "psychological pressure" to force Israel back to the bargaining table with concessions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday.

Netanyahu has been reassuring Israelis for days that they have nothing to fear from the movement of several thousand Syrian troops from Beirut to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon and along the Syrian side of Mt. Hermon, part of which is in the Golan Heights territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

Many Israeli military analysts agree that the large troop movements--the first since Middle East peace talks began in 1991--are a muscle-flexing warning from Syria to the right-wing Netanyahu government that the alternative to serious negotiations is war.

U.S. officials have appealed to both Syria and Israel to use restraint and prevent the situation from escalating, while U.S. and Israeli intelligence services jointly monitor the Syrian troop movements.

"The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] is taking all the necessary steps in view of the Syrian moves," Netanyahu said after briefing parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "But it seems that the Syrian intention is to put psychological pressure on the Israeli people and government so that they meet the excessive promises the previous government made."

Netanyahu has asserted that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, before he was assassinated last year, made a secret, "hypothetical" promise to Syrian President Hafez Assad that he would return the entire Golan Heights if all of Israel's conditions for peace were met.

Netanyahu, however, opposes Rabin's policy of trading occupied land for peace with Israel's Arab neighbors and wants to keep the captured Golan Heights. Assad demands a total Israeli withdrawal and return of all the territory.

Netanyahu said he had sent messages to Assad through Egypt and the United States that Israel would like to resume peace talks but that "as of this moment, we have yet to receive a clear answer from Syria about resuming talks."

U.S. peace envoy Dennis B. Ross arrived in Cairo on Tuesday to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in search of a formula for restarting the Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

In Israel, Netanyahu insisted that Assad's psychological warfare is not going to work. But Israeli journalists said the Syrian leader has succeeded in putting the country on edge.

"Assad wants tension and he's got tension," said Zeev Schiff, military affairs analyst for the daily newspaper Haaretz.

There has been some speculation in the media that the Syrians could be redeploying to respond to any future Israeli offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas fighting to oust Israel from its self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon with the aid of Iran and Syria.

Netanyahu has said his Likud Party government would react more harshly to Hezbollah attacks than the former Labor Party government did. Israeli military officials say that Hezbollah attacks have dropped about 50% since Israel launched its "Operation Grapes of Wrath" in Lebanon in April, but some say they fear an upsurge after Lebanon's elections, which ended this week.

Another explanation in the Israeli media for the Syrian troop movements in advance of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is that Syria could be planning an attack to recapture the Israeli-occupied side of Mt. Hermon. The 1973 Yom Kippur War began on the Jewish High Holy Day with Syrian and Egyptian surprise attacks.

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