PM, Barak deny agreeing to Golan withdrawal

Defense minister denies 'Yediot' report PM said he'd return Golan to Syria, adds that talks "didn't reach this stage."

DEFENSE MINISTER Ehud Barak 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have denied claims in a Yediot Aharonot story on Friday that they agreed to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.
A politician who spoke with Netanyahu following publication of the Yediot report, said, “The Likud government under Netanyahu will continue to build in the Golan and strengthen it.”
In an interview with Channel 2’s Meet the Press on Saturday, Barak explained that before the violence in Syria that broke out in January 2011, there had been an Americanled initiative to cut the Assad regime’s ties with Iran.
As part of that initiative, he said, a number of exploratory suggestions were put on the table with regard to what Israel could offer Syria in return.
Since taking Syria out of the radical axis of Iran and Hezbollah was a high security priority, it was important to explore the possibility, Barak said.
“That was all that happened,” he said. “There was never any real negotiations.”
The US went back and forth between Israel and Syria, but did not secure pledges from either side, he said.
They simply wanted to know if there were grounds to move forward, Barak said.
There were a number of meetings, he said. American envoys Dennis Ross and Fredrick Hoff were in Israel; Hoff came four or five times, he added.
It is good that there were these initiatives, he said, but it was also good to reject them when the conditions were not right to move forward.
“Netanyahu never, in any situation, said he was willing to withdraw from the Golan,” Barak said.
He added that the country was heading to elections, and given that he was now Netanyahu’s political rival, it would be helpful if he could confirm the Yediot story. But, he said, he could not.
Despite Barak’s words, MK Arieh Eldad (National Union) attacked Netanyahu over the story and charged that the prime minister was willing to sell the land of Israel in exchange for political gain.
He also accused the White House of leaking the story as payback for Netanyahu’s interference in the US elections.
Over the past four years the Obama administration has repeatedly used Yediot Aharonot as a way to reach out to Israelis over the Netanyahu administration’s head.
On Friday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said of the story, “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.
“This was part of the mandate of [US envoy] George Mitchell. But obviously, in the current environment in Syria, that’s not something that one can continue to work on,” she said.
Netanyahu’s office said on Thursday that the initiative was one of many proposed to Israel over the past few years.
At no point did Israel accept this American initiative. It charged that its publication at this time stemmed from political considerations.
But according to the Yediot report serious negotiations were going on that could have led to a withdrawal from the Golan, if violence had not broken out in Syria.
It is not the first report, which has surfaced that speaks of Netanyahu’s willingness to negotiate with Syria over the Golan. In 2009 there was a report that Netanyahu had sent a message to Assad to that effect.
When Barak was prime minister, Turkey hosted four rounds of discussions between Israel and Syria about the Golan.

Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.