Middle East

Netanyahu denies Golan pullout offer for peace with Syria

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem October 9, 2012. (REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office denied a Friday report that he had offered to quit the occupied Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria in US-mediated negotiations last year.

According to Yediot Aharonot daily which broke the story, talks fizzled out without any agreement as domestic protest that erupted in mid-March 2011 against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rule spiralled into civil war.

"This is one initiative of many that was proposed to Israel in the past years," Netanyahu's office said. "At no stage did Israel accept this American initiative."

The premier's office called the initiative "old and irrelevant," and in a statement to Yediot Aharonot linked the report's timing to Netanyahu's call on Tuesday of a general election for early next year, in which he will be seeking the votes of rightwingers opposed to a Golan pullout.

Veteran diplomatic correspondent Shimon Schiffer wrote that late last year Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak began indirect negotiations with the Syrian president, through US envoy Fred Hoff, who was at the time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special representative on Syria.

"The negotiations were held through American mediation, cloaked by a level of secrecy rare even for the security establishment," Schiffer wrote, adding that Hoff had since stepped down but had left a written record of the negotiations.

"According to the documents, the negotiations between the sides were based on consent to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights and turning them over to Syrian sovereignty, in exchange for a full peace agreement including an exchange of embassies," Schiffer said.

"A senior source in the US administration said a few days ago that the negotiations had been serious and far-reaching, and it could be presumed that if not for the Syrian civil war they would have ended in an agreement," the paper added.

In 2008, Israel and Syria engaged in Turkish-brokered peace feelers but they were broken off when Israel launched a devastating 22-day offensive against the Gaza Strip that December.

Syria's minimum condition for any peace deal has always been the return of the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed in 1981 in a move never recognised by the international community.

The last round of mediated peace talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000 over the issue.

The Golan is now home to some 20,500 Jewish settlers and about 18,000 Druze, most of whom have retained Syrian citizenship.





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