JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was close to a draft peace agreement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad two years ago by which Israel would withdraw completely from the Golan Heights and Syria would sever its alliance with Iran, according to the daily Haaretz.
Haaretz’s editor-in-chief Aluf Benn suggested in a recent column that Netanyahu has not yet given up on an arrangement with Assad if the Syrian dictator survives the current uprising in his country.
Whereas President Barack Obama said at their joint press conference in Jerusalem last week that "Assad must go," Netanyahu confined himself to denouncing the carnage in Syria and warning about chemical weapons falling into radical Islamic hands.
"For the past three years Netanyahu was Assad’s silent ally," Benn wrote. "[Israel] made no deterrent military moves, did not openly support the Syrian opposition and did not even use the horrors in Syria for obligatory propaganda."
The Syrian border has been the quietest of Israel’s borders since the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War four decades ago. There is concern in Israel that this might change drastically if the current regime falls and is replaced by anarchy that gives free reign to radical Islamic groups.
The mooted deal with Syria was first reported in Yediot Aharonot last year but Netanyahu’s office denied that Israel ever agreed to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which was captured in 1967 during the Six Day War.
However, one of the Israelis involved in the indirect talks, Brig. Gen. (res.) Michael Herzog, confirmed that they took place.
Two American mediators—Dennis Ross, who was then a special assistant on the Middle East to Obama, and Frederic Hof, a former State Department official—had traveled between Damascus and Jerusalem in 2010 and 2011.
The Arab Spring and the uprising in Syria itself put an end to their mission.
Benn wrote in his column that the two said Assad was amenable, although details on border demarcations and security arrangements had not yet been discussed. Benn quoted an American source as saying, "It was very close."
Meanwhile, the Israeli army has set up a field hospital on the Golan border, which for several weeks has been providing medical assistance to wounded Syrians, apparently without reference to which side they are on in the civil war.