How Secret Netanyahu-Assad Backchannel Gave Way to Israeli Demand for Recognition of Golan Sovereignty

Almost all Israeli governments – including Netanyahu's – negotiated U.S.-brokered withdrawals from Golan Heights ■ Trump's support of annexation is culmination of shift that began with civil war ■ Haaretz spoke to sources involved in the talks who attested to advanced talks between Netanyahu and Damascus, including maps and computerized scenarios for withdrawal – in exchange for pushing out Iran

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (left) and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (right) visit the Golan Heights, March 11, 2019.
Ronen Zvulun,AP

“Just imagine what would have happened if Israel weren’t present on the Golan,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jerusalem, a day before President Donald Trump granted the ultimate gift to Netanyahu in a dramatic tweet: endorsement of U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights.

But what need is there for imagining? Until not too long ago, Netanyahu himself was engaged in cooking up a detailed answer to the not-at-all imaginary question, as he conducted advanced negotiations with the Syrians about an Israeli withdrawal from territories in the Golan Heights in return for the distancing of Iran and Hezbollah from them.

For 20 years, nearly all the Israeli governments held secret talks with Damascus focused on formulating a peace agreement that would include a territorial compromise. The last and least known round of these talks, under the baton of Netanyahu’s government, was abruptly terminated in March 2011 in the shadow of the outbreak of the civil war. During the years of the slaughter, there was a gradual but definite change in direction in Israel’s position: The age of “the Syrian option” ended and it became time to demand recognition of the existing de facto sovereignty.

The idea, which initially trickled down from right-wing Israeli circles to the U.S. Senate, and then was whispered into the ears of President Barack Obama’s administration, gradually became public and gained momentum in the political center as well. This change of direction is seen most clearly in the current election race: Most of the prominent candidates have declared that they support such recognition. The first was Yair Lapid, who made the issue one of his campaign banners and also brought along his partner Benny Gantz, who announced on a trip to the north that “we will never come down from the Golan. On the contrary, it will be developed intensively.” From efforts to achieve an agreement, in more or less secret channels, the Israeli consensus moved towards a campaign for unilateral recognition of the annexation – reaching a peak now in the form of the gift from Trump.

File photo: Syrian President Bashar Assad attends the opening session of the annual summit of the Arab League in Khartoum, Sudan, March 28, 2006.
AP Photo/ Nasser Nasser

In recent months Haaretz spoke with many of the people involved in the last round of talks and its predecessors, to clarify the extent to which the negotiations were serious and what the implications of the change in the direction of the diplomacy might be. Most of the sources we spoke with agree: Even under Netanyahu there were serious, advanced discussions with Syrian President Bashar Assad and his people, which included maps and computerized scenarios for a possibility that included Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights on the basis of the pre-1967 lines.

Most of them also believe that unilateral American recognition at this time will not benefit Israel much, and is liable to ignite a conflagration. On the other side, supporters of the idea in the political arena in Israel are convinced that this is an opportunity.

Assad the father and the ‘deposit’

Israel’s northern border disputes go back to the days when colonialism first drew the maps. After that came the first cease-fire lines and the 1967 lines at the heart of the conflict. In the wake of the capture of additional territories in the Yom Kippur War, in 1974 a separation of forces agreement was signed between Israel and Syria, in which Israel drew back and a buffer zone was created.

Recently Netanyahu informed the Russians, the new regional partners, that for its part Israel would return to the separation agreements. In 1981 Israel ratified the Golan Heights annexation law. Initial feelers towards negotiations began with the Madrid Conference in 1991 but as far as is known, serious talks with Syria began only during Yitzhak Rabin’s term as prime minister, in 1992. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker came to Rabin after a visit to Damascus and told him that the elder Assad, Hafez, was prepared to make peace “like Sadat.”

“The talks took place on the sixth floor of the State Department from 9 A.M. to 12:00,” says Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, head of the Israeli delegation to the talks with Syria during the Rabin period and a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “Journalists waited when we went in and when we came out. Recorders on the table. It was clear that this wasn’t the way to conduct negotiations. It took time to normalize this when we were also talking at intervals. One day they put principles of an agreement on the table. For nearly a year, from September of 1992 to August of 1993, we were in this situation. We made progress but in small steps. We met nearly every month.”

According to Rabinovich, Rabin did not like the idea of coming down from the Golan but preferred the Syrian track to the Palestinian one, which was initially identified with his political rival Shimon Peres, and thought that Assad might perhaps be more serious than Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The systematic zigzagging between the Syrian and the Palestinian channels, sometimes in an attempt to reduce American pressure, continued to accompany Israeli governments since then and became a clear trend.

Rabin’s proposal was for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the pre-1967 lines within five years, in return for full normalization and security arrangements. He gave this proposal to Secretary of State Warren Christopher in what later became known as a “deposit” or “in the pocket.” That is, Rabin asked Christopher to keep the proposal in his pocket as a card to play in the talks only if the other side made a commitment. In retrospect, it appears Christopher indeed put the withdrawal on the table too quickly. In the end, Rabin decided on Peres and Oslo. He came back to the Syrians only in 1994 and talks began between senior military officers from both sides. According to Rabinovich, Hafez Assad crippled the talks. Negotiations also went on when Peres was prime minister but they were not productive.

Syrian President Bashar Assad with Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass and Hassan Turkmany, chief of staff, visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Oct. 2002.
AP Photo/SANA

Assad’s bedroom and the Hermon

When Netanyahu began his first term as prime minister, the Americans sought clarification that he was no longer obligated to Rabin’s “deposit.” They agreed it would not have the status of a commitment. In 1998 Netanyahu embarked on a new round of secret talks by means of his close associate, businessman Ron Lauder. According to sources who are knowledgeable about the substance of the discussions, they too revolved around Israel’s willingness to agree to a significant withdrawal on the basis of the pre-1967 lines.

However, after a number of talks with Assad in Damascus, the Syrian leader reportedly asked Lauder to come back with a map “or not come back at all.” Israel’s foreign minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, and the defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, opposed this and that was the end of that round of talks, which is remembered largely for surfacing as a point of dispute in the TV debate between Netanyahu and Mordechai.

Sources knowledgeable about the content of Netanyahu’s first round of talks at that time say today that at their center, among other things, was an Israeli demand to maintain a presence on the Hermon. The Syrians said to Lauder that this was a “spy line.” To this Lauder purportedly replied to Assad: “Why does it bother you that anyone sees what you do in your bedroom. It doesn’t bother me.” To everyone’s surprise, the Syrians changed their mind. However, they offered a creative compromise: “There are American Jews to whom it can be transferred.” Israel, according to these sources, decided to understand the opposite: that the Israelis would pretend to be Americans. The entire Hermon would become internationalized and an installation that supposedly would be manned by Americans would in actuality be Israeli. Like a similar arrangement in Sinai.

During Ehud Barak’s time as prime minister, there were the Shepherdstown peace talks, which ended in a blow-up, the details of which are controversial to this day. The Syrians insisted on access to the Sea of Galilee. Some of the people who were involved say Barak got “cold feet.” For his part, Barak blamed the leaks. After that, Hafez Assad died, his son Bashar came to power and the talks were frozen. The Americans invaded Iraq and clashed with Syria, Sharon in any case was busy with the intifada and thus he became the only Israeli prime minister who did not purportedly conduct secret talks with the Syrians about withdrawing from the Golan.

This is confirmed even today by his former top aide Dov Weisglass, who says that in December 2003 Sharon was asked to meet American diplomat Elliot Abrams in Rome to promise him that Israel had no contacts with Syria, despite reports on messages that supposedly had been sent to Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. That meeting, says Weisglass, was the first time Sharon told the Americans about the Gaza disengagement plan.

During Ehud Olmert’s time as prime minister, the Americans still had reservations at first and in 2008 Olmert finally agreed to Turkish mediation. These talks collapsed in part because of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. At their end, Israel had in hand a “six point plan” according to which the Syrians demanded the border be moved and Olmert agreed to discuss that. Sources who have seen the materials from those talks say that the sides were already engaged in drawing up a border on “very high-resolution” maps.

Throughout the years of negotiations, the international community in general and the United States in particular never officially recognized the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights.

Netanyahu and Assad: The last round

The last round of talks mediated by the Americans between Netanyahu and Bashar Assad began in September 2010. Among the cabinet members, only Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in on the secret, but Military Intelligence also supported the idea in principle. The talks were conducted by means of American envoys Fred Hof and Dennis Ross, while on the Israeli side were National Security Adviser Uzi Arad and later his successor, Yaakov Amidror, diplomatic adviser Ron Dermer, military secretary Yohanan Locker, special envoy Yitzhak Molho and Brig. Gen. (res.) Mike Herzog. Lauder was no longer in the picture. According to some of those involved, “He was burned because he was unreliable. He didn’t coordinate what he was saying to both sides.”

According to sources knowledgeable about the talks, Netanyahu was prepared to discuss the Syrian demand for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines – that is, to the Sea of Galilee – but this time he conditioned it on Syria disengaging itself entirely from Iran and Hezbollah in new security arrangements. The teams worked on formulating a statement of principles and various American drafts had been replaced. These negotiations ended entirely in March 2011 when Assad began slaughtering his countrymen and Netanyahu realized that the Syrian leader was losing legitimacy. The sources assess that had it not been for the outbreak of the civil war, it would only have taken another half a year for the two sides to reach an agreement.

File photo: An old Israeli tank sits near Merom Golan in the Golan Heights, April 24, 2008.
REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Initially the Syrians sought to restart the talks from the “six points” document from Olmert’s time, but Netanyahu’s team determined that they did not serve Israel’s security interests. The new idea was to build a line the Syrians could call a return to the June 4, 1967 lines, but with changes. The Sea of Galilee was once again the bone of contention, and after that, the security arrangements. A computerized model was built to assess the redeployment of military forces, disarmament and the thinning of the forces, insofar as the Syrians would agree to take a strategic decision to disengage entirely from the Iranian “axis of evil.” Staff work even got underway in advance of public presentation of the process.

Former adviser Arad revealed this year that Israel, at its own initiative, also proposed at that time a deal for a territorial swap between Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in exchange for Israeli settlements remaining in the Golan Heights. Jordan would transfer lands to Syria equivalent to the territory that would remain in Israeli hands. At the same time, Saudi Arabia would give Jordan a strip of land along the sea south of Aqaba and receive from it an area of similar size along the border between the two countries. Amman agreed but Damascus refused outright.

Did Netanyahu “really mean it’?

Netanyahu often says in response to reports of his negotiations with Assad that there wasn’t any substance to them. About a month ago we asked him during his visit to Warsaw whether that meant he had been “bluffing” the Syrians. Netanyahu replied: “I will never come down from the Golan and I am keeping the Golan and I will not reveal here what I told them.”

However, people involved in the last round with whom we spoke agree: Although the process did not make it to the final stretch, it was indeed advanced and detailed.

A former U.S. government official told Haaretz that there was some substantial progress with clear recognition of it from both sides. He said the Israeli side was very interested in the possibility of a strategic turnabout in Syria, while the Syrians were interested in regaining the real estate they lost in 1967. Whatever progress was made, in the end, if things hadn’t happened the way they did in Syria and if six months later there had been an agreed-upon text of an agreement, signing off on it would have required difficult decisions by both leaders.

According to another former U.S. government official, the negotiations, while serious, were incomplete. “The essence of the work was about [Israeli] withdrawal in return for strategic realignment of Syria away from Hezbollah and Iran.” In addition, the official said they delved deeply into many details concerning what was needed from each side in exchange, adding that in all fairness, no final decision was taken and he himself had doubts as to whether Assad would have been able to implement an agreement. They were, however, close to an agreement on paper, the official added, the work had been serious and detailed, and those involved thought there was potential for actually reaching an agreement.

Another source involved in the talks said: “Bibi didn’t want the Palestinian channel at first and this was a way for him to ward off pressure from the Americans. But it was a promising process and it wasn’t a bluff.”

Yet another Israeli source said: “Bibi can tell himself he didn’t say he agreed and it was an American document and not an Israeli one, but he enabled the discussion. You don’t fool around with the Americans. Apart from that, it doesn’t matter what he is saying now – everything was written down in Damascus and there were international witnesses. What is this, theater? The Syrians have transcripts, documents, maps.”

Rabinovich, who followed the last round of talks closely, believes Netanyahu is continuing with the defensive tactic he used in the past: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” – which is a kind of permanent Israeli formula. “When they’d ask me whether Assad was serious, I would say that he had bought a ticket on a train for which the last station is peace, but he can always get off along the way. And Netanyahu the same.”

The annexation era

On the question of the Israeli demand to recognize its annexation of the Golan Heights, most of the people formerly involved in the talks agree: Since the Israeli presence is not actively being challenged now, certainly after Assad has been denounced as a mass murderer, there is no benefit in a symbolic process that can only spark a reaction. So, as an Israeli former senior official has said: “Today there is no one in the world who thinks Israel needs to come down from the Golan. The best way to cast this in doubt is to ask for this recognition.”

File photo: A Israeli tank passes the remains of a Syrian tank in the Golan Heights in Israel during the Yom Kippur War on Oct. 9, 1973.
AP Photo/Spartaco Bodini

Dennis Ross, one of the most eminent former mediators, told Haaretz: “I do think it’s a mistake for the administration to do it. I don’t think it will contribute to their desire to present their peace plan. I think it will make it harder for Arab leaders to be responsive. If they want the peace plan to have a chance of success, they also need to be thinking about how you create a context that makes it easier for Arab leaders to respond to them, not harder, and this will make it harder.”

Another former top American official has said he could understand the timing from Netanyahu’s point of view, given the upcoming election, but that it is an own-goal for relations with the Arab states. And it could cause  Trump’s successor to reverse the decision – a pattern we are seeing a lot these days.

An Israeli former senior official told Haaretz: “Netanyahu is familiar with the entire process that has happened, and all of a sudden he wants recognition in the Golan Heights? What are they going to do with it? Take it to the grocery store? This is liable to cause a reaction and a heating up of he northern front even more.”

And according to Rabinovich: “We will only be helping Assad transform the conflict from a Syrian problem into an Israeli-Arab problem. I think Netanyahu is doing this mainly to garner votes.”

Historic opportunity

The person most closely associated with the campaign for recognition of the annexation is Zvi Hauser, formerly Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary and currently a candidate for the Knesset on the Kahol Lavan slate, who celebrates Trump’s tweeted announcement Thursday in New York.”. He believes there is a historic opportunity now that must not be missed because of “an idée fixe.” According to him, Netanyahu did not initially understand the gravity of the moment: “The civil war in Syria was a reality-changing event from Israel’s perspective but to my regret, as someone who saw the cockpit from up close, they didn’t understand it there as a strategic event. American recognition of the Israeli sovereignty in the Golan used to sound ridiculous to everyone. Until the rise of Trump they didn’t believe it was possible and they did not understand the importance of the matter. It was a strategic fault and now all of a sudden everyone understands.”

According to him, without the recognition there will be “Lebanonization of the Golan border and a dynamic that demands we come down from there. We will wake up one morning and find ourselves facing a demand for a redeployment of the forces in the arena. A package deal that the Iranians withdraw from Syria and in return Israel will have to come down from the Golan Heights. A withdrawal of the Americans without recognition in the Golan will signal to the radical elements, Assad and Hezbollah, that it is legitimate to ignite the line of the resistance on the Golan.”

Regarding the past idea of conditioning withdrawal on Syria’s distancing itself from Iran, Hauser says: “The thesis of the negotiations to extract Syria from the covenant of evil was naive.” And regarding the possible damage that recognition could cause to the developing relations with the Arab world, he argues: “There’s no such thing as the Arab world. It is split.”

One of the former prominent players in the talks with Syria agrees with Hauser: “The opportunity for peace with Syria was apparently missed for many years. It is off the agenda. No one has sympathy for Assad and there isn’t sensitivity about the Golan the way there is about Jerusalem. So the world will yell – and we will move on.”

The Prime Minister’s Office stated in response to the report: “Prime Minister Netanyahu was never willing to give up the Golan Heights and acted all along to strengthen Israel’s hold on the Golan. Over the years the prime minister acted to promote [international] recognition of [Israeli control over] the Golan, which came to fruition tonight and which we embrace and thank the Trump administration for.”

File photo: U.S. President Bill Clinton (C) walks next to Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Shepherdstown, West Virginia on January 3, 2000.
REUTERS/Larry Downing/Files