- The Israeli prime
minister, Ehud Barak, faces a gruelling
two months. While desperately
trying to secure a deal with the Palestinians,
which he believes is the
only way to win forthcoming elections, he has
been told by his generals
to prepare for war if peace talks fail.
- The Israeli Defence Force (IDF)
fears the current conflict
with the Palestinians could spread beyond
Israel's borders to involve Syria.
This would risk triggering a
spiral of confrontation in the volatile
- Military sources said Israel
was taking the danger so
seriously that it had sent a warning to
Damascus earlier this month to
try to head off a clash.
- The message said
Israel would go on the offensive against
Syrian army positions in
Lebanon if Hezbollah, the Syrian-backed Lebanese
attacks across the border. The army believes Hezbollah
could decide to
support the latest uprising that erupted nearly three months
has risen across the Arab world with the mounting
death toll, which
stood yesterday at 324. The vast majority of the dead
- In October, Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers,
still being held. Earlier this month it ambushed an Israeli army
patrol, killing one soldier and wounding another.
- Alongside the warning to
Damascus, the IDF has begun
preparations for a "worst-case"
outcome. Ten days ago, an armoured
division received an emergency order
that moved it to the Golan Heights,
on the border with Syria, to
reinforce troops based there.
- Israel also placed its submarine flotilla on high alert.
Military sources said three German-built submarines - the Tekuma, Dolphin
and Leviathan -- had started a 21-day shift in the Persian Gulf. The
are believed to be equipped with nuclear warheads, but would
into play in the event of an all-out regional war, which
remains an unlikely
- It is Hezbollah's co-operation
with Syria in Lebanon
that is causing the Israelis the gravest concern.
Since Israel's withdrawal
from Lebanon last May, Hezbollah is thought
to have doubled its military
- The militia, which controls
southern Lebanon, has acquired
anti-tank missiles and long-range
Katyusha rockets from Iran. Israel blames
the Syrians for transporting
Iranian weapons through Damascus airport.
- Hezbollah has also built about
30 military posts on the
Lebanese side of the border with Israel,
creating a new frontline. There
are about 1,000 fighters there, and a
further 5,000 in other bases.
- The Israeli army is still building an electronic fence,
and needs to lay minefields. "Nobody in Israel wants to say this,
but Hezbollah could walk into northern Israel tomorrow," said one
- Israeli intelligence has warned the army that the young
President Bashar Assad, who has had close links with Hezbollah, is
by General Asef Shawqat and Bahajat Suleiman, the head of
Both men believe the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and
the latest uprising
are signs that Israel has grown weak.
- The IDF is taking no
chances. It is training to defend
the Jordan Valley from the east, in
the unlikely event that Iraqi tanks
- Barak's preoccupation in the
run-up to elections, however,
will be to try to resuscitate peace
negotiations with Yasser Arafat, the
Palestinian leader. If he secured
an agreement with Arafat and calmed the
violence, the threat of a wider
war would disappear. It would also strengthen
his chances of continuing
as prime minister.
- Without such a deal, polls show him running behind both
two possible Likud candidates, the relatively hardline Ariel Sharon
Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the former prime minister.
- Shlomo Ben Ami,
Barak's acting foreign minister, talked
late into the night last week
with Arafat. Sources said they spoke of
lifting Israel's blockade of
the West Bank and Gaza to ease an economic
crisis in the occupied
territories. Barak is said to have abandoned his
insistence that the
intifada must end before he will resume talks.
- The outline of the election
should become clearer this
week. Tomorrow the Knesset, Israel's
parliament, votes on a so-called
"Bibi" bill - a law that
would allow Netanyahu to stand for prime
minister even though he is not
- On Tuesday, Likud will meet to choose between Sharon
Netanyahu, who is far ahead in the polls. On Wednesday, the Knesset
is expected to decide whether to call a general election. Netanyahu has
said he will not run unless there are parliamentary as well as prime
- President Clinton and the Palestinian leader Yasser
spoke by telephone yesterday about ways of restarting the Middle
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