WASHINGTON – State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed Friday that before the eruption of the popular uprising against Bashar Assad‘s regime, the United States attempted to renew peace talks between Israel and Syria.
The Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported Friday morning that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak held secret talks with the Assad regime in late 2012, and that according to American documents Netanyahu agreed to withdraw from the Golan Heights.
“As you know, our goal has always been to have a comprehensive peace between Israel and all of her neighbors,” Nuland said in a State Department press briefing. “Prior to the eruption of all of the violence in Syria, there were efforts to try to support contacts between Israel and Syrian officials; this was part of the mandate of (then-Mideast envoy) George Mitchell. But obviously, in the current environment in Syria, that’s not something that one can continue to work on.”
Asked to be more explicit about the efforts to mediate between Israel and Syria, Nuland responded: “Besides saying that this was one of the focuses of work that George Mitchell was involved in, I think I’m not going to get into the details of the conversations that we had.”
The State Department spokeswoman was also asked if Turkey was involved in the talks as it was in 2008, but avoided answering the question.
“The conditions in Syria aren’t suitable for a serious effort. But you know, we all hope that we will have a new day in Syria and there’ll be another opportunity for her to make peace with her neighbors,” she said.
Yedioth Ahronoth correspondent Shimon Shiffer revealed Friday that in late 2010, two months before the eruption of the Syrian uprising, Netanyahu and Barak launched secret indirect negotiations with Assad through American mediator Frederick Hoff, a former commander in the Marines and an expert on border demarcation in disputed areas.
According to American sources, Netanyahu and Barak agreed to withdraw to the 1967 lines in exchange for a comprehensive peace deal that would include an Israeli “expectation” for the severing of ties between Syria and Iran.
Netanyahu’s office said in response, “This initiative was one of many proposed to Israel over the past few years. At no point did Israel accept this American initiative.”