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Israel-Syria Negotiations

Following the Madrid Conference, talks between Israeli and Syrian delegations commenced in Washington under the framework of the Madrid formula. During 1994, negotiations were held on the ambassadorial level in Washington. These talks led to focused discussions on security arrangements and the convening of two meetings between the Israeli and Syrian chiefs-of-staff in December 1994 and June 1995.

These negotiations were supported by the involvement of high-ranking U.S. officials, including two meetings between President Clinton and President Hafez Assad and a number of visits by Secretary of State Warren Christopher to the region.

The Israeli negotiators have stated to the Syrians that Israel accepts the principle of withdrawal on the Golan Heights, in the context of a peace settlement which simultaneously addresses four key issues:

  • the depth of the withdrawal;

  • the schedule and duration for withdrawal;

  • the stages of the withdrawal and the linkage between them and normalization;
    here, as with Egypt, we insist that there be a protracted phase of normalization -- open borders and embassies -- before we complete our withdrawal to a yet undetermined line, and;

  • agreement over security arrangement.

Israel feels that direct and public high-level meetings between Israeli and Syrian leaders will promote the negotiations and bolster public confidence in Syria's desire for peace.

The late Prime Minister Rabin stated that should a peace treaty including a significant withdrawal on the Golan Heights be negotiated with Syria, the proposed treaty will be put to a national referendum before it is signed.

In December 1995, Syria agreed to resume the negotiations without preconditions and with elements of flexibility in the form of those negotiations. The Syrians decided not to raise the level of negotiators to a political level, but to empower and increase the authority of Ambassador Mualem and give him and his colleagues a larger mandate, both in terms of substance and in terms of atmosphere. The Syrians agreed now to deal with those elements that make up the notion of full peace: quality of peace, normalization, water. Two rounds of Syrian-Israeli peace talks were conducted under U.S. auspices at the Aspen Institute's Wye River Conference Center in December 1995 and January 1996, focusing on both security and other issues. The discussions were highly detailed and comprehensive in scope.

The discussion of security arrangements identified important areas of conceptual agreement and convergence. Not unexpectedly, it also revealed differences of substance or perspective. Ideas for dealing with some of the differences were referred to leaderships in Israel and Syria for consideration.

All participants in this session agreed that it had significantly advanced the discussion of key issues in a future peace treaty, and clarified each side's views and needs. They agreed that the talks laid a solid basis for further discussions.

Although there have been no direct talks since January 1996, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly called upon Syria to return to the negotiating table, without preconditions. American businessman and Netanyahu confidante Ronald Lauder reportedly negotiated a deal in 1998 to exchange the Golan Heights for peace. Netanyahu denied he had agreed to the arrangement.

The guidelines of the government established by Prime Minister Ehud Barak in July 1999 said: "The Government will resume the negotiations with Syria with a view toward concluding a peace treaty therewith -- full peace that bolsters the security of Israel, grounded in UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and on the existence of a normal relationship between two neighboring states, living side by side in peace. The peace treaty with Syria will be submitted for approval in a referendum."

On December 8, 1999, President Clinton announced that Prime Minister Barak and President Assad agreed that the Israel-Syrian peace negotiations would be resumed from the point that they were halted since January 1996. The talks were launched at a summit meeting with President Clinton in Washington on December 15, with Prime Minister Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk a-Shara, followed by a round of unsuccessful talks held in Shepherdstown, West Virginia from January 3-11, 2000 during which Clinton presented the parties with a draft peace treaty.

In April 2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert emphasized that although Israel is interested in peace with Syria, that country continues to be part of the axis of evil and a force that encourages terror in the entire Middle East.

To conduct serious and genuine peace negotiations, Syria must cease its support of terror, cease its sponsoring of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations, refrain from providing weapons to Hezbollah and bringing about the destabilizing of Lebanon, cease its support of terror in Iraq, and relinquish the strategic ties it is building with the extremist regime in Iran.

On May 21, 2008, an announcement was published simultaneously in Jerusalem, Damascus and Ankara regarding the initiation of indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, under the sponsorship of Turkey.

In the spring of 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu began secret negotiations with Bashar Assad through American mediator Frederick Hoff. Israeli negotiator Michael Herzog referred to the talks as “a work in progress.”

“There was a detailed list of Israeli demands meant to serve as a basis for a peace agreement,” according to Herzog, “The idea,” he said, “was to see if we could drive a wedge in the radical axis of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah” by taking Syria out of the equation. Israel hoped to follow up a deal with Syria with a treaty with Lebanon.

Assad, however, would not make any commitments regarding its relationship with Iran. To pacify his right-wing base that opposes withdrawal from the Golan, Netanyahu’s office said, “this initiative was one of many proposed to Israel over the past few years. At no point did Israel accept this American initiative. The initiative is irrelevant, and its publication at this time stems from political considerations.”

Talks were cut short by the Arab Spring uprisings in early 2011, which spread to Syria. Fighting soon escalated to a civil war, which continued into 2022 increasing the threat to Israel and making Israel’s unwillingness to give up the Golan look prescient. Iran, Hezbollah, and ISIS engaged in the fighting, all of which pose a risk to Israel, especially Iran, which seeks to build bases in Syria from which it can launch attacks against Israel. Hezbollah also attempted to establish a beachhead near the Golan to add to the threat they already present from Lebanon.

In 2020, Syria was reportedly interested in resuming negotiations with Israel in the hope that doing so would convince the United States to ease economic sanctions. Assad, however, reiterated his position that Syria would hold peace talks only when Israel agreed “to return the occupied Syrian land.”

Even as Assad appeared to be gaining a grip on the country at the end of 2021, Israel continued to launch air strikes targeting Hezbollah and Iranian bases in Syria. The attacks were meant to prevent them from establishing strongholds near Israel’s border, to interdict weapons smuggling to Lebanon, and to prevent the construction of factories to produce advanced weapons. In December 2021, Israel targeted facilities where it was believed Assad was preparing to resume production of chemical weapons.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Shimon Shiffer, “Report: Netanyahu agreed to full Golan Heights withdrawal,” Ynet, (October 12, 2012).
Isabel Kershner, “Secret Israel-Syria Peace Talks Involved Golan Heights Exit,” New York Times, (October 12, 2012).
“Assad: No talks with Israel without return of Golan Heights to Syria,” Times of Israel, (October 20, 2020).