Following the two-day Israeli-Palestinian face-to-face supervised by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell prepared for a major US diplomatic breakthrough during his visit to Damascus Thursday: The possible revival of Syrian-Israeli peace talks. He carries with him for Syrian president Bashar Assad a detailed map drawn up by Binyamin Netanyahu to represent Israel's proposed withdrawal from much of the Golan. This map is a DEBKA-Net-Weekly Exclusive.
The Israeli prime minister refused to go into borders between Israel and the future Palestinian state at the talks he held with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at Sharm el-Sheikh Tuesday, Sept 14. First he wanted to dispose of other issues such as security.
His tactics for Syria are quite different. Three months ago, Netanyahu showed President Barack Obama detailed maps of the Golan showing how far he was willing to pull Israel forces back, provided Assad followed in the footsteps of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat who visited Jerusalem in November 1977 and was rewarded with a full peace accord with Israel and the recovery of the entire Sinai Peninsula and its demilitarization.
Two conditions for Syria
A second Israeli condition for negotiating a peace-plus-withdrawal pact is the severance of the Assad regime's strategic and military ties with Iran and termination of its backing for Hizballah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and a host of Palestinian terrorist organizations enjoying Syrian sanctuary and hospitality.
When he last visited the White House on July 6, Netanyahu presented this plan to Obama as his ultimate objective. However, debkafile's sources in Washington report that the US President, Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell have adopted it as giving them enough leeway to tempt Assad into peace diplomacy
with an active American hands-on.
Our sources report that France has been brought aboard the initiative.
When French President Nicolas Sarkozy saw the Netanyahu map, he appointed the eminent diplomat Jean-Claude Cousseran as special envoy for promoting an Israeli-Syrian peace accord. Cousseran was in Damascus on Monday, September 13, and spoke privately with Assad. Right after that conversation, the Elysee told the White House and Hillary Clinton that the door was open for Mitchell to present Netanyahu's proposals and map.
This week the Obama administration has embarked on two major Middle East diplomatic projects in the hope that by striking gold on at least one, its mediators can stimulate a second.
debkafile's Jerusalem sources note that while the US and French presidents have been made privy to Netanyahu's peace initiatives and maps (shown exclusively here on debkafile), the prime minister has never shown them to his own government, his security cabinet or his inner Forum of Seven – excepting only for Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
debkafile's Exclusive Map represents Netanyahu's proposed lines of withdrawal
In territorial terms, Israel and the IDF would pull back to what is known as the Ridge Line, thereby ceding to Syria the entire Golan plateau together with most of the communities living there. In military terms, Israel would be left with the comfortable option of quickly regaining control of the territory if the peace accords break down.
Geographically, Golan plateau is 1,800 square kilometers in area. Syria commands a third and Israel roughly 1,200 square kilometers. Netanyahu's proposed withdrawal line (see attached map) is located 2.5 kilometers from the Jordan River. It is the last high-altitude area before the land on the western face of Golan drops steeply down to the Jordan River, the Hula Valley and Sea of Galilee.
Even after the bulk of the territory is restored to Syria, the Ridge Line offers Israel two major advantages compared with a total withdrawal up to the Jordan River.
1. Israel would retain control of the western and eastern banks of the Jordan River, a major source of its water supply. A troop presence on the two banks would make it easier to transfer military forces back to Golan in the event of war.
2. The Ridge Line is a natural barrier to passage in and out of the Golan. It would give the population centers of the Hula and Sea of Galilee valleys below with an Israeli military firewall against the Syrian shooting attacks plaguing them before the 1967 war and place an obstacle in the path of Syrian tanks trying to break from Golan to the lowlands of northeastern Israel.
According to our sources, Netanyahu has been trying for three months to convince Obama to place the Syrian peace track ahead of the fairly hopeless Palestinian process. He has shown the president how far Israel is prepared to go in ceding territory for drawing Assad to the negotiating table.
The prime minister also argued that, barring minor differences, his plan was very similar to one put forward by Frederic Hoff, the Syrian expert on Mitchell's team, which proposes a two-stage Israeli withdrawal to the Ridge Line.
Stage One: After pulling back to central Golan, Israel would still retain its early warning stations and surveillance posts on Mt. Hermon and so command the vista from Golan to Damascus 40 kilometers away. Israel would also control both eastern and western banks of the River Jordan, making it easier to redeploy troops on the Golan in the event of a war.
Stage Two: Israel would also continue to hold the rim of the sheer rocky southern slopes dropping down to the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers which are impassable to armored units. This would act as a firewall against the Syrian shooting attacks which plagued Israel from 1948 until the Golan was seized in 1967 and a barrier against Syrian tanks breaking through to Israel's northeastern lowlands.
Israelwould not have to withdraw west of the Jordan for a number of years – until Syria's commitment to peace is proven.
According to our sources, Netanyahu is ready to buy into the Hof plan with the necessary adjustments.
Hof, our sources note, is the high-ranking American diplomat dispatched recently to Assad with a warning of serious consequences if he gave Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist organizations like Hamas for major free rein for terrorist attacks against Israeli targets with the aim of torpedoing the direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.
This same diplomat was also sent to Beirut last month with Washington's warning that a repetition of the firefight provoked by Lebanese troops with an Israeli border unit on Aug. 3 would result in the IDF wiping out the Lebanese army in the space of four hours.