* Risk said not imminent though PM convenes security chiefs
* Syrian crisis, and any Hezbollah role, alarms Israelis
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, Jan 27 Any sign of Syria's grip on
its suspected chemical weapons slipping as it battles an armed
uprising could trigger Israeli military strikes, Israel's vice
premier said on Sunday.
Silvan Shalom confirmed a media report that Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu had last week convened security chiefs to
discuss the civil war in nearby Syria and the state of the
country's chemical arsenal.
The meeting, held on Wednesday, had not been publicly
announced and was seen as especially unusual as it came while
votes were still being counted from Israel's national election
the day before, which Netanyahu's party list won narrowly.
Should Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas or rebels battling
forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad obtain Syrian
chemical weapons, Shalom told Israel's Army Radio, "it would
dramatically change the capabilities of those organisations".
Such a development would be "a crossing of all red lines
that would require a different approach, including even
preventive operations", he said - alluding to military
intervention, for which Israeli generals have said plans have
"The concept, in principle, is that this (chemical weapons
transfer) must not happen," Shalom said. "The moment we begin to
understand that such a thing is liable to happen, we will have
to make decisions."
Interviewed separately by Army Radio, Civil Defence Minister
Avi Dichter said Syria was "on the verge of collapse".
But asked whether Israel perceived an imminent threat,
Dichter said: "No, not yet. I suppose that when things pose a
danger to us, the State of Israel will know about it."
France, among the most vocal backers of Syria's rebels, said
last week there were no signs Assad was about to be overthrown
since international mediation and crisis diplomacy were going
nowhere. The conflict also appears largely stalemated on the
Syria has loomed large in Israeli rhetoric in recent weeks.
"The great danger to the world is ... from nuclear weapons
in Iran, those weapons that are built in Iran. It's chemical
weapons in Syria falling into the wrong hands," Netanyahu said
in a Jan. 7 speech.
Two days later, Dichter told Israel Radio that monitoring
Syria was "the top priority - that is, a very high priority".
An Israeli government security adviser told Reuters on
Sunday that Syria had taken new prominence in strategic planning
"because of the imminence of the threat. There the WMDs (weapons
of mass destruction) are ready and could be turned against us at
Raising the regional stakes, Tehran, among Assad's few
allies and itself long the subject of Israeli war threats over
its nuclear programme, said on Saturday it would deem any attack
on Syria an attack on Iran.
Israel and NATO countries say Syria has stocks of various
chemical warfare agents at four sites. Syria is cagey about
whether it has such arms but insists that, if it had, it would
keep them secure and use them only to fend off foreign attack.
Syria is widely believed to have built up the arsenal to
offset Israel's reputed nuclear weapons, among other reasons.
Netanyahu had sought to burnish his hawkish credentials
ahead of the ballot, in which centrist rival made big gains.
The government adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity,
said Netanyahu might have a secondary interest in playing up
security threats given that his rightist Likud-Beiteinu party
list suffered surprise election setbacks and must now seek a new
coalition with a constellation of political challengers.
"But Syria is a serious business, and the people dealing
with it in Israel are serious," the adviser said.
Israel's biggest-selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on Dec.
28 quoted the deputy armed forces commander, Major-General Yair
Naveh, saying that weapons developed for a possible strike on
Iran could have "usefulness for other confrontations in our
vicinity, including in Lebanon and Syria".
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark