Withdrawal and Change in the Golan

Frederic Hof, CEO of international consulting firm AALC, has just released a report that builds on two of his previous works dealing with the obstacles to Israeli-Syrian peace and potential ways around them.

On a day as full of mixed feelings as this one - joy that Ehud Olmert is leaving, mixed with sorrow over Benjamin Netanyahu's return - it's worth relaxing on a short trip to the scenic Golan Heights. It's pretty there now, from Jordan Park to Odem Forest, which lies between the Israel Defense Forces division headquarters in Nafah and the Druze village of Masadeh, with heartwarming views of streams and blooming flowers. It's a good time for tourism, and to judge by the signals from Washington, for diplomacy as well.

Frederic Hof, the CEO of Virginia-based international consulting firm AALC, has just released a report that builds on two of his previous works dealing with the obstacles to Israeli-Syrian peace and potential ways around them. The Hof plan gives Syria land and regulated access to water, and gives Israel water and regulated access to land.

Hof, who is close to former senator George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, is being vetted for an appointment as his deputy. The plan was issued by the United States Institute of Peace, which was established by the U.S. Congress and whose board of directors includes Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The idea behind the plan, which is based partly on detailed discussions with Israelis, has evolved from establishing a nature reserve to setting up a peace park to creating a Jordan Valley-Golan Heights Environmental Preserve, under Syrian sovereignty. One of its premises is that Syria's "'bottom line' for peace with Israel" is the return of all the land conquered in June 1967, which includes not just the Golan, but also small tracts of land in the Jordan Valley - "acreage that adjoins bodies of water vitally important to Israel's economy and of marginal use to Syria," as the report puts it. Hof also assumes that Israel's bottom line is security-oriented: the demilitarization of land returned to Syria, international monitoring led by the United States and "the strategic reorientation of Damascus away from Iran, Hezbollah, and certain Palestinian organizations, most notably Hamas."

Syria cannot pursue peace with Israel while keeping one foot in the camp of those who seek Israel's destruction. If a peace accord is signed that deals with the key issues of borders, water, normalization and what the Hof plan calls the "frontier security regime," the implementation process, which is expected to take several years, could offer the opportunity for bilateral cooperation.

Under the plan, the evacuated land would become an environmental preserve controlled by Syria; the preserve would include some two dozen parks and reserves that have already been established by Israel, from the Susita reserve in the south to the Hermon reserve in the north. The preserve would protect the water sources in the area, and Israelis would be allowed access to the northeastern part of Lake Kinneret and the parts of the Golan included in the preserve. One possibility is that, while signs proclaiming "Welcome to Syria" could be placed between Ein Gev and Kursi and at the eastern end of the Arik Bridge, Israelis could be made exempt from visa requirements and admission fees to get into the preserve, which they would be able to visit for one day at a time, during daylight hours only. Such a preserve could include the existing Yehudiya and Gamla nature reserves (a change from the original proposal). In exchange, Syrian citizens would enjoy similar conditions at the Kinneret.

Mitchell's steps are coordinated with Clinton's office, particularly with Jeffrey Feltman, who heads the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and previously served as consul general to Jerusalem and ambassador to Lebanon. Feltman knows that Washington's ties with Damascus are a cause of concern in Beirut. That's why he made an effort to reach out to the Lebanese last week, saying at a congressional hearing that the U.S. would not abandon Lebanon (and, unlike the British, would not distinguish between the "political" and "military" wings of the Hezbollah terror group).

Hof, for his part, assumes that Israel will not complete its gradual withdrawal from the Golan if Syria continues to arm Hezbollah while the pullout is being implemented. He believes the Obama administration's challenge will be to "determine whether a different American approach to Syria can encourage Damascus to consider a strategic orientation different from the one it has pursued for many years."

Henry Kissinger used strikingly similar language in 1975, as U.S. secretary of state. When Israel refused to withdraw from the Mitla and Gidi passes in the Sinai as part of an interim agreement with Israel, Kissinger said Israel didn't understand that the issue was not a kilometer one way or the other, but a change in orientation. As with Israel and Egypt then, so it is with Israel and Syria now. It would be interesting to know whether the subject was on the agenda of a meeting scheduled to take place in New York two weeks ago between Kissinger and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. The meeting was ultimately canceled, but Ashkenazi frequently talks with U.S. senators and other American officials about the need to remove Syria from the circle of countries hostile to Israel. The cost of such a removal is abundantly clear.