JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel will not withdraw from the entire Golan Heights in return for a peace deal with Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top policy adviser said in an interview published Friday, rejecting Syria’s key demand for an agreement with Israel.
The two countries could split the territory, suggested Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s national security adviser and the aide widely seen as closest to Netanyahu. But in the comments in the daily Haaretz newspaper, he said Israel must remain on the Golan Heights to a depth of several miles and cannot withdraw in full even in return for a peace agreement.
Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Mideast War and annexed the territory in 1981, a move that was never internationally recognized. Syria has always maintained that peace will be possible only if Israel withdraws entirely from the Heights.
Syrian forces used the strategic plateau to shell nearby Israeli communities before 1967, and Israel fears those communities will once again become vulnerable should the Heights be ceded. Israeli officials also argue that holding the area gives Israel early warning of Syrian military moves and a buffer zone in case of attack.
The area is also home to crucial water sources, a profitable Israeli winery, and Israeli settlements with about 18,000 residents. About 17,000 Druse Arabs loyal to Syria also live there.
At 485 square miles (1,250 square kilometers), the Heights are roughly one-third the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island.
Indirect peace talks mediated by Turkey between representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert have not been renewed under Netanyahu, who replaced Olmert in April. Direct talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000.
Netanyahu said during his election campaign earlier this year that Israel would not cede the Golan to Syria.
Israel needs to retain part of the Golan “for strategic, military and settlement reasons. For water, landscape and wine,” said Arad. He nonetheless called on the Syrians to resume peace talks with Israel with no preconditions but “with each side aware of the other’s position.”
Like the contacts with Syria, talks between Israel and the Palestinians have also been frozen since Netanyahu came to power.
Under U.S. pressure, Netanyahu has accepted the idea of a Palestinian state, an idea he long opposed. But in the Haaretz interview, Arad took a dim view of the Palestinian leadership, saying he saw not a government but a “disorderly constellation of forces and factions.”
There “could be worse” leaders than Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Arad said. “But even with him I don’t see a real interest and desire to arrive at the end of the conflict with Israel. On the contrary. He is preserving eternal claims against us and inflaming them,” he said.