The minister, Shaul Mofaz, spoke after President Bush (news - web sites) warned Damascus on Sunday not to give refuge to members of the fallen Iraqi regime, and said he believes Syria has chemical weapons. Syria has denied harboring fugitives.
Faced with a new reality in the Middle East after the Iraq (news - web sites) war, Israel sees an opportunity to remove the potential Syrian threat from its borders, Mofaz said in an interview, excerpts of which were published Monday in the Maariv daily.
Syria is the main power broker in Lebanon. During Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, Syria allowed weapons from Iran to reach Hezbollah to support the group in its fight with Israel.
Israeli-Syrian peace talks collapsed in 2000 over the fate of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. In the negotiations, Israel offered to return virtually all of the land, but was not satisfied with Syrian security guarantees. Damascus insisted on a complete Israeli withdrawal.
Since Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, the Israeli-Lebanese border has been relatively quiet, but Mofaz said Hezbollah still poses a threat. Israeli officials have said the group has some 10,000 Katyusha rockets and dozens of longer-range missiles that could reach central Israeli towns and cities.
"We have a long list of issues we are thinking of demanding of the Syrians, and it would be best done through the Americans," Mofaz told Maariv.
Mofaz said Israel wants Hezbollah weapons and rockets removed from southern Lebanon and the group dismantled. Israel will demand an end to Iranian aid to the guerrilla group, which reaches Hezbollah through Syrian ports, he added.
Israel will also demand that Syria stop harboring the Palestinian militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which Mofaz said have "command centers" in Damascus from which they send orders and money to activists in the Palestinian territories.
Bush and other administration officials have increasingly set their sights on Syria in recent days. "We expect cooperation, and I'm hopeful we'll receive cooperation," Bush said Sunday.
Israeli analyst Eytan Gilboa said Syria has not lived up to U.S. expectations that it would stop supporting terror groups in exchange for being kept off Bush's "axis of evil" and for Washington's help in winning a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Gilboa said he believed Washington might now force Syria to expel Palestinian militant groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hams from Damascus.
Nafez Azzam, the Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip (news - web sites), said his group maintains only a symbolic presence in Syria. The American campaign against Syria is a continuation of its war on Iraq, he said, warning that Arabs "will not surrender."
"Syria has a clear position in support of the Palestinian people and everyone will stand behind Syria in the face of this campaign," Azzam said.