Alongside U.S. President Barack Obama’s attempt to renew the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a former military officer was tasked with reviving the Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Frederic C. Hof’s new book sheds light on Netanyahu and Assad’s reactions
Syrian President Bashar Assad and former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on two separate occasions. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom and AFP
From 2009 through 2014, when Barack Obama was president of the United States and Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister of Israel, the Israeli-Arab peace process was centered around attempts to reach an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Two efforts, one led by Obama and the other by Secretary of State John Kerry, ended in failure and increased Israel-U.S. tensions.
A lesser known fact is that alongside these efforts, the Obama administration made a covert attempt to mediate between Israel and Syria. This mediation was cut short due to the civil war in Syria in March of 2011, but according to U.S. mediator Frederic C. Hof, it was on a promising track, with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Netanyahu both showing surprising willingness to engage in serious negotiations on an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement.
This mediation effort was the sixth attempt to settle the dispute between Israel and Syria. Between 1992 and 2011 Syria and Israel had complex relations, with ongoing attempts to settle the conflict and reach a peace accord alongside an armed struggle conducted mostly by proxy, with Syria supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, during that time Israel discovered a Syrian attempted, aided by North Korean, to build a nuclear reactor and produce nuclear weapons in it. In 2007, under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the Israel Air Force destroyed the reactor.
During these years the United States played an active role in attempts to settle the Israeli-Syrian conflict. In the early phases of this effort, the “American peace team” led the way. Syrian ruler Hafez Assad viewed the peace process with Israel not as a bilateral process, but a trilateral one, similar to that which produced peace between Israel and Egypt in the late 1970s.
He was not solely interested in peace with Israel for its own sake. Assad, of course, wanted the Golan Heights returned, but no less than that, he wanted to establish new relations with the United States, to legitimize Syria in Washington’s eyes and to obtain U.S. economic aid. Therefore, even when Syria held direct talks with Israel, Assad insisted that American diplomats participate in them and maintain the tripartite nature of the process.
During the last decade of the previous century, and in the year 2000, President Clinton personally enlisted in the effort and met twice with Hafez Assad in an attempt to overcome the inherent difficulties in the Syrian-Israeli negotiations. The American peace team was composed mostly of experienced diplomats who began their careers under President George H.W. Bush, remaining in their positions under Clinton, with two of them – Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk – continuing under Obama as well.
The American peace team was the embodiment of what is known in Washington as the “revolving door,” through which diplomats and academics come and go between government, academia and think-tank posts. In the late 1990s, there was in a most interesting exception this tableau. A problematic figure of Lebanese descent, George Nader, who had been making the rounds since the 1980s between Washington, Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem, connected the Assad regime with the first Netanyahu administration, enlisting cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder for a mediation effort between Netanyahu and Assad. The effort, which began surprisingly well, eventually failed, leaving scars on both Damascus and Jerusalem. This effort revealed that Netanyahu was willing to make far-reaching territorial concessions in order to reach a deal with Damascus, and that direct contact with Assad, rather than through intermediaries, produces better results.
It was important to Israel to hold direct negotiations with Syria, unmediated by a third party, since Israel rightly viewed the very holding of direct talks as a sort of normalization – the very same reason that Hafez Assad and his successor and son Bashar sought to minimize direct contacts and preferred mediation. In 2008, when then-Prime Minister Olmert decided to renew the negotiations with Syria, he agreed to Turkish mediation (which like former efforts, began promisingly and ended in failure and in Turkish-Israeli tensions.)
In 2009, Frederic Hof entered the picture. He was enlisted as an adviser by Senator George Mitchell, who had been appointed by Obama as an envoy to the Middle East, to conduct the Israeli-Arab peace process. Mitchell assumed the task after a distinguished career in the Senate and an impressive peacemaking success in Ireland. He, like Obama, focused (unsuccessfully) during his mission on the Israeli-Palestinian track, and left the attempt to revive the Israeli-Syrian negotiations in the hands of his assistant, Hof. In his new book, “Reaching for the Heights: The Inside Story of a Secret Attempt to Reach a Syrian-Israeli Peace,” he recounts his experience.
Hof was brought on by Mitchell after a career as an army officer and in the State Department; he served as the U.S. military attaché in Beirut. He gained expertise as well as a reputation as the leading expert at drawing the boundaries between Israel and Lebanon and between Israel and Syria (which became known as the June 4, 1967 lines). When Mitchell came to him with his request, Hof was heading a consulting firm – a typical track in Washington. Hof says that he lived in Syria as a student as part of an American-Syrian exchange program; since then, his dream was to help bring peace between Syria and Israel.
When Hof assumed his new position, he encountered two main obstacles. In the Obama White House and in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, there was not much enthusiasm for another attempt to forge peace between Israel and Syria. This was due to a well-known issue:
Syria was demanding – and already had been since the days of Hafez Assad – that the negotiations begin with a commitment by Israel to withdraw completely from the Golan Heights. Israel, meanwhile, refused to make such a promise before receiving concrete proof of Syria’s intention to achieve a full peace and to meet Israel’s security needs.
In 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin found a solution to this issue. He entrusted U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher with a conditional and hypothetical willingness for a complete withdrawal from the Golan in return for a sufficient package of peace and security. Various versions of this formula were used by prime ministers Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu (when Lauder was an envoy), Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, but this was not enough in the end, and Hof sought a different way to solve the issue.
Hof overcame the difficulty he encountered within the Obama administration by joining up with Dennis Ross. Hof and Ross are very different. Ross is an exceptionally creative diplomat, who knew how to make his way through the maze of a number of U.S. administrations and to navigate between Israelis and Arabs. He therefore played a central role in the peace process from its inception until 2011. Hof, meanwhile, went into his job in the administration with the outlook he gained as an army officer. He operated through orderly procedures and respected the hierarchy into which he was embedded. The contrast and combination between the two were fascinating and productive.
Ross made it clear to Hof that in order to succeed in his task, he had to earn the backing of the president and to meet with Netanyahu. Hof wondered how he could get to the president and meet with Netanyahu when he was subordinate to Mitchell. He wrote in his book that he had grown up in a traditional home and was then subjected to 20 years of structured life in the U.S. Army – “respect for authority was as natural as breathing.” Hof respected Mitchell and the hierarchical framework in which he found himself, but with Ross’ help he was also able to meet with Netanyahu and with Obama, and in the end he began the job of mediation between Netanyahu and Bashar Assad.
Most of Hof’s book is a description of his meetings with Assad and Netanyahu in early 2011, which were surprisingly successful. Hof and Ross overcame the issue of guarantees when they presented a U.S. working paper that included a reference to the June 4th lines. Surprisingly, the formulation worked for both Assad and Netanyahu. As opposed to previous efforts, the main point of the U.S. mediation was not the usual formula of “land for peace” but “land in return for strategic change.”
In other words, in exchange for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, Israel was supposed to receive not only peace with Syria but also Syrian disengagement from Iran and Hezbollah. From the time of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the trilateral Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance had been seen by Israel as a grave strategic threat, and the formula presented by Hof and Ross was enough to convince Netanyahu to agree to enter serious negotiations based on it.
Hof describes in detail the reactions of Assad and Netanyahu to the U.S. plan. With proper caution, he does not claim that the effort was inevitably headed for success, and does not reject the possibility that one or both of the two parties could have jumped off the train before reaching the destination.
In any case, the effort was cut short due to the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in March 2011. As a result of the war Assad became an illegitimate ruler in the eyes of the world, including Israel, viewed as a war criminal who killed about half a million of his citizens and used chemical weapons against them, and the issue of the Israeli-Syrian agreement was removed from the agenda, at least for a substantial number of years.
With the conclusion of his mediation efforts, Hof remained in the Obama administration, became an ambassador, and together with the former ambassador in Damascus, Robert Ford, he coordinated U.S. policy in Syria. The two diplomats were burned by Obama’s policy, especially when in 2013 Obama decided at the last moment not to attack Syria after its massive use of chemical weapons against a civilian population, which he had described a year earlier as a “red line.”
Ironically, Russian President Vladimir Putin had a hand in stopping Obama from striking Syria, by promising that Damascus would eliminate its chemical weapons stockpile. Needless to say, this promise was only partially kept and Assad continued to use chemical weapons against the civilian population in the following years.
In 2015, Putin was encouraged by Obama’s hesitancy and intervened directly in the civil war in Syria. In cooperation with Iran, he tipped the balance in Assad’s favor. At present, when Putin is waging a cruel war with its neighbor, bombing civilian targets and destroying residential neighborhoods, it’s hard not to see the connection between the Russian intervention in Syria and the present crisis in Ukraine.
In any case, Hof, like Ambassador Ford, was disappointed by the Obama administration’s handling of Syria. Both resigned and became outspoken critics of Obama and his policy. This criticism is blatantly expressed in Hof’s book as well.
Read the article on the site of Haaretz.