I almost negotiated Israel-Syria peace. Here’s how it happened.
Read an excerpt from Frederic Hof’s USIP Press book, which fills an important gap in the history of U.S. diplomacy promoting Israel-Syria peace.
Editor’s Note: The following was originally published by the Atlantic Council’s MENASource. It contains an excerpt of Ambassador Frederic Hof’s USIP Press book, Reaching for the Heights: The Inside Story of a Secret Attempt to Reach a Syrian-Israeli Peace.
In the summer and fall of 2010, American mediation aiming for peace between Israel and Syria was gaining momentum. Both sides had agreed that the United States could table a draft treaty and shuttle the text between Damascus and Jerusalem for comments and proposed revisions.
As 2011 dawned, considerable progress had been made in defining the salient features of the “line of June 4, 1967”: An unmarked line in the Jordan River Valley adjoining the Golan Heights; the confrontation line between Syrian and Israeli forces before the outbreak of war in June 1967. It was to this line that Syria insisted Israel should, pursuant to a peace treaty, withdraw. It was this line that would, in the event of peace, constitute the international boundary between Israel and Syria. Although a meter-by-meter boundary survey would still be required, by early 2011, the only important territorial issue still in dispute was the location of the line in relation to the upper part of the Jordan River flowing into the Sea of Galilee.
Yet progress on territorial issues only increased the anxiety of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the readiness of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to deliver on Israel’s price for peace: Syria’s full strategic realignment away from Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip; and the liquidation of all security threats to Israel arising from Syria and Syrian relationships, including its relationship with Lebanon. Before moving any farther into a diplomatic process of potential political peril, Netanyahu wanted to be sure that Assad was personally committed to Syria’s full geopolitical realignment. He asked that one of the American mediators meet with Assad and ask the tough questions about his readiness to meet Israel’s price for peace, the identical price set by Washington for lifting American sanctions on Syria.
The following excerpt from my book, Reaching for the Heights: The Inside Story of a Secret Attempt to Reach a Syrian-Israeli Peace, in which I cover how the American side prepared for the crucial one-on-one meeting with Assad. I, the former director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, was the person who led the mediation and who undertook to meet the Syrian president. My book fills an important gap in the history of American diplomacy promoting Israel-Syria peace and contains interesting insights into U.S. foreign policy and diplomatic best practices.
Back in Washington I wrote down, mainly for my own benefit, a summary of where I thought things stood. Despite informative discussions with both sides and an ever-evolving discussion paper, I concluded that the methodology had hit a roadblock.
Both sides, in my view, were, not unsurprisingly, trying to skew the procedure to suit their respective priorities. Israel, while offering creative boundary language and engaging in the process, was increasingly spooked by Syria’s refusal to engage on anything but the prospective boundary. Netanyahu no doubt felt he was being maneuvered into something looking a lot like the dreaded deposit, and his concern was not without justification. He wanted the back-and-forth with the one-sided discussion paper dialogues to stop.
Muallem, meanwhile, had offered a potential breakthrough: Israel’s choice of topic once boundary language was provisionally agreed upon (or once issues still outstanding were seen by both parties as resolvable). We were close on territorial issues, with the upper Jordan River being the only outstanding issue of any consequence. But Netanyahu’s profound doubts about Assad’s commitment to the overall enterprise made even Muallem’s gesture insufficient in the eyes of the prime minister.
It had become clear to me that the continued evolution of the discussion paper would be problematical and perhaps doomed until the parties arrived at a mutual understanding of where the process would ultimately lead in terms of their respective core objectives and concerns. Both sides seemed to agree that the desired end state was peace. Each, however, strongly doubted the willingness of the other to commit to the content of peace in terms of specific deliverables. Although considerable progress had been made on the mutual deliverables front, it seemed impossible to escape entirely the same dynamic that had plagued talks in the 1990s and finally detonated the Syria-Israel track in early 2000.
My first idea was to accept the inevitable and bring about a pause in our shuttle diplomacy. My second was to take advantage of what Assad had recently reiterated on February 22, consistent with his Wall Street Journal interview at the end of January, to seven visiting Republican senators, about the need for two mutually acceptable “defined references,” one on territory and the other on security. It occurred to me that Ross and I should therefore use the pause to compose these two formulations, which we hoped would be the desperately needed added octane to turn the discussion paper into a framework agreement (or treaty) quickly.
Ross agreed, and we discussed how best to frame the two defined references. Steeped in the history of U.S. efforts to promote Israel-Syria peace, Ross also saw opportunity. If the two sides could be induced to accept both defined references, perhaps the time would be right for proximity and even face-to-face talks where they could, with American help, complete the drafting of a framework agreement or even a treaty itself. Indeed, Assad had mentioned these references as conditions for direct negotiations in his conversation with the GOP senators. Ross was thinking in terms of a secret meeting, perhaps in Prague or Budapest.
Naturally, I took the lead in drafting the boundary formulation. The two sides would, according to my formula, agree that the new international boundary between them would reflect the way their respective military forces and civilians were aligned prior to the outbreak of war in June 1967, an alignment referred to by Syria as “the line of June 4, 1967.” Israel and Syria would establish a joint boundary committee to delineate, at a scale suitable for eventual demarcation, their boundary during peace negotiations. To facilitate and expedite the work of the committee, the parties would agree up front to the following parameters:
- In the northern sector of the demilitarized zone established by the 1949 armistice, the boundary committee would delineate the boundary based on evidence available to it regarding the pre–June 1967 war separation of Israeli and Arab civilians and military forces as facilitated and recorded by U.N. military observers. The nearby Banias Spring would be on the Syrian side of the boundary. (The 1923 mandate boundary had placed it, over strong Zionist objection, inside Syria.)
- In the central sector of the demilitarized zone, the main geographical reference point guiding the boundary committee would be the Jordan River from the mid-points of the Khoury Farm (Pkak) Bridge and the Banat Yakub (Bnot Yaakov) Bridge to where the Jordan River enters the Sea of Galilee. Land lying to the west of the river in this sector would be within Israel; land to the east would be in Syria. Israel would exercise sovereignty over the river in this sector, and Syria could extract from the river and the Banias Spring no more than 50 million cubic meters annually.
- In the northeastern quadrant of the Sea of Galilee, the boundary would follow a line on the shore parallel to and ten meters from the edge of the water, following any alteration of the level of the Sea of Galilee. Arrangements would be arrived at by the parties providing for permanent, unobstructed, visa-free access for civilians from Israel to the full circumference of the Sea of Galilee and permanent, unobstructed, visa-free access by civilians from Syria to the recreational use of the Sea of Galilee where it runs alongside the international boundary.
- In the southern sector of the demilitarized zone, the committee would delineate the boundary based on evidence available to it regarding the pre–June 1967 war separation of Arab and Israeli civilians and military forces, including the division of Arab and Israeli agricultural lands as facilitated and recorded by U.N. military observers. In this sector, the town of Al-Hamma/Hamat-Gader would be on the Syrian side of the boundary.
- The full exercise of Syrian sovereignty would extend to the new international boundary within three years of the treaty of peace coming into force.
During months of discussions with the parties, I had heard nothing from either side that would lead me to believe that the above formulation would be unacceptable. Yes, there would be ongoing discussions centered on water: Syria was not yet reconciled to Israeli sovereignty over the upper Jordan River and Israel would certainly want to minimize Syrian offtakes from the river and its Banias Spring source.
But if Damascus would not regard this defined reference of the boundary as reflecting an accurate, reasonable, and defensible depiction of the line of June 4, 1967, then clearly it was not engaged seriously. And if Israel proved unable to accept a formulation consistent with undertakings it had declared provisionally doable, then clearly it was not prepared to pay the price for peace.
The immediate challenge, however, was to get the meeting with Bashar al-Assad. The opportunity in front of our faces was for him to accept a defined reference on security — one drafted by Ross and me —that would convince Netanyahu that Assad was truly committed to peace and to Syria’s fundamental strategic reorientation in the region. Drafting that document became, therefore, a pressing priority.
But first things first: how to arrange the meeting?
I suggested to Special Envoy Mitchell that the best course of action might be for Secretary Clinton to call her Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Muallem, and ask that he request a one-on-one meeting for me with President Assad. Mitchell readily agreed, as did Clinton.
Clinton decided, however, to preface the call to Muallem by speaking first with Netanyahu. Yitzhak Molcho, in a conversation with Clinton and Deputy Secretary of State William (Bill) Burns, had reflected Israel’s acceptance in principle of full withdrawal as the price of peace with Syria. Still, he indicated Israel’s profound uncertainty about Assad, expressing the fear that Israel would be lodging the equivalent of the deposit only to find Assad less than committed to an end game requiring him to do anything of substance.
Molcho emphasized that his boss — Netanyahu — was serious about exploring peace with Syria, that he was ready and willing to do the deal, and that he saw the U.S. role as important. Clinton replied that it was important for the United States to have a clear sense of not only Assad’s seriousness but also Netanyahu’s; otherwise, the United States would be out on a limb politically if Assad’s commitment to strategic reorientation were nailed down only to find Israel backing away. Molcho told the secretary that his boss would call her over the weekend to confirm his seriousness; this would give her the assurance she sought.
Bill Burns directed me to prepare “talking points” for that call. Whether Clinton followed my points exactly I do not know. Had she done so she would have told Netanyahu the following:
- We have a very promising development on the Syria track. During his last round in Damascus, Fred Hof managed to turn Syria’s stubbornness on the boundary issue to our advantage by getting Walid Muallem to acknowledge that once the boundary section of Fred’s paper is finished, the next subject to be discussed would be your choice entirely.
- This is exactly what we’ve been looking for. This gives us an opportunity to roll in on Assad personally and have the kind of talk with him you want us to have. This gives us the opportunity to find out for sure that he knows the price in terms of strategic reorientation.
- Based on Fred’s interactions with your side and theirs, the boundary differences are negligible in terms of distances.
- In the northern and southern ends, there are no differences worth debating.
- In the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee] area, I think the ten-meter line from the 1923 and 1949 agreements will work.
- Along the Jordan River feeding into Kinneret, they want the line to run through the midpoints of the two bridges down the middle of the river. Your side would prefer something like ten meters off the eastern bank.
- We don’t want to get bogged down in boundary minutiae or trivia. What I suggest is that you allow us to tell them that, in the event a full agreement is reached, Israel agrees that the boundary language will reflect a mutually agreed formula falling within the parameters of their proposal and your response.
- Armed with this, we can have the conversation that will tell us whether we have in Assad an actual partner.
- If we decide we don’t have a partner, we’ll shut this initiative down and take the position that it never happened.
- If we decide we do have a partner, we’ll focus our attention on the Syrian relationships issues until they’re nailed down.
- In the meantime, we could convene a confidential meeting in a mutually agreeable place to discuss and finalize boundary and water matters.
- We will also ensure that Assad understands and accepts the need for what you describe as “theater.” We agree this is essential.
- In sum, we have a clear way forward to the heart of the matter. We’ll protect you on this completely. The president is fully aware and committed. We need you to help us make this breakthrough.
Whether or not she recited the talking points verbatim, Secretary Clinton came away from the call fully satisfied that Netanyahu — though still deeply skeptical of Assad’s involvement and intentions — was indeed committed to the process and to full withdrawal if his needs were met.
Clinton was quite prepared, therefore, to speak with Muallem to request the meeting. She assured him on two points: her view that Netanyahu was seriously engaged and could, if necessary, be pulled by the United States across the finish line on territorial issues; and that my prospective meeting with Assad was not an attempt to circumvent Muallem. U.S. mediation had reached a critical go–no go stage, and we wanted to assess, based on the Syrian president’s own views and words, whether it was worth continuing the effort to broker Syria-Israel peace or to focus all our attention instead on Israel-Palestine.
Muallem assured Clinton that Assad was fully on board with the process; he had, after all, agreed to it in the presence of both George Mitchell and me in mid-September 2010. And there was the critical conversation with John Kerry in May 2010. But he (Muallem) would forward and support the request and try to arrange a telephone conversation between Clinton and Assad himself.
That Clinton-Assad call took place on February 23, 2011, at 9:01 in the morning in Washington and lasted fifteen minutes.
Clinton succeeded early in the conversation in obtaining Assad’s consent to a private meeting with me in the very near future. She assured the Syrian president of the seriousness of the other party and the readiness of the United States to ensure that the needs of both sides would be met.
Assad’s meeting on February 22 with Senator Richard Shelby and Shelby’s colleagues contributed significantly to the conversation. During that meeting, Assad had stressed (as he had a few weeks earlier in the Wall Street Journal) that it would be impossible to come to a peace agreement until basic references were defined and agreed to by both sides. The reference of greatest importance to Syria (territory) was already the subject of many hours of work by U.S. experts. The reference of greatest importance to Israel (security) required much more insight into the details of what Syria would be willing to do. Although Assad as chief of state was free to structure the forthcoming meeting as he wished, the focus of my mission would be to sound out the president on the specific contents of the security reference.
Clinton also succeeded in establishing a clear linkage between Syria-Israel peace and a significantly improved bilateral relationship between Damascus and Washington. Lifting sanctions, giving economic assistance, and encouraging trade: everything was on the table if the terms of peace could be arrived at.
Assad indicated he was ready to meet and that clarity was his objective. He reiterated the seriousness of his side and his strong desire for success. He expressed hope that President Obama would someday visit Syria.
As she had done telephonically with Netanyahu and Muallem, Clinton was delivering the mail quickly and efficiently. My doubts about President Obama’s commitment to Israel-Syria peace were for the time being resolved; Clinton’s assurances to Assad left me with the impression that Dennis Ross was prevailing over the Syria-Israel track doubters in the president’s inner circle.
Completing the defined reference on security took on obvious urgency. Ross had taken the drafting lead at the outset, and with little time to spare, it was finished quickly. In the end, it was a one-page discussion paper with a preamble, five points, and three footnotes. The preamble and five points stated:
This agreement [the prospective framework agreement/peace treaty] will end the state of war between Syria and Israel, establish peace, and require actions by both Parties to create a bilateral relationship and relationships with all other actors consistent with this new reality. Accordingly, neither side, in full accordance with the applicable principles of international law and the United Nations Charter, will threaten or render direct or indirect support to any acts, efforts, or plans of any other state or non-state actor, which threaten the security or safety of the other Party or its citizens. In particular, with the entry into force of the agreement,
- The Parties will refrain from the threat or use of force, directly or indirectly, against each other and will settle all disputes between them by peaceful means.
- The Parties will terminate and prohibit any activities on their territories or by their nationals that provide assistance to any regular, irregular or paramilitary forces seeking to harm the other Party or its citizens. [Footnote 1]
- Neither Party will invoke its right under any treaty, agreement or undertaking with any other state or non-state actor providing for the collective use of force against the other Party, or respond favorably to a request for assistance in the threat or use of force against the other Party under such a treaty, agreement or undertaking, or enter into or maintain a hostile alliance against the other Party. [Footnote 2]
- Neither Party will transfer weaponry or military equipment to Lebanon or permit such transfers from or through its territory, except to official security forces of the Government of Lebanon. [Footnote 3]
- The Parties share the goal of comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace and recognize this will require peace agreements between Palestinians and Israelis, Lebanon and Israel, and the normalization of relations between all members of the League of Arab States and Israel. Both Parties will make their utmost efforts to achieve this objective.
The preamble and five points were written in such a way that much of the language could be inserted directly into a Syria-Israel framework agreement or treaty. If Assad were to prove unable to sign up to this formulation, it would clearly be the end of my efforts.
The footnotes, however, got down to specific cases. And we expected that the wording of the three footnotes would give Assad real pause, for the footnotes spelled out the difficult and even dangerous actions he would have to undertake. Here is what the president of Syria would have to consider:
- In practice, given the current policies of these groups, Syria would need to terminate its provision of military and financial assistance (including arms, dual-use items, training and intelligence) to Hezbollah (whether in Syria or Lebanon), Hamas and other Palestinian groups planning, advocating and engaging in violence against Israel and Israelis, and expel from Syria to countries other than Lebanon all personnel affiliated with these and any other groups using Syrian territory for the prohibited activities.
- Syria reportedly has collective security agreements with Iran, Hezbollah, and Arab League parties that may fall within this requirement. As one example, Syria would need to end its relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (including the Quds Force) and prohibit the passage of its personnel and their equipment through Syrian territory and airspace. Syria would also need to terminate any agreements (if there are any) which specifically provide for the threat or use of force against Israel and Israeli citizens.
- Accordingly, Syria would need to end its participation in and facilitation of all transfers of arms and military equipment (including dual-use items) to Hezbollah either in Lebanon or for transfer into Lebanon. Syria would similarly need to deny the flow of weapons to Palestinian groups in Lebanon and support efforts to disarm them.
Any discussion of these three footnotes would present Assad with several options, all of them consequential.
He might resort to his government’s customary public and private practice of denial, claiming, for example, that any arms moving from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon represented the work of “smugglers.”
He might combine denial with legalistic haggling over the wording of each footnote, trying to alter the sizes and shapes of Syria’s potential deliverables.
He might, reflecting on the significance of what he was being asked to consider, ask for a “time-out” in the mediation process so that he and his national security advisers could undertake a careful assessment of the requirements the deal would impose on Syria and the challenges of implementing them.
He might flatly pronounce the requirements undoable. Or he might label them implementable only after Israeli soldiers and civilians were gone from occupied Syrian territory.
He might condition his acceptance on more than full territorial recovery, thereby alienating Israel and undermining the ability of the United States to persist in its mediation.
He might, ideally, agree to it all if the treaty’s terms provided for Syria’s eventual recovery of all land to the line of June 4, 1967. This I considered to be the least likely scenario. Notwithstanding the Kerry document of June 2010, I did not expect an uncomplicated agreement in full.
Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is Bard College’s Diplomat in Residence.