In his recently published book Reaching for the Heights: The Inside Story of a Secret Attempt to Reach a Syrian-Israeli Peace, veteran American diplomat Frederic C. Hof reveals the fascinating inside story of his secret attempts at achieving a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement prior to the 2011 anti-government uprising in Syria.
Hof concludes that such a deal is now dead, and that the likelihood of it being achieved during his lifetime is low.
I am afraid he is correct.
One of Hof’s frustrating conclusions is that the Americans were not really interested in promoting Israeli-Syrian peace, even though it might have been far more strategically important to them than Israeli-Palestinian peace, which has featured in every White House agenda since the early 1990s.
With the Israelis determined to keep all occupied Palestinian territories for themselves, with as few Palestinians as possible, the possibilities for peace on that front would have been remote anyhow.
This is coupled with the perception, according to Palestinian negotiators, that the United States is a “dishonest broker” due to its seemingly unconditional support for Israel.
It was apparently too much for the US to simultaneously work towards Syrian-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli peace, Hof concludes, although consecutive administrations had an abundance of staffers to adequately tackle both.
However, it is likely that the inability to achieve either peace track has more to do with politics than US shortcomings or inability. It is the political will — or lack thereof — that counts, says Hof.
The lack of response to Hof’s efforts from the Obama administration gave him the feeling that his “work in Damascus and Jerusalem had produced an unwelcome surprise.”
Hof’s book is a fascinating and candidly written work.
However, it is riddled with wishful thinking and written entirely from the US perspective, as Hof was the chief architect and mediator of the 2009-2011 US initiative to broker peace between Israel and Syria.
The book leads me to conclude that Israel was — and remains — not really that eager for peace with Syria in exchange for returning all Syrian lands that it has occupied since 1967, and which were officially recognised as Israeli territory by US President Donald Trump in 2019.
It is more probable that Israel wants to keep all of the occupied territories and corner Arab countries into accepting a long-lasting status quo based on full Israeli domination of the Middle East.
Having the most powerful army in the region, it is not Israel that is begging for peace now, but rather, the other way around.
Israel wants Arab countries to accept “larger Israel” as it is, and it wants them to strive for peace, irrespective of all the Israeli injustices, war crimes, and violations of international law that have taken place since the establishment of Israel in 1948.
Israel can no longer portray itself as the party being threatened by Arab countries, as it did in past decades — though it was never really the case.
Since 2012, Israel has been regularly targeting military sites inside Syria, without these attacks ever reaching international headlines.
Hof concludes that “if the territory in question becomes irretrievably Israeli, history will record that the deed to the property was conveyed not by Donald Trump, but by Bashar al-Assad.”
It is doubtful whether this is correct.
‘Missed opportunity’ theory
However, it fits nicely into the comfortable theory of the so-called series of “missed opportunities” of Arab countries (the Palestinians included) in making peace with Israel and accepting Israel’s so-called “generous” peace offers, which generally were not much more than the suggested return of areas forcefully taken from their legitimate Arab owners.
Hof shows understanding for the internal political position of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the leader of a so-called democratic country, but he does not extend this understanding to the dictatorship in Syria, which must take into account Syrian and broader Arab public opinion, particularly where Palestine is concerned.
It is often argued that if only Arab countries were democracies, peace with Israel would have been much easier to achieve. However, it is likely that the opposite is true since democracies have to take national public opinion into consideration much more so than dictatorships.
In fact, it can be relatively easier for dictators to make peace compared to democratically-elected leaders. Also, elected governments can always hide behind the will of their voters, when the majority maintains an opinion that contradicts the principles of international law and human rights — as is the case with Israel.
The Syrian-Israeli peace which Hof aimed for was to be a Pax Americana. Part of it would require Syria to make a radical shift in alliances, breaking off ties with both Iran and Hezbollah and expelling them from Syria.
Such a shift is easier said than done and Hof is fully aware of this.
It would be relatively easy for Syria to stop any Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah via its territory, but it would be naïve to assume that Syria could keep Hezbollah under its full control in Lebanon.
It is also possible that Iranian arms could reach Lebanon without even having to cross through Syrian territory.
The longstanding Syrian-Russian alliance is, strangely enough, fully sidestepped in Hof’s book — as if Russia were not an essential part of Syria’s strategic alliance since the 1950s.
The real motivation
Hof’s approach to the challenge of Syrian-Israeli peace was “motivated by much more than the prospect of Israel yielding occupied territory in exchange for normal, peaceful relations (embassies, trade, tourism) with its Syrian neighbour.”
He saw Israel-Syria peace “as a way for the United States to land a crippling blow to Iran, one that would break its Lebanese arm.”
Hof says that he could not conceive “a peace agreement between Damascus and Jerusalem that would not entail Syria’s strategic reorientation, its breaking of[f] all relationships with parties posing security threats to Israel.”