Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu relayed a message to Syrian President Bashar Assad in January 2011, saying that he would be ready discuss Syria's demand for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, to June 4 1967 lines, on the condition that Syria agree to abandon its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah.
The indirect talks that were undertaken with American mediation did not yield results, however, and were abandoned by Israel in March 2011 after the extent of the rebellion against the Assad regime became clear.
Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot revealed for the first time on Friday morning the existence of secret contacts between Israel and Syria, that went on from December 2010 through March 2011. Indirect talks were undertaken by American envoys Dennis Ross and Fred Hoff, who passed messages between the two sides.
According to the report in Yediot Aharanot, Netanayhu agreed to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights, and return to June 4 1967 lines. According to a source who was intimately involved in the talks, however, in practice the prime minister's proposal was slightly different. Netanyahu expressed willingness to discuss the Syrian demand for a full Israeli withdrawal, but only on the condition that Assad accept a series of Israeli demands regarding the military alliance between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, as well as Syrian support for Palestinian terror organizations.
The source, who took part in the talks and asked to remain anonymous as he had agreed to maintain confidentiality, agreed to recount some of the details of the talks that took place between Damascus and Jerusalem on the eve of the outbreak of revolt against the Assad regime.
As early as June 2009, two months after the establishment of Netanyahu's government, the U.S. began to engage in talks with Israel and Syria over the possibility of renewing negotiations between the two sides. The person in charge of the Syrian file was Frederic Hoff, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, who over the years had become a diplomat specializing in Syria.
For one and a half years, Hoff tried to propel the Syrian-Israeli channel. He traveled to Damascus and Jerusalem and met with every person who was ever involved in peace talks between the two states. These included a number of trips to Ankara. He conferred at length with the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and with the Director General of the Turkish Foreign Ministry Feridun Sinirlioglu. He heard from the Turkish officials about their efforts to mediate between President Assad and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during the years 2007 and 2008.
Despite this, Hoff's efforts met with cool responses from Jerusalem and Damascus. Both sides were entrenched in their positions and presented a fairly hard line. Assad demanded that negotiations resume from the point at which they stopped during Olmert's tenure as prime minister, and that future negotiations should be based on the "six-point document" that he passed to Olmert at the time.
The document in question was a six-point score that formed the basis for Syrian demands to draw the border line in the Golan Heights. Olmert agreed to the six points, but Netanyahu rejected this outright, claiming that the six points were completely biased toward the Syrian position, and did not match Israeli interests.
"That all changed in November to December 2010," the source said. "The Syrians started to send more and more signs that they were ready to talk and that they were prepared to accept some of Israel's demands."
Following the new sounds from Damascus, Hoff received a significant reinforcement through the figure of Dennis Ross, then U.S. President Barack Obama's senior Middle East advisor. Hoff, who was more accepted by the Syrian leadership, and who had their trust, traveled alone to Damascus, and was accompanied by Ross to meetings in Israel.
Netanyahu initially reacted with skepticism to the positive signs from Syria, but he decided, after consulting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak – the only minister who was in on the secret of the talks – to set up a team to handle the Syria issue.
On the team, whose members signed non-disclosure agreements, were National Security Advisor Uzi Arad, Military Secretary Yohanan Locker, special envoy Yitzhak Molcho and Brigadier –General (Reserve) Mike Herzog, who had served in the past as chief of staff for Barak, and assisted Molcho in the Palestinian issue.
The aim of the talks that Hoff and Ross conducted with the Israelis was to draft an American document of principles that would be adopted by both sides, and that would form the basis for the move to direct and open negotiations. On every trip, the Americans presented a draft and different proposals to Syrian and Israeli officials, and tried to reach common ground between the two sides.
The source said that, in exchange for the resumption of negotiations, the Syrians wanted Israel to promise in advance that they would withdraw fully from the Golan Heights. The Syrian demand was similar to the famous pledge that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave to the U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1994, according to which Israel would be ready to withdraw from the Golan Heights if Israeli terms were accepted.
Israel, on the other hand, drew up a long list of demands that did not deal with the nature of peace between the two countries or with bilateral relations, rather with the nature of relations between Syria and Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist organizations on the day after the two countries sign a peace agreement.
Thus the Americans tried to assemble a document that would combine the demands of both sides, with each side fulfilling its part, so long as the other side met their demands. What the Americans, the Syrians and the Israelis did agree on in any case was the principle of "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."
According to the source, the Syrian proposal was: If we know that we will get territorial compensation – i.e. withdrawal from the Golan Heights – we will be prepared to change orientation in our relations with Israel and Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, the Israeli thinking was: If we will be satisfied regarding Iran and Hezbollah, we will be willing to discuss territorial demands with Syria.
"Netanyahu did not commit to returning the entire area, but he did not shut the door to the territorial claims of the Syrians," the source said. "The proposal he suggested was – if I get what I want, the broad context of which was Iran and Hezbollah, I am prepared to discuss their territorial demands."
The talks continued from January through March 2011, when Israel tried to get serious proof from the Syrians regarding their intentions, the source said. "The Americans carried out thorough and discreet checks with the Syrians, and serious indications were received that they were willing to go in the direction we wanted," the source said.
The talks became ripe for an agreed-on formula, but as the American envoys continued mediating between the two sides, the uprising broke out in Syria, in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. According to the source, in March 2011, when it became clear that what was happening in Syria was not mere rioting but a serious revolt against the Assad regime, Netanyahu called a discussion to evaluate the situation, and decided to abandon the talks.
"This was a serious process that did not ripen," the source concluded. "There was no breakthrough, but there was a real sense of progress. Netanyahu was serious. If the uprisings had not broken out in Syria, and we had another six months of talks – things might have ripened."
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