Israel’s foreign minister raised tensions with Syria on Thursday, telling Damascus to abandon its claim to the Golan Heights, the territory it lost in the 1967 war.
Avigdor Lieberman also warned Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, that “in the next war [with Israel], not only will you lose, but you and your family will lose the regime”.
In the past, Israeli leaders have repeatedly accepted the principle that the Golan Heights will have to be returned to Syria as part of any peace agreement between the two countries.
Mr Lieberman, however, declared on Thursday: “We must bring Syria to realise that just as it gave up on the dream of greater Syria and control of Lebanon ... so it will have to give up on its ultimate demand for the Golan Heights.”
In a bid to limit the fallout from Mr Lieberman's comments, the Israeli government later issued a statement on behalf of the foreign minister and Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister: “We pursue peace and negotiations with Syria, without preconditions, while Israel will continue to act with force and determination against any threats.”
Mr Lieberman, who leads the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, has repeatedly provoked neighbouring Arab states as well as Palestinian officials with his blunt talk. His latest comments, however, may be particularly damaging because they come at a time of heightened tensions between Israel and Syria.
They are also likely to drown out recent efforts by a subtle but powerful chorus of Israeli politicians and officials who argue in favour of a new peace process with Syria.
The Israeli security establishment, in particular, argues that a deal with Damascus is not only easier to achieve than an agreement with the Palestinians, but would also be of greater strategic importance.
They point out that Syria is currently a close ally of Iran and a key supporter of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group, and Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement. A peace deal between Syria and Israel, supporters say, could help curb Iranian influence in the region and place pressure on Hamas and Hizbollah.
Mr Lieberman, however, dismissed this analysis. “Those who think that territorial concessions will cause a severance between Syria and the axis of evil are deluding themselves and avoiding reality,” he said
His harsh words were prompted by a string of critical statements from Mr Assad and Walid Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister. Mr Assad said on Wednesday that “Israel is driving the region towards war, not peace”. Mr Moallem sounded a more aggressive note, warning Israel that “you know that war at this time will reach your cities”.
Mr Lieberman’s remarks sparked condemnation from several Israeli politicians, some of whom called on Mr Netanyahu to remove him from office. Eitan Cabel, a Labour member of the Knesset, called the foreign minister a “war instigator” and urged his dismissal.