"Israel does not want war with Syria and we need to be careful to avoid a scenario of miscalculations that could cause the security situation to worsen," the statement quoted him as saying after he met ministers and security chiefs.

 

Olmert told the forum that Israel had conveyed that message to Damascus through a number of diplomatic channels.

 

Syrian 'arms build-up'

 

Israeli media has reported a Syrian troop and missile build-up along its borders.

 

Major-General Amos Yadlin, Israel's military intelligence chief, speaking to a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, said: "The Syrians are making very concrete preparations but these are defensive.

 

"The Syrians are making very concrete preparations but these are defensive"

Major-General Amos Yadlin, Israeli military intelligence chief
"They are preparing more for a war than they have done before, but that does not mean they will be ready tomorrow."

 

An Israeli military exercise in the south on Tuesday included the "capture" of a Syrian village, a scenario played out in infantry training for decades in Israel.

 

Amir Peretz, Israel's defence minister, said in a radio interview on Wednesday that Israel was prepared for conflict with Syria, but that "every possibility for real negotiations" should be examined.

 

Seeking US 'blessing'

 

Shaul Mofaz, Israel's deputy prime minister, travels to Washington on Wednesday to discuss Syria.

 

The visit follows signals that Israel and the US could soften their stand on Syria, perhaps in a bid to separate it from regional challenges like Iran and Iraq.

 

Mofaz's aide said in meetings with Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, and other US officials, that he would discuss "the need to examine Syria's intentions" after Israel's war last year with Lebanon's Hezbollah.

 

Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported earlier this week that Mofaz would seek Washington's blessing for Israel pursuing a secret channel of dialogue with Damascus.

 

Mofaz had no comment on that report. But in separate remarks said he would support back-channel contacts with Syria to defuse tensions simmering since the Lebanon war.

 

Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, has expressed interest in resuming talks with Israel that stalled seven years ago over the extent of an Israeli pullback from the Golan Heights, but has also hinted Syria could resort to force if it deemed diplomacy a dead end.

 

Olmert has demanded Syria cease supporting Hezbollah and Palestinian armed groups as a condition for restarting talks.

 

Israeli officials said last month there was a growing consensus within the Israeli government that Syria was serious about resuming negotiations with the country.