Exclusive: PM Olmert willing to cede Shebaa Farms to UN custody ahead of Golan
debkafile‘s sources reveal that prime minister Ehud Olmert told US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice when they met in Jerusalem Sunday, June 15, that he was willing to evacuate Israeli troops and hand this strategic enclave on the Hermon slopes to United Nations custody as early as July. He has not brought the issue either before the full government or the security cabinet. Defense minister Ehud Barak and the IDF high command are against this step, just one more topic at sharp issue between Olmert and Barak.
Rice took the news to Beirut Monday at the end of her talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. She informed Lebanese president Michel Sleiman and prime minister-designate Fouad Siniora: “The United States hopes for an early settlement to the Shebaa Farms issue.”
Israel’s withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms would expose its vital military positions on the northwestern slopes of Hermon to the Syrian 10th and 14th Divisions, elements of which are deployed in Lebanon close to the three-way border junction. Israeli military sources warn that handing it to the UN, namely the South Lebanese peacekeeping force, will extend the force’s lackadaisical control over South Lebanon to this strategic sector as well, granting Hizballah freedom of action in a fresh arena.
Our Middle East sources disclose that the Shebaa Farms tactic was initiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy; he sold it to President George W. Bush when they met in Paris Saturday.
Sarkozy’s plan consists of five steps:
1. In the first week of July, Israel will announce it is ready to cede the enclave. The United States will then join France and Israel in issuing a statement indicating that Israel’s willingness to evacuate the Shebaa Farms is part of an evolving understanding intended to lead to its withdrawal from the Golan.
2. But first, two French emissaries, the president’s diplomatic adviser Jean-David Levit and his chef de bureau Claude Gueant, traveled to Damascus Sunday, June 15. They presented Israel’s offer to the Syrian president Bashar Assad as the first fruit of the indirect Syrian-Israeli peace talks mediated by Turkey.
The link between the Turkish and French initiatives surfaced Monday when Olmert’s two representatives to these talks, Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turgeman, flew to Paris from Istanbul to brief the president’s office on the just-ended session and plot the next moves. Sarkozy pays a state visit to Israel before the end of June.
3. Paris is keen on some sort of climax for the opening of the conference to establish a union of Mediterranean States (UPM) in Paris on July 13. Sarkozy views the event as the crowning diplomatic achievement of his first year at the Elysee. He has invited Assad as his guest of honor at the Bastille Day parade the next day.
4. Sarkozy hopes that the signal honor he has conferred on Assad plus the Israeli concession will bring him and Olmert under the same roof for the conference opening. A brief encounter might even develop.
5. But Assad is playing hard ball. The two French officials failed to get him to say whether or not he will attend the Mediterranean conference, much less meet with Olmert. He says Israel’s promise to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms is not enough. He wants a fixed date in July or early August at latest before taking up Sarkozy’s invitation to the conference. As to meeting Olmert, that is not on Assad’s agenda.
The 12-square mile Shebaa Farms enclave lies just north of the Golan on the northwestern slope of the strategic Hermon range. It was captured by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967 from Syria as part of the Golan and as such was later recognized by the UN. Syria later said the Shebaa Farms were part of Lebanon, in order to provide the Lebanese Hizballah with a pretext to carry on attacking Israel and refusing to obey UN Security Council resolutions demanding the dismantling of its armed militia.