Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held two rounds of “serious” negotiations in the past decade with the Bashar Assad regime over potentially relinquishing to Syria the Israeli part of the Golan Heights, the premier’s former adviser Uzi Arad told Israeli media Wednesday.
Jerusalem didn’t immediately dismiss the idea of giving up the entire territory, captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, Arad told Army Radio, which said the revelation was previously discussed during an event organized by the opposition Yesh Atid party.
The first round of negotiations yielded no results and was abandoned in 2009, Arad said. A year later, the US convinced both sides to engage in indirect talks, which were abruptly halted in 2011, when the now seven-year-long Syrian civil war began.
Speaking to the radio station, Arad affirmed that Netanyahu’s government entered talks with Damascus upon being elected in 2009, building on negotiations held by his predecessor Ehud Olmert — and by earlier talks Netanyahu himself had as prime minister in the late 1990s with Assad’s predecessor and father, Hafez.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed it in 1981, in a move not recognized by the US and the international community.
Arad was Netanyahu’s diplomatic and national security adviser in his first two terms as Israel’s leader, in 1997-1999 and 2009-2011. He was also Netanyahu’s point man on Syria. He quit those posts in 2011.
The negotiations were reported in 2012 by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, citing US sources, calling the talks “intense” and saying Netanyahu had agreed to withdraw from the entire Golan in exchange for a peace deal. The Prime Minister’s Office denied that report and rejected Arad’s Wednesday comments.
In both rounds of negotiations, Assad demanded a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, Arad said.
The first round was said to have come to a halt after Assad flatly rejected an Israeli proposal for a land swap, which involved Israel pulling back only two miles (3.2 kilometers), giving up many Druze villages but keeping most of the territory. According to the reported proposal, Syria would also receive some Jordanian territory in the area of Aqaba in the south, near Eilat.
The second round of talks was initiated in 2010 by US president Barack Obama’s administration, which conveyed to Israel the proposal via envoys Dennis Ross and Frederic Hof, Arad added.
“It was clear that the Syrians wanted to return to the 1967 lines, and despite this Netanyahu didn’t abandon the talks, there was no moment in which he said ‘over my dead body,'” he said.
Conceding that the talks didn’t yield any concrete results, Arad said the main focus was defining what the “1967 lines” — meaning, the border on the eve of the Six Day War — were.
The Prime Minister’s Office denied the report, saying that “the facts are incorrect. Our commitment has been — and still is — keeping the Golan. We won’t give up the Golan.”
In recent years, Netanyahu has maintain a hardline public stance on the Golan. In June 2017, as Israel marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War, he vowed to “forever” maintain control of the territory.
“The Golan Heights will forever remain under Israeli sovereignty. We will never leave the Golan Heights. It’s ours,” Netanyahu said at the time, at a conference of Israeli youth held outside the town of Katzrin on the Golan.