Israel's northern neighbors.
Israel's northern neighbors.

The IDF is preparing for a defensive war with Syria, even as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continues to send messages of peace to President Bashar Assad.

The prime minister told the Syrian president last month that Israel would be willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights if Syria were prepared to make peace, according to the Hebrew newspaper Yediot Aharonot. The Syrian ruler responded positively to the offer, the newspaper stated.

The report said Prime Minister Olmert instructed his aides to make contacts with Assad following an hour-long phone conversation with American President George W. Bush in May. The U.S. president reportedly gave his go-ahead for the contacts despite the stated American policy that dissuades Israel from dealing with Syria as long as it supports terrorism.

A number of other government officials are supporting continued efforts to cool down the situation.

IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi has reportedly advised the government to conduct secret negotiations with Syria in the hopes of staving off a conflict. The army chief of staff warned in a speech to the IDF Officers Training School earlier this year, “The IDF is preparing for an escalation on both the Palestinian and the northern fronts.”

Defense Minister Amir Peretz also added his hope that negotiations with Syria would prevent such an escalation.

Nonetheless, Mossad Chief Meir Dagan strongly opposed suggestions that Israel respond to President Assad’s public overtures. The head of international intelligence said the Syrian president is simply trying to relieve international pressure to end its support for terrorist organizations and has no intention of avoiding a war.

The Syrians should not miscalculate.

Damascus is home to Hamas political bureau chief and arch-terrorist Khaled Masha’al, who is largely responsible for the continued captivity of IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit, kidnapped a year ago in a cross-border raid by Hamas terrorists from Gaza.

Syria also provides generous support to the Iranian-backed Hizbullah terrorist organization in Lebanon. It was Hizbullah which ignited the Second Lebanon War last summer with a simultaneous cross-border attack that sent Katyusha rockets flying toward northern Israeli communities while operatives kidnapped IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev and killed eight others.

Thousands of weapons, ammunition and other materiel have made their way to Hizbullah terrorists from Iran through the Syrian border, despite a United Nations mandate that Lebanon prevent the smuggling. UNIFIL (the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) has reported the arms transfers but is powerless to stop them unless authorized by the Lebanese government to do so. At least five cabinet members in the Lebanese government are linked to Hizbullah.

Meanwhile, the IDF continues its preparations for a possible conflict in case Mr. Olmert fails in his efforts to convince the Syrians not to attack. A large-scale military exercise held three days ago at the Shizafon base in the south of Israel simulated an invasion of Syria within the context of a war, involving infantry units, tank divisions and the Air Force.

Defense Minister Peretz admitted in an interview on Army Radio that the IDF is indeed preparing for the possibility of war.

The defense minister stressed, however, that the IDF drills are “not an indication of any decision, either by us or the Syrians, to go to war. These are purely defensive measures,” he added.

IDF intelligence chief Major-General Amos Yadlin also hastened to play down the significance of the preparations, saying that the army exercises were “merely precautionary.”

But Syrian MP Muhammad Habash confirmed on Al-Jazeera Arabic world news satellite television network Tuesday that Syria is indeed actively preparing for war with Israel, which it expects to start this summer. He claimed it was Israel’s government, however, that wants the war, in order to survive politically.

In response, Social Affairs Minister Yitzchak Herzog warned at a meeting in Europe this week that Syria would be wise to reconsider its hostility.

"The Syrians should not miscalculate," Herzog said. "The chances for negotiations are dependent on the seriousness of President Assad's intentions. In recent days, we have made it clear that Israel has no intention of opening up a front with the Syrians. We hope that on their side, as well, there is no intention to drag the region into unnecessary tensions."