Citing Cuban missile crisis, Liberman hints Israel will hit Iran in Syria again

Defense minister advises ‘following foreign reports’ to learn about Israeli actions, says missile factories in Lebanon ‘preoccupy’ him

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at a conference of local governments in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2018. (Jorge Novominsky)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at a conference of local governments in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2018. (Jorge Novominsky)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday hinted Israel has plans to continue attacking Iranian positions inside Syria, following this weekend’s aerial clashes in which the army says Israeli jets destroyed up to half of Syria’s air defenses and four Iranian sites in the country.

Speaking at a conference of mayors and local leaders in Tel Aviv, Liberman added that Israel was not looking to escalate the situation with Iran and its ally Hezbollah, but was prepared to go to war if necessary.

“It’s not up to us. We don’t want to conquer Lebanon or set up Jewish settlements in Syria,” he said.

JFK said, ‘We will not allow Russian missiles in Cuba.’ Well, Syria is a lot closer to us than Cuba is to the US

“But I remember from recent history, when the Soviet Union decided to put ballistic missiles in Cuba, next to the United States. President [John F.] Kennedy was ready to risk a third world war,” Liberman said.

“He said, ‘We will not allow Russian missiles in Cuba.’ Well, Syria is a lot closer to us than Cuba is to the US. Therefore we hope that people act logically, considerately, and don’t put us in a situation that leaves us no choice.”

He called on Syria and Iran “to not be silly” or “provocative.”

Asked what Israel intended to do if Iran continued to entrench itself in Syria regardless — something Jerusalem views as unacceptable — the defense minister alluded to Israel’s practice of censoring news of Syrian airstrikes, forcing Israeli journalists to instead rely on articles in foreign outlets.

“Keep following the foreign reports. You’ll learn a lot,” he said, rapping on the table for emphasis.

The defense minister, catching himself, added with a grin, “I don’t know if you should believe them or not — I didn’t say that — but follow them.”

Illustrative: A Fateh-110 ballistic missile, taken at an Iranian armed forces parade in 2012. ( Commons)

The defense minister also seemed to confirm reports that Iran was attempting to set up facilities for the production of advanced missiles for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Asked about the issue, Liberman said it was “of course something that preoccupies me and the defense establishment.”

“We are aware [of the problem], and it is one of the big challenges — preventing the production of precise weapons in Lebanon. We are working with diplomatic channels, and we are determined to prevent the mass production of precise weapons on Lebanese soil,” he said.

The defense minister also commented briefly on the recommendations by police that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of public trust, which were announced the night before.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, January 21, 2018. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

Liberman — who resigned as foreign minister in late 2012 amid corruption charges, was acquitted a few months later and returned to his former position after the trial — said the prime minister deserved the “presumption of innocence” like any other citizen.

“Only one body is allowed to decide who is guilty and who is innocent — the courts, not the press,” he said.

The defense minister maintained that — “without a doubt, without a doubt” — Netanyahu should remain prime minister unless he is found guilty of the allegations against him.

Liberman made his remarks at the Muni Expo, a conference for local Israeli governments and the Jewish National Fund, in Tel Aviv’s convention center.

On Saturday morning, an Iranian drone was flown into Israeli territory, near the Jordanian border, where it was shot down by an IDF Apache attack helicopter. In response to the drone incursion, Israeli jets attacked the mobile command center from which it was operated, the army said.

During the reprisal raid, one of the eight Israeli F-16 fighter jets that took part in the operation crashed in Israel after it was apparently hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile and its crew bailed out. The Israeli Air Force then conducted a second round of airstrikes, destroying between a third and a half of Syria’s air defenses, according to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus.

A picture taken in the northern Israeli Jezreel Valley on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of an Israel F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses during attacks against ‘Iranian targets’ in the war-torn country. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)

Though Liberman said Israel “will do whatever it takes to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria,” he all but dismissed the possibility of carrying out strikes inside Iran itself, as some Israeli officials have suggested, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett, an influential hawkish voice in the security cabinet.

Asked if this was being considered as a way to retaliate to Iran’s apparent invasion of Israeli airspace on Saturday, the defense minister brushed it off.

“I don’t remember any discussions like that. I don’t think anyone does,” he said.

Palestinian children stand next to bags of food aid provided by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on January 24, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Turning his attention to the south, the defense minister repeated his view that there is no humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, despite some comments to the contrary by military officials and international aid organizations.

He acknowledged that the living conditions in the Strip were “tough,” but said that information was being manipulated by the Hamas terrorist group, which rules the enclave, in order to pressure Israel into sending money into Gaza, which Liberman said he was not prepared to do.

The defense minister blamed the humanitarian situation in Gaza on an ongoing fight for power between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which has left the Strip with only a few hours of electricity a day, shortages in hospitals and a diminishing supply of clean drinking water.

The United Nations Security Council is scheduled to discuss Gaza’s living conditions and the potential for a full-blown humanitarian crisis on Thursday.

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