Israel Netanyahu
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a statement on Friday denying a newspaper report that claimed he had agreed in principle to return the Golan Heights completely to Syria in return for a diplomatic relationship.

“This is one initiative of many that was proposed to Israel in the past years,” Netanyahu’s office said. “At no stage did Israel accept this American initiative.”

The Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that overlooks southern Syria and northern Israel, has always been one of the main negotiating points for a peace deal between the two countries. The area was captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war, and Syria has since wished to reclaim the land.

Netanyahu’s office called the initiative “old and irrelevant,” and it associated the report with the prime minister’s recent call for earlier general elections, hinting that the report was politically motivated and designed to discourage right-wing voters from supporting his Likud political party.

Indeed, the report, published by Yediot Aharonot daily news, came out just a few days after Netanyahu announced his plans to move the general election from next October to as early as January 2013 -- a change Netanyahu hopes will accelerate budget talks in parliament.

The report also cited an unspecified U.S. document that suggested that Netanyahu had expressed willingness to relinquish control of the Golan Heights during secret U.S.-mediated peace talks that broke off last year because of the Syrian rebellion against President Bashar Assad.

In reality, the last formal Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations that were mediated by the U.S. broke off more than a decade ago.

While Syria demands the reclamation of the Golan Heights, Israel’s principal counter-demands include Syria’s ending its diplomatic ties with Iran and Hezbollah and normalizing ties with Israel.