Netanyahu breaks Israeli silence over Syria sortie

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JERUSALEM, Sep 20 (Reuters) Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has broken an official silence over Syria's accusations that Israel bombed its territory, hinting the reported mission was of strategic significance and a success.

Asked during an Israeli television yesterday to comment on ''that operation that is so cloaked in secrecy'', Netanyahu said: ''I was privy to the matter from the outset and I gave my backing. But it's too early to be discussing this.'' Netanyahu's remarks, broadcast live, flew in the face of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert government's refusal to talk about the September 6 incident and drew flak from rivals and allies alike who suggested the hawkish ex-premier was vying for credit.

Asked if he had congratulated Olmert on completion of the mission, the hawkish Likud party chief said: ''In person? Yes.'' Israeli media, chafing at two weeks of strict military censorship, headlined what they called the first public acknowledgement by Israel that it did indeed mount some form of incursion.

By noting that Olmert had consulted him before the incident, Netanyahu appeared to signal the operation had been especially important.

In the past, Israeli opposition leaders have been briefed in advance about some of the state's most daring exploits, such as the 1981 bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor and the 1976 rescue of hijacked Israeli air passengers in Entebbe, Uganda.

Syrian officials have said that their air defences forced Israeli jets to flee, dropping bombs harmlessly in the desert.

However, US and other officials have said Israel attacked Syrian targets that may have had links to North Korean nuclear arms or Iranian weapons for Lebanon's Hezbollah group.

BRAGGING RIGHTS Olmert aides were quick to denounce Netanyahu -- though, seemingly mindful of orders imposing official silence, they did so only in off-record conversations with Israeli journalists.

''They think he wanted to brag but ended up showing just how reckless he can be,'' said Army Radio's political correspondent Ilil Shahar.

Opinion polls indicate that patchy reports on the Syrian incident have buoyed Olmert's popularity, which has been in the doldrums since last year's was with Hezbollah. One poll showed his rating up 10 points. That stirred speculation that Netanyahu was vying for credit ahead of a future bid to retake top office.

''Best-case scenario -- he suffered a slip of the lip,'' said Hanan Krystal, political commentator for Israel Radio. ''But we are reminded of the phrase that 'success has many fathers', which raises the possibility that he did this on purpose.'' Even allies of the usually media-savvy Netanyahu allowed that his comments were perhaps unwise: ''It wasn't one of the best statements to make,'' said Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz.

''But this will turn out to be a storm in a teacup.'' REUTERS SKB KN1656

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