Commentary Magazine


Split on Syria Talks

Avigdor Lieberman is apparently trying to send a message to the rest of his coalition: He’s not going to be a rubber stump for peace processing. This is an annoyance for Binyamin Netanyahu, who has to deal repeatedly with headlines about his foreign minister. It’s an international headache – because Lieberman is all Netanyahu’s opponents were hoping for, and more. And it’s a domestic headache – with Lieberman and Labor’s Ehud Barak at odds, and unofficially competing for attention. Lieberman can’t be seen as a third wheel in the Netanyahu-Barak government and Barak can’t be made irrelevant by the more hawkish elements of the coalition.

The current mini-scandal – surely not the last one – is not about the Palestinians, a topic Lieberman (and Barak) explored last week. Now Syria is on the line. Last Friday, in an interview with an Austrian paper, Lieberman explained his stand on talks with Syria: “Syria supports Hezbollah and its arms trafficking into southern Lebanon. Syria supports Iran’s nuclear program. That is why I cannot see in Syria a real partner for any type of agreement.”

While the facts Lieberman mentions are hard to dispute, the position he espouses is not Barak’s:

Removing Syria from the axis of evil is in Israel’s interests, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Saturday in response to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s statement that Damascus ‘must stop supporting terror before peace negotiations are launched.”… Barak, who was reportedly outraged over Lieberman’s comments, has said in closed meetings recently that Israel must look for a way to resume talks with Syria without hindering the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

While one can argue that on the Palestinian front the differences between Lieberman’s and Barak’s positions are more rhetorical than substantial (as I did), on Syria there’s a real gap between the two. This was true Friday and still holds true today even after Lieberman had supposedly clarified his position this morning:

“I’d be glad to negotiate with Syria this evening, but without preconditions,” Lieberman said in the Sunday interview to Israel Radio. “They say, first go back to ’67 lines and give up the Golan. If we agree to that, what is there to negotiate?” he said.

Whether Netanyahu tends to agree more with Lieberman or with Barak on Syria is not exactly clear. There’s reason to believe that he intends to explore the possibility of talks, but that is also skeptical about the outcome. For now, we only know that while Lieberman’s positions help paint Netanyahu as a moderate, they also require handling within the coalition.