Tough Israeli Line on Syria Sparks War of Words A Military Conflict Appears Unlikely despite the Cooling of Peace Diplomacy. Syria Wants Israel to Return to Its Pre-Election Stance

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Judging just by the angry rhetoric, the next Middle East war - this time between Syria and Israel - could begin at any time.

With hopes for peace talks on hold after the May election in Israel of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, these two foes - which only months ago appeared on the verge of peace - are raising tensions with threats and bluster. Diplomatic sources and most analysts agree, however, that the saber rattling is just that: a din designed to keep pressure on an enemy.

Still, after five years of on-and-off peace talks between Syria and Israel, the hard words have surprised many. Both sides have made clear that they are ready to retaliate forcefully, if attacked.

"We haven't heard this language for a long time," says a Syrian analyst. "Even when the Israelis attacked Lebanon during 'grapes of wrath' last spring, there was no talk of war."

Such games of rhetorical brinkmanship are common to the Middle East, but they have burst before into conflict.

Zeev Maoz, the head of Israel's best-known think tank, the Tel Aviv-based Jaffee Center, has said that the reversal of Israel's Syria policy indicates that it could happen again: "The main meaning of this diplomatic about-face on the Syrian track is a considerable increase in the probability of war with Syria," he said. If Netanyahu continues this policy, he "must prepare the Israeli Army and Israeli citizens for war in the not-too-distant future," he said.

Priorities no longer match

But the blunt talk belies the true positions of each side, diplomats say. Syria says it is willing to resume peace talks exactly where they broke off with the previous government when the strategic Golan Heights, taken by Israel in 1967, was to be exchanged for peace.

Israel says it also wants to talk - but with different priorities. It would first deal with southern Lebanon, where it occupies a "security zone" and where Hizbullah guerrillas regularly attack Israeli soldiers. And Israel would rather deal with the Golan later. But Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, whose 35,000 troops in Lebanon make Syria the power-broker on any pact, has rejected this idea.

In an attempt to calm the situation, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy this week asked the US ambassador to Israel to pass on to Syria that Israel was still committed to US-sponsored peace process.

But recent signals are discouraging:

*During a visit this week to the Israeli-occupied "security zone" of southern Lebanon, Mr. Netanyahu warned that Syria would pay a high price for any military confrontation.

Just days before, he ordered the Israeli Army to be more aggressive with Hizbullah and called for increased raids and preemptive strikes. …