Metal soldier cut-outs in the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Syria lost to Israel in 1967.
February 5, 2010
Israeli Minister Adds Heat to Exchange With Syria
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — Israel’s blunt-talking foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, warned Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, on Thursday that the Assad family would lose power in any war with Israel, ratcheting up bellicose exchanges between the countries in recent days.
In a speech at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, Mr. Lieberman said: “I think that our message must be clear to Assad. In the next war, not only will you lose, you and your family will lose the regime. Neither you will remain in power, nor the Assad family.”
That had to be the message, Mr. Lieberman added, because “the only value truly important to them is power.”
That is absolutely true.
In an effort to calm the atmosphere, an aide to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that Mr. Netanyahu was “ready to go anywhere in the world, at any time, to open peace talks with Syria without preconditions.”
The aide, Nir Hefetz, added that Israel did not rule out assistance from any “fair third party” that could advance a peace process with Syria.
Mr. Lieberman was responding to strident comments from Syria on Wednesday. Mr. Assad told the visiting Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, that Israel was “not serious about achieving peace” and that the facts indicated that “Israel is pushing the region toward war, not peace,” according to the Syrian news agency SANA.
Furthermore, the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said Wednesday that “Israel should not test Syria’s determination,” adding, “Israel knows that war will move to the Israeli cities.” He implied that a conflict beginning in South Lebanon could also lead to an all-out war.
Mr. Moallem made his comments in response to a strong statement made by Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, to senior Israeli Army officers on Monday, warning that “in the absence of an arrangement with Syria, we are liable to enter a belligerent clash with it that could reach the point of an all-out, regional war.” Israelis understood Mr. Barak’s remark as a plea for the Israeli government to start new peace negotiations with Syria, but the Syrians apparently interpreted it as warmongering.
Israel’s northern borders with Lebanon and Syria are quiet, but tense. The last Israel-Syria war was in 1973; Israel last fought Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that receives support from Syria, in Lebanon in 2006.
Israeli military officials have warned repeatedly that Hezbollah has been rearming, and they assert that Syria has been preparing its military to move from the conventional battlefield into missiles that can be aimed at Israeli cities.
Mr. Lieberman said the Syrians had issued a “direct threat” to Israel that “crossed a line.”
“We cannot continue with business as usual,” he said.
Shaul Mofaz, a former Israeli Army chief and defense minister, and now a senior member of the opposition centrist Kadima Party, described Mr. Lieberman’s statements as “irresponsible.” “They are liable to lead to verbal escalation or other types of escalation,” Mr. Mofaz told Israel Radio. Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly said that he is ready to talk to the Syrians without preconditions on either side. But Syria expects a guarantee from Israel up front that it is willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Syria lost in the 1967 war.
There are sharp differences within Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition, not least over whether a deal with Syria would succeed in removing Syria from the Iranian sphere. “Those who think that territorial concessions will cause a severance of the ties between Syria and the axis of evil are deluding themselves and avoiding reality,” Mr. Lieberman said Thursday, referring to Iran with a term used by former President George W. Bush. Syria, he added, “will have to give up on its ultimate demand for the Golan Heights.”
Yet with the Palestinian peace process at an impasse, there have been increasing voices in Israel for a refocus on negotiations with Syria. “Because of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the only chance for generating change lies in the north,” wrote the commentator Ari Shavit in Thursday’s issue of the newspaper Haaretz. “There is no certainty at all that peace is in the offing,” he continued. “But if it is, it is to be found not in Ramallah but in Damascus.”
The previous Israeli government, under the lead of Ehud Olmert of Kadima, held indirect talks with Syria through Turkish mediators, but they ended when Israel started its military campaign against Hamas in Gaza. The Palestinians have refused to engage in direct talks with Mr. Netanyahu’s government unless it carries out a total freeze of settlement construction, at least for a few months, including in East Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu hinted on Wednesday that he was ready to engage instead in “proximity” talks with the Palestinians, via American mediation.
“In the Middle East it sometimes takes three to tango, or at least to start to tango,” Mr. Netanyahu told an audience at the annual Herzliya Conference. “Afterwards,” he said, “I assume we can go on to dance as a couple.” The Palestinians have not yet stated whether they are ready for indirect talks.