Israeli-Syrian Relations Continue to Deteriorate

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli-Syrian relations unraveled a bit more Tuesday as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak threatened not to return to peace talks until Syria restrained Hizb'allah in south Lebanon.

In Damascus meanwhile, the official Syrian press called the Holocaust a myth and said Israelis were guilty of worse crimes than the Nazis.

The internal Israeli debate on its continued military presence in south Lebanon was refueled by the deaths of three Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers Monday.

Four other soldiers were wounded in the Hizb'allah missile attack, which came a day after the Islamist organization assassinated the second-in-charge of the Israeli-allied South Lebanese Army (SLA), Col. Akel Hashem.

"The government will be unable to negotiate peace if the Syrians do not restrain Hizb'allah from acting against the IDF and the security zone," Barak said in a statement. "The absence of a climate for peace will make the conduct of negotiations for peace with Syria more difficult."

Both attacks were permissible in terms of a four-year-old internationally-monitored understanding between Israel and the Hizb'allah that legitimizes attacks on military targets but not on civilians. But Israel nonetheless pledged it would respond at the "time and place" it chooses.

Barak noted there had been a "serious escalation" in terror activity in southern Lebanon over the past few days and said Israel would not stand for it.

Barak has pledged to pull the IDF out of a south Lebanon buffer zone by July but yesterday's losses once again stirred the internal debate over the issue, with some calling on Barak not to wait until July.

"I believe that the prime minister should take the decision to give the IDF the right orders to pull out our forces from Lebanon unilaterally and not to wait any more for the result of the negotiations between us and Syria," Likud lawmaker Danny Naveh said in a radio interview.

"The linkage that the prime minister has created between the withdrawal from Lebanon and the negotiations with Syria is costing us a very, very high price," he said.

Proponents of a unilateral withdrawal say Israel can defend itself from behind its own border. Opponents fear that Israel's northern communities will then bear the brunt of cross-border terror attacks, which will target vulnerable civilian communities instead of military installations.

A Hizb'allah rocket fired from Lebanon Sunday landed next to a kindergarten inside Israel shortly before children and staff were due to arrive. No-one was injured, but it drove home to residents how close they are to the border, and how vulnerable. Hizb'allah has vowed to fight Israel all the way to Jerusalem.

There is also concern about the future of Israel's Christian Maronite allies in the security zone, including the SLA.

Former Defense Minister and Likud lawmaker Moshe Arens told that his response to these kinds of attacks was evident on June 24 last year.

As Defense Minister in the waning days of the Netanyahu government, Arens ordered a retaliatory airstrike on Lebanese infrastructure including bridges and power stations. Any less of a reaction sends a "message of weakness," he said.

He said the IDF "has a capability of putting an end to [the attacks]" by putting pressure on Lebanon. The Lebanese government, along with Syria, gives Hizb'Allah free rein to operate in the south.

Meanwhile Barak finds himself in a position of not wanting to further escalate the situation in south Lebanon and yet needing to respond.

He is sticking to his pledge to withdraw the IDF by the summer.

"Just as I committed myself to the Israeli people, the government intends to withdraw the IDF from Lebanon in an agreed-upon arrangement as soon as possible. Anyone who dares attack the IDF, SLA or our northern communities will pay a heavy price."

Meanwhile, an editorial in the Syrian daily Tishreen said Israel propagated the "myth of the Holocaust" in order to "receive more money from Germany and other Western establishments."

The editorial in the paper, which speaks for the government, went on to accuse Israel of committing crimes "uglier than the ones committed by the old Nazis."

Cabinet Minister Michael Melchior responded sharply to the editorial: "It is not possible to show restraint over these unbridled statements which deny the Holocaust and compare Israel to the Nazis," he said.

"The Syrians know no bounds in anti-Israel incitement, both morally and diplomatically; this makes continued dialogue with them more difficult," added Melchior, whose responsibilities include overseeing a forum for countering anti-Semitism.

Melchior called on the Syrian leadership to distance themselves from the Tishreen editorial, which, he said, "only makes peace and normalization between Israel and Syria more difficult."

Talks between Israel and Syria, renewed in December after a nearly four-year hiatus, broke down again after Israel refused to give Syria a written pledge to withdraw from the Golan Heights in advance of negotiations.

Israel wants to obtain normalized relations with Syria in any peace deal - anathema to Syria - as well as water guarantees and security arrangements in exchange for the Golan.