Concerned that a sudden, nasty war of words with Damascus could spiral out of control and lead to disastrous, unintended consequences, Jerusalem scaled back the rhetoric on Thursday night, with the government’s highest echelon sending out one message: Israel wants peace talks with Syria, not war.
At the end of a day that started with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman responding to bellicose Syrian threats by saying a war with Syria would result in the end of President Bashar Assad’s regime, and a senior Syrian official threatening that a war would be regional and all-encompassing, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Lieberman issued a joint statement saying that Israel wanted to “conduct negotiations with Syria, without preconditions.”
And Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on Assad to “return to the negotiating table, instead of trading harsh words.”
“I and the security establishment feel that an agreement with Syria is a strategic objective for Israel,” Barak said at a Labor Party forum. “Almost every prime minister over the past few decades made efforts to move forward a chance for an agreement with Syria.”
He said that from Israel’s position of strength and power at the start of 2010, “we can allow ourselves to work with determination toward reaching agreements in the Middle East, without giving up or harming in any way Israel’s security interests. We are working toward a diplomatic arrangement and entering negotiations with the Palestinians on the basis of two states for two peoples, and it is fitting that we work toward entering discussions with the Syrians.”
Ironically, it was Barak himself who seemingly triggered the somewhat inexplicable war of words with Damascus, saying at an IDF forum on Monday that if there were no negotiations with the Syrians, there would likely be a war, after which both sides would return to the same point of negotiations that they were at when the talks broke down in 2008.
While the defense minister, who is the leading voice in the government advocating talks with the Syrians as a way of removing them from the Iranian orbit, had meant his words to demonstrate why negotiations were necessary, the Syrians interpreted them in a completely opposite manner, viewing them as a threat.
On Wednesday, in a meeting with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, Assad said that “Israel is not serious about achieving peace since all facts point out that Israel is pushing the region toward war, not peace.”
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem jumped into the fray at a press conference with Moratinos, saying that Israel “should not test Syria’s determination” and “should know that a war will move to Israeli cities.”
He also hinted that Syria would not sit idly by if Israel took military action against Hizbullah in southern Lebanon.
These words triggered an unusually harsh response from Lieberman, who, at a forum at Bar-Ian University on Thursday morning, took the rare step of saying that if there were a war, not only would Syria lose, but Assad would lose his power.
“We all heard the sincere call by the defense minister for peace with Syria, and we received a militant response twice – from both Syrian Foreign Minister Muallem and also from President Assad,” Lieberman said.
“Whoever thinks territorial concessions will disconnect Damascus from the Axis of Evil is simply deluding himself and running away from the truth,” Lieberman went on. “And therefore our message has to be the exact opposite – we must bring Syria to the understanding that just as it gave up on the dream of Greater Syria and control of Lebanon... so, too, will it have to give up on its ultimate claims to the Golan Heights.”
Lieberman said that what had to be clear to Assad and Muallem was that their comments represented a dramatic change, because they hinted that if Israel responded to a Hizbullah attack from Lebanon, “Syria would be in the game.”
Saying that this was crossing a red line, Lieberman said that Israel’s message to Assad had to be clear: “In the next war not only will you lose, you and your family will lose control of the government. You will not remain in power, nor will your family. That has to be the message, because the only thing that interests them is not the value of life, or humanistic values; the only thing that is important to them is power, and therefore that value has to be harmed.”
Unfortunately, Lieberman said, in the past there had been no correlation between military defeat and the loss of power.
His words prompted a wave of protest, with Kadima saying that Netanyahu’s government was “playing with fire.”
“Instead of calming matters down, Israel is inflaming them further,” a Kadima statement read. “Netanyahu must rise above his political problems and show responsibility for the future of the country he leads. Israel is stronger than the irresponsible statement of its leaders.”
A few hours later, apparently concerned that matters were getting out of hand, Netanyahu phoned Lieberman, and afterward they put out the joint statement saying that Israel’s policy was clear and that it wanted to “conduct negotiations with Syria, without preconditions.”
At the same time, the statement read, Israel “would continue to act with force and determination against any threats.”
Netanyahu, obviously trying to tone down the rhetoric, then directed cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser to call each of the cabinet ministers and tell them not to talk in the media about Syria.
A number of explanations were given for the sudden rhetorical escalation over the past two days, with one being that the Syrians genuinely misinterpreted Barak’s original comment and felt the need to respond, which in turn prompted Lieberman’s angry reaction.
A second explanation is that the Iranians are trying to divert the world’s attention from their nuclear program and sanctions, and looking to create instability elsewhere – something the Syrians, still very much in the Iranian orbit, are more than willing to do.
And a third explanation is that both sides are trying to prepare their domestic public opinion for the possibility of a renewal of negotiations, ratcheting up the rhetoric about the possibility of war so that they can then better explain why it is necessary to return to talks.
Regardless of the explanation, one side effect is that Lieberman, according to one Western diplomat, is marginalizing himself with what are viewed as extreme comments, with foreign governments now less interested in dealing with him on foreign policy matters, and more with Barak, President Shimon Peres and National Security Adviser Uzi Arad.