U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday said Syria's transfer of missiles and other weapons to Lebanon's Hezbollah militia poses grave dangers to the Middle East. She shared a stage in Washington with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak who said Israel would hold the Lebanese government responsible for any new flare-up of fighting along their mutual border.
Clinton had harsh words for the Syrian government, which is reportedly stepping up its already considerable arms shipments to Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist group.
But at the same time she defended the Obama administration's plan to send a full U.S. ambassador to Damascus for the first time in five years.
Addressing the American Jewish Committee in Washington, Clinton said Syrian transfers of weapons - especially longer-range missiles to Hezbollah - would pose a serious threat to Israel's security and also be profoundly destabilizing to the region.
She said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region but suggested that this only underscores the need for the United States to upgrade its level of representation in the Syrian capital:
"We know he's hearing from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. It is crucial that he also hear directly from us, so that the potential consequences of his actions are clear. That's why we are sending an ambassador back to Syria," she said. "There should be no mistake either in Damascus or anywhere else. The United States is not re-engaging with Syria as a reward or a concession. Engagement is a tool that can give us added leverage and insight and a greater ability to convey strong and unmistakably clear messages aimed at Syria's leadership."
Recent news reports that Syria may be providing long-range Scud missiles to Hezbollah have triggered calls in the U.S. Congress for the Obama administration to shelve its nomination of veteran diplomat Robert Ford as envoy to Syria.
Earlier Thursday the State Department said the United States is concerned about the potential transfer by Syria of a number of weapons systems including Scuds.
Clinton shared the stage at the Washington event with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who said Hezbollah may now have as many as 45,000 rockets of various types, some of which could hit targets across most of Israel.
He said he thinks the pro-Iranian militia group is still well-deterred by Israeli military power but that Israel is carefully monitoring what he said are Syrian and Iranian attempts to upset the military balance.
Barak said if the situation flares into warfare as it did in 2006, Israel would not just blame Hezbollah:
"The main responsibility lies with the Lebanese government," he said. "We make it clear once and again that we see the government of Lebanon and behind it the government of Syria responsible for what happens now in Lebanon. And the government of Lebanon will be the one to be held accountable if it deteriorates."
Barak, a former Israeli prime minister, said the right-leaning coalition government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu sees a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a compelling imperative - not as a favor to the Palestinians but to preserve Israeli as a democratic, Jewish state.
Clinton for her part, while reaffirming the United States' unshakable bond with Israel, said Israel should support U.S. peace efforts by among other things stopping settlement activity and addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza.
She urged Arab states to join the United States and Europe in giving financial support to the moderate Palestinian government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank, while demonstrating that they are ready to accept Israel as a permanent reality.
"As negotiations proceed between the Israelis and Palestinians and mutual confidence increases, Arab states should reach out to the Israeli public, demonstrating that Israel's isolation in the region is ending. And all states should resume multi-lateral discussions on critical regional issues," she said.
Renewing U.S. calls for the reopening of Israeli trade offices and interest sections in politically-moderate Arab states and other confidence-building steps, Clinton said all those in the region need concrete evidence of the benefits that peace would bring.