Lieberman and Barak aren't that different, officials claim

The gaps between Barak and Lieberman are more in form than substance, according to sources close to both men.

"More alike than different" was how one source close to Defense Minister Ehud Barak describes the policies of the Labor Party leader and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of Israel Beiteinu. There has been much talk about the seeming disparities between the two men, who together with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu make up the main policy-making triumvirate in the new government. Over the past few days, the first two seemed to be sparring over possible negotiations with Damascus, with Lieberman rejecting the previous government's policy of conducting indirect negotiations with Syria, while Barak seeming to affirm the need to continue such discussions. Lieberman told The Jerusalem Post last week that Israel doesn't "see any goodwill from the Syrian side, only the threats" - referring to President Bashar Assad's warning that if negotiations were unsuccessful Damascus could resort to "resistance." Barak, meanwhile, used Sunday's cabinet meeting to declare that "Israel has an interest in formalizing its relations with Syria," though he added the caveat that Israel must "protect its security and other interests" while doing so. But according to the source close to Barak, those two positions are not very far apart. Barak "understands that Syria has to stop supporting terrorism for peace negotiations [to succeed]," the source said. Similarly, Lieberman seemed to tone down his critique of the Bashar government. "I'd be glad to negotiate with Syria this evening," the foreign minister told Israel Radio on Sunday, but he insisted talks would have to be "without preconditions," including the Syrian demand that negotiations be based on an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. "The Syrians don't ask, they demand: 'First go back to the '67 lines and give up the Golan. After that, we'll agree to negotiate.' But if we agree to that, what is there to negotiate about?" Lieberman asked. The gaps between Barak and Lieberman are more in form than substance, according to sources close to both men. That may be very good news for Netanyahu, who is working hard to develop a comprehensive regional peace policy in time for his May 18 meeting with US President Barack Obama. According to a senior official familiar with high-level cabinet discussions, Netanyahu views it as "critical" that both Barak and Lieberman be "fully on board with whatever is decided." In particular, Netanyahu feels that Labor's approval is vital in garnering support for the government's policies abroad. Thus the focus on both the left-wing and right-wing camps within the government is on achieving a consensus. "As long as the final decision of the government has not been made, there will be disagreements that will be discussed in a democratic fashion in the cabinet," a Lieberman spokesman told the Post on Sunday, suggesting that once the decisions are made the sides plan to set aside disagreements. Meanwhile, Lieberman has resisted efforts to discover specifics regarding the government's views on the Syrian, Palestinian and Iranian fronts. "It's a new government and we need time," he told the Post in last week's interview, which will be published in full in Wednesday's Independence Day supplement. "I'm not ready for someone to stand with a stopwatch and say, 'What's happening, what's happening?'" According to the foreign minister, "the people of Israel made their decision [in February's election] and this is really the right time to examine new ideas, new approaches, new visions. We're trying to formulate this new approach now. And the first time that we're going to speak about it so that everyone can see the new policy will be on the 18th of May, during the first meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama." Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.