JERUSALEM — Israel's firebrand foreign minister on Thursday further fuelled a bitter battle of words with Syria, warning that its president would be toppled in any armed conflict between the two neighbours.
Avigdor Lieberman's direct verbal punch at President Bashar al-Assad capped several days of threats between Israel and Syria.
"When there is another war, you will not just lose it, but you and your family will lose power," Lieberman said, a day after Syria cautioned that Israel would face a bloody regional conflict if it failed to follow the path of peace.
His tone contrasted with more conciliatory comments by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Israel was prepared to consider resuming indirect peace feelers with Syria that came to a halt in late 2008.
And analysts warned against reading too much into the blunt language from the two sides.
"All this is just posturing and things will calm down in two or three days since neither Israel nor Syria want to cause a war," said Eyal Zisser, a specialist on relations with Syria at Tel Aviv University.
The latest spat emerged after Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned on Monday that if there is no peace agreement with Syria, "we might find ourselves in a forceful conflict that could lead to an all-out war."
Syria reacted angrily to the comments, with Assad saying all signs are that Israel is "working towards a war" and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem telling Israel: "do not test the power of Syria since you know the war will move into your cities."
Zisser believes the Syrians misinterpreted Barak's comments, which were meant as an argument in favour of renewed negotiations.
The previous government of Ehud Olmert held a series of Turkish-brokered peace feelers in 2008.
Netanyahu on Thursday suggested relaunching the contacts which collapsed after Israel launched its devastating military offensive in the Gaza Strip in December 2008.
"The prime minister has declared on numerous occasions he is willing to go anywhere to negotiate with Syria, without precondition," his office said, lamenting what it said were obstacles put in the way by Syria.
But Lieberman's warning to Assad overshadowed Netanyahu's statement.
"It should be clear that if he provokes us, it will end badly for him on the battlefield but also for his power. I hope this message will be heard in Damascus," the ultra-nationalist minister said at a business conference at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
"This must be our message because all that interests him is not human life, human values. The only value for him is power and that's what must be targeted," Lieberman said.
"There must be a correlation, because unfortunately until now a military defeat did not mean a loss of power."
Lieberman noted that Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad -- Bashar's father -- both stayed in power after they were defeated in wars against Israel.
Moshe Maoz, a political analyst at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, called the minister's outburst "a disaster."
"Israel is trying to present itself as a country that wants peace and he destroys it all," Maoz told public radio, warning that Lieberman's remarks will further strengthen Syria's mistrust of the Jewish state.
Eitan Cabel, a member of parliament for Barak's centre-left Labour party, urged Netanyahu to get rid of Lieberman, calling the foreign minister a "warmonger who has no honour or wisdom."
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