OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (Reuters) â€” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought to calm speculation in Israel that war with Syria could erupt soon, saying on Wednesday he wanted peace with Damascus and to avoid any miscalculations that could lead to hostilities.
Olmert met his security Cabinet to discuss the situation after a rash of media reports that Damascus could be moving towards war this summer in a bid to regain the strategic Golan Heights, captured by Israel in a 1967 war.
A statement issued by Olmert’s office said the prime minister was interested in peace with Syria, but it stopped short of signalling any change in Israel’s refusal to renew talks with Damascus last held in 2000.
“Israel does not want war with Syria and we need to be careful to avoid a scenario of miscalculations that could cause the security situation to worsen,” the statement quoted Olmert as saying after he met ministers and security chiefs.
Olmert told the forum Israel had conveyed that message to Damascus through a number of diplomatic channels.
Israeli media has reported a Syrian troop and missile build-up along its borders.
“The Syrians are making very concrete preparations but these are defensive,” Major General Amos Yadlin, Israel’s military intelligence chief, told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday.
“They are preparing more for a war than they have done before, but that does not mean they will be ready tomorrow.”
An Israeli military exercise in the south on Tuesday included the “capture” of a Syrian village, a scenario played out in infantry training for decades in Israel.
Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said in a radio interview on Wednesday Israel was prepared for conflict with Syria, but that “every possibility for real negotiations” should be examined. Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz travels to Washington on Wednesday to discuss Syria. The visit follows signals Israel and the United States could soften their stand on Syria, perhaps in a bid to separate it from regional challenges like Iran and Iraq.
Mofaz’s aide said in meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other US officials, he would discuss “the need to examine Syria’s intentions” after Israel’s war last year with Lebanon’s Hizbollah.
Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported earlier this week that Mofaz would seek US blessing for Israel pursuing a secret channel of dialogue with Damascus.
Mofaz had no comment on that report. But in separate remarks said he would support back-channel contacts with Syria to defuse tensions simmering since the Lebanon war.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has expressed interest in resuming talks with Israel that stalled seven years ago over the extent of an Israeli pullback from the Golan Heights, but has also hinted Syria could resort to force if it deemed diplomacy a dead-end.
Olmert has demanded Syria cease supporting Hizbollah and Palestinian fighters as a condition for restarting talks.
Israeli officials said last month there was a growing consensus within the Israeli government that Syria was serious about resuming negotiations with the Jewish state.