The Prime Minister's Office issued a categorical denial of a report by the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Friday according to which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held covert talks with Syrian officials in 2010 and agreed in principle to trade the Golan Heights for a permanent peace treaty with Syria.
A close adviser to the prime minister said on Saturday that over the weekend, Netanyahu said, "At no point did I agree to relinquish the Golan Heights. As long as I am prime minister, there is no chance we will withdraw from the Golan Heights."
A statement by the Prime Minister's Office on Saturday said, "This was one of many initiatives proposed to Israel over the years. Israel has never accepted that proposal. It is an old and irrelevant proposal and its publication on the eve of elections is related to political considerations."
Two years ago, Netanyahu held talks with U.S. officials on a possible deal with Syria in exchange for a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. At the time, Netanyahu was said to have based an agreement on Syria's consent to cut its ties with Iran and Hezbollah.
On Friday, a report by Yedioth Ahronoth mentioned the talks and claimed that Netanyahu agreed to withdraw from the Golan down to the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).
In an interview on Channel 2's "Meet the Press" program Saturday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, "The Americans tried to test the waters and Israel was willing to cooperate. The test sought to determine if it was possible to sever Syria's ties with Iran and Hezbollah, before the Syrian regime began massacring its own citizens. If it was possible to sever those ties, it would have been worth it to consider many different options."
Barak said that Netanyahu had many discussions with Dennis Ross and Fredrick Hoff, both senior U.S. mediators at the time, over a period of several months.
"There were no concrete negotiations at any point. Both Netanyahu and I are not prepared to withdraw from any territory. Netanyahu never said he was willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights. The headline, as it was presented, does not reflect the reality," Barak said.
Vice Prime Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon also commented on the report and said, "To the best of my knowledge Netanyahu has never given up on the Golan Heights."
The New York Times reported on Saturday that over a period of several months in 2010, Netanyahu held covert talks with Syrian officials via American mediators. The report was based on claims made by Barak’s longtime aide, Brig. Gen. (res.) Michael Herzog, who was said to be involved in the talks. According to Herzog, the discussions ended when the Arab Spring uprisings began.
"Nothing was concluded between the sides," Herzog was quoted as telling The New York Times.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland seemed to confirm the existence of the covert talks when she said on Friday, “As you know, our goal has always been to have a comprehensive peace between Israel and all of her neighbors. Prior to the eruption of all of the violence in Syria, there were efforts to try to support contacts between Israel and Syrian officials ... but obviously, in the current environment in Syria, that’s not something that one can continue to work on.”