If there is one region in the world where a benign comment can be misconstrued and cause diplomatic headaches, it is the Middle East. The latest snafu began when at an IDF forum, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “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.” Barak was apparently trying to say that negotiating with Syria is vital to Israel’s security while the alternatives are unattractive. But that is not how his words were received in Damascus.
Syrian President Bashar al-Asad responded: “All the facts point that Israel is driving the region toward war, not peace.” Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Mu’allim went even further: “Israel should not test Syria’s determination… Israel knows that war will move to the Israeli cities.” Not to be left out, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman entered the fray by warning Asad that in the event of a war with Israel, “not only will you lose the war, you and your family will no longer be in power.”
Concern over the growing war of words led Jerusalem to the decision to scale back the rhetoric. Netanyahu and Lieberman issued a joint statement saying that Israel wanted to “conduct negotiations with Syria, without preconditions,” while Barak called on Asad to “return to the negotiating table, instead of trading harsh words.”
While regional news coverage focused on the anatomy of the diplomatic dispute, an interesting but related issue was ignored. When Ehud Barak offered his original warning that war may come to Israel in the absence of an arrangement with Syria, he puzzlingly added, “we will immediately sit down [with Syria] after such a war and negotiate on the exact same issues which we have been discussing with them for the last 15 years.” It begs the question: Does Barak think there should be no consequence if Syria launches yet another war? Is he suggesting that no matter how rogue the behavior of the Asad regime, Israel should be prepared to negotiate over everything? If that is the case, it is the wrong message to send to Damascus.