CONCERN is growing that Israel and Syria may be heading towards war, with signs that both are preparing their armies.
The preparations are being made across both sides of the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights area occupied by Israel since 1967.
Syria has increased troop numbers and brought in rocket units similar to those used by Hezbollah against Israel in last summer's war in Lebanon, according to intelligence estimates. The Syrians have also brought in new anti-aircraft guns and tanks from Russia and recently conducted a frontline exercise of troops.
Israel yesterday appointed a team of senior ministers to handle policy towards Syria, but denied it was a "war cabinet".
The move came just a day after Israeli troops held a widely publicised training exercise in which they captured what army officials described as a model of a Syrian village.
In an apparent attempt to reassure Damascus, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Omert, was quoted as telling the security cabinet yesterday: "Israel does not want a war with Syria and one needs to be careful about a scenario of miscalculation that leads to a security deterioration."
Amos Yadlin, the Israeli army intelligence chief, told Knesset MPs that "the Syrians have a lot to lose if a war breaks out". He said that the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, "has a regime, an airforce, civilian networks, an electricity network and civilian infrastructure: all of these are liable to be harmed in a war".
Since the war between Israel and Hezbollah, Mr Assad has expressed interest in resuming the talks with Israel that stalled seven years ago over the extent of an Israeli pullback in the Golan Heights, but he has also hinted that Syria might resort to force if Israel shunned diplomacy.
According to Israeli army intelligence, the Syrian army preparations are defensive and they also believe that Mr Assad does not want to initiate hostilities. Israel has been talking about war and peace simultaneously, albeit without embracing Mr Assad's offer of talks.
The defence minister, Amir Peretz, asked about the possibility of a conflict, said the army "must be ready to face degradation" on the Syrian front. He said that over the past ten months, Israel's military presence there had been beefed up on his orders. But he added: "This does not reflect aggressive intentions against Syria." He called for Israel to "do everything to check whether it is possible to open negotiations".
There has been concern in the security establishment that Israel's inability to achieve a clear victory against Hezbollah might have emboldened Syria to initiate hostilities on the Heights. David Kimche, a former Mossad official and director-general of the foreign ministry, said the aim of the Israeli army exercise was "to tell the Syrians 'don't even consider doing anything because we will be ready'."
Mr Olmert was accused by Meir Shetreet, a cabinet minister, of sending a "mixed message" to Syria yesterday by forming the new cabinet grouping, on the grounds it might be construed as war preparation. According to reports, the army would present its operational plans in the event of conflict to the new cabinet team.
The grouping includes the foreign minister Tzipi Livni, the deputy premier Shimon Peres, and Avigdor Lieberman, the far-right minister for strategic threats. Mark Regev, the Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, said. "This is not a war cabinet. It's a committee to evaluate if there is a possibility to pursue a diplomatic route with Syria."
Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East specialist at the Chatham House think-tank in London, said it is "very possible" Israel and Syria could collide in Lebanon, especially if Syria tried to foment further instability there.
In such a case, Israel would have a much easier time defeating Syria than Hezbollah as it would be facing a conventional army rather than a guerrilla force. But he added: "I think it is far-fetched to think that Assad is preparing military action to get the Golan back.
"The Syrians never fight the battles on their own territory; they fight on the territory of others. Right now they are fighting with America in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine."
Mr Shehadi said that in the Syrian case, the war preparations might be aimed at persuading Israel to return to the negotiating table. "When you want to talk peace, you have to show you are willing to make war," he said.
TENSION SECOND TIME ROUND
THE increased tension between Syria and Israel coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War - triggered in part by tensions between Israel and Syria.
In the months preceding Israel's dramatic victory, there were exchanges of fire across the demilitarised zone between the two countries and an air battle in which Israel downed seven Syrian warplanes.
Syria accused Israel of planning to attack it. Then the Soviet Union informed Syria and Egypt that its intelligence confirmed Israeli troops were massing near the Syrian border, a claim not corroborated by UN observers.
Egypt ordered UN troops out of the Sinai Peninsula. Israelis sensed they faced attack by surrounding Arab states and launched a devastating air attack on Egypt on 5 June, followed by ground advances against Egypt, Jordan and Syria.