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Was Bibi Going to Give the Golan Back to Syria?

An October surprise with some curious timing

Adam Chandler
October 12, 2012

The Israeli election season, which kicked off about 15 minutes ago, had its first jolt when a report released by Yedioth Ahronoth claimed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed in principle to deal the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace during indirect talks back in 2010. The report cites U.S. documents:

The pertinent documents were written by Special Coordinator for the Middle East Frederick Hoff, an assistant to the then-US Special Envoy for the Middle East George Mitchell.

The paper reported that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak opened secret negotiations with Assad over a full withdrawal from the Golan to the shores of the Sea of Galilee in exchange for a peace deal. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967.

Netanyahu had Israeli officials who were involved in the negotiations sign confidentiality agreements, according to Yedioth, in order to guard the secrecy of the talks, of which the rest of the Israeli government was apparently unaware. The negotiations reportedly ended in early 2011, with the outbreak of the popular uprising against the Assad regime.

Unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister’s Office has denied the story. Nevertheless, with the campaign season kicking off, a report about an initiative to make peace with Syria–at the expense of the Golan Heights no less–is a surprising development. If there’s truth to the story, it sheds some light on Netanyahu’s willingness to make a deal and concede highly strategic land, puts American peacemaking efforts into a context, and perhaps give some now-useless insight into the mind of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.