Israel denies rumors that war with Syria looms

Despite reports of "signs that an attack is brewing"


Israel on Thursday played down media reports of heightened tension along the Syrian border, insisting that there was little likelihood of military confrontation between the two neighbors.

"Israel has no intention of attacking Syria, and the latter says only it is ready to respond to any attack, so the risk of a military confrontation is very low," Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon told public radio.

His comments came as Israeli newspapers splashed front-page stories claiming the Israeli military was on high alert along the border amid reports that Syria has been boosting its armed forces.

The Jerusalem Post said the increased tension along the border, as well as in the Gaza Strip, led Defense Minister Ehud Barak to cancel a planned trip to Germany.

Defense spokesman Shlomo Dror told AFP Syria has staged military maneuvers and made other preparations for possible confrontation in the event Hezbollah seeks to avenge the February 12 killing of its military leader Imad Mugniyah, which the Shiite militia blames on Israel.

"The number of signs indicating that the attack is brewing is taking shape and is approaching," the Yedioth Ahronoth daily said. "And the more these signs accumulate -- unusual movements, meetings between various figures, information from all sorts of sources -- the more the temperature rises," it wrote.

The London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi on Wednesday reported that Syria had deployed three armored divisions and nine infantry brigades near the border with Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, fearing Israeli forces may infiltrate the area.

But General Dan Harel, Israel's deputy chief of staff, also dismissed the likelihood of confrontation with Syria.

"Neither of the two parties wants such a conflict," he said. "What is certain is that Israel is the most powerful country in the region and that our response to any aggression would be very tough," he added.

Ramon stressed that Israel remained interested in holding talks with Damascus.

"We are constantly assessing whether peace negotiations with Syria are possible. Unfortunately that country is deeply anchored in its relations with the axis of evil of Iran and Hezbollah," said the close ally of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"The prime minister has sent several messages indicating that we are ready to hold negotiations, but Syria refuses to give up terrorism and join moderate nations," Ramon said.

The last round of negotiations between the two neighbors, technically at war since 1948, broke down in 2000 over disagreements over the strategic Golan Heights plateau, which Israel seized in the 1967 war and annexed in 1981.