Syrian President Bashar Assad sent U.S. President Barack Obama a secret proposal for peace with Israel in 2010. The proposal was also shared with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Secretary of State John Kerry reveals in his new book of memoirs.
According to Kerry, Netanyahu found the proposal “surprising” because it showed that Assad was willing to make more concessions than he would in any prior negotiations.
The letter was written a year before the start of the civil war in Syria; Israel and Syria participated in US-mediated negotiations until early 2011, but eventually reached no agreement.
In his book “Every Day is Extra,” Kerry writes extensively about Syria. He reports that in 2009, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he visited Damascus and held his first long meeting with Assad, who had assumed power ten years earlier.
“At our first meeting, I confronted him about a Syrian nuclear power plant that Israel had bombed,” writes Kerry, referring to the Syrian nuclear reactor that then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert destroyed in 2007.
“The fact that it was a nuclear facility had been well publicised. It was indisputable,” explains Kerry. However, Assad denied those facts. “He looked me in the eye and told me that it was not a nuclear facility, with exactly the same intonation with which he said about everything else. It was a silly lie, absolutely indemonstrable, but he lied without a doubt.”
In his next conversation, Kerry pressured Assad over his support of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, and the Syrian president responded that “everything is negotiable,” insinuating that this policy could change as a result of dialogue with Israel.
Kerry points out that previous attempts to reach a peace agreement between Israel and Syria under the governments of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Olmert and Netanyahu (during his first term in the 1990s) had failed, but Assad was still interested in some sort of deal with Israel.
“Assad asked me what it would take to engage in serious peace negotiations, hoping to secure the return of the Golan Heights, which Syria lost against Israel in 1967. I replied that if he was serious, he should make a private proposal. We talked about it and he instructed his senior assistant to write a letter to President Obama.
Assad called on Obama to support the resumption of peace talks with Israel and expressed “Syria’s willingness to take a series of measures in exchange for the return of Israel’s Golan”.
Kerry adds that “Assad’s [Hafez Assad’s] father had tried and failed to recover the Golan, and therefore he was now willing to give up a lot in return.
Immediately after the meeting with Assad, Kerry flew to Israel and spoke with Netanyahu, who had just assumed power after 10 years out of politics. “The next day, I traveled to Israel, sat down with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and showed him Assad’s letter,” he writes. “I was surprised that Assad was willing to go this far”.
Kerry had mentioned the existence of the letter in 2015, when Netanyahu finally told the administration that under the circumstances, he could not reach an agreement with Syria.
After showing the letter to Netanyahu, he brought it with him to Washington. The Obama administration tried to test Assad’s seriousness and asked him to take “confidence-building measures” for both the United States and Israel, including stopping some arms shipments to Hezbollah, but Assad did not keep his promises.
Kerry describes Assad in very negative terms, reflecting on his conduct throughout the brutal civil war. “A man who can lie a meter away and can do the same to the world after gassing his own people,” he says.
Most of Obama’s senior national security officials and Kerry himself advocated a military attack on Assad after the use of chemical weapons against his people in the summer of 2013. But Obama hesitated, especially after it became evident that such an action would not be approved by Congress.
The daily Jewish Insider published excerpts from Kerry’s book on Friday related to his attempts to reach a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. In his memoirs, Kerry says he probably spent more time talking to Netanyahu than any other world leader.