President Barack Obama may not be happy about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new Syrian initiative when it is presented to him on July 6, but he will find it hard to reject.
First, he concedes more Golan land than offered by any former Israeli leader and, second, his initiative draws heavily on a plan which, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's US sources, is dubbed in Washington "the improved Fred Hof initiative" – named for the senior aide to the US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Obama's own contact-man with top Syrian officials.
Frederic C. Hof has developed broad personal ties with top Syrian political, military and intelligence ranks. He has come to believe that in time, Syria can be prevailed upon to break away from its close bonds with Iran and Hizballah and that President Bashar Assad's requirements for peace can be squared with Israel's legitimate needs.
The US president holds Hof's views in very high regard and often heeds his suggestions on how to proceed on Middle East issues.
Netanyahu is therefore certain he is backing a winning horse in the White House and Damascus by adhering closely to Hof's roadmap for peace with Syria. His challenges on the domestic front are more daunting.
The Golan Heights's elongated structure, as described in the first two articles, means that there is very little space between Israel's front line against Syria and the interior.
No more than one to five kilometers separate Israeli Golan villages and its main water sources – the Sea of Galilee and Yarmouk River which are fed from Lebanese springs – from Israel's border defenses – the Hill Line.
(See full-size map http://www.debka.com/static/images/Golan_Lines.swf)
Shifting the Hill Line even marginally to the west would substantially weaken Israel's defense capabilities and make it more difficult to mount a successful attack on Syria.
In 1976, the late Yitzhak Rabin became the first Israeli prime minister to inform Washington (Secretary of State Warren Christopher) of his government's willingness to execute a withdrawal from Golan. Since then, Israeli military strategists have charted two lines of military withdrawal to the west in the event of an interim peace accord being negotiated between Syria and Israel, which Netanyahu intends proposing on July 6.
The Hill Line
Located 3-5 five kilometers west of the present armistice line dividing the Golan between Israel and Syria, the Hill Line starts in the north at Jabal Qata (south of Majdal Shams) and continues southward towards Tel Shiban, Mt. Shifon, Tel Fazra and Givat Bezek. This line does not have much political logic. Syria would gain a very small sliver of land, probably not enough to form the basis of any accord. Its sole advantage would be the transfer to Syrian sovereignty of three of four Druze villages, whose inhabitants never gave up their Syrian citizenship and retained close family and trade ties on the other side of the border.
The Ridge Line
This is the focus of the proposal Netanyahu is carrying to the White House. Between two and five kilometers from the Jordan River, the Ridge Line 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.
An Israeli pullback to the Ridge Line is tantamount to ceding the entire Golan to Syria and dismantling all the settlements established there in 43 years – hugely expensive and political dynamite at home.
Retaining this line is nevertheless a better deal for Israel than a full withdrawal beyond the Jordan River, because of two advantages:
A. Israel would retain control of both banks of the Jordan, a major source of its water supply. A troop presence on the two banks would make it easier to redeploy military strength to the Golan in the event of war.
B. Holding the high Ridge Line would give the Huleh Valley and Sea of Galilee basin military protection against enemy fire (a regular feature of the 1958-1967 years) and place an obstacle in the path of Syrian forces advancing on these lowland areas of northern Israel.
Netanyahu prefers the Syrian track to the Palestinian
The Israeli prime minister will try and convince the US president that the Syrian track is more promising than the badly limping Palestinian talks by showing him how much land he is prepared to give up to Syria, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources note. The Ridge Line offers a much more generous Israeli withdrawal than the Hill Line and therefore is closer to Assad's maximalist demand for Israel to pull back to a line west of the Jordan, hand over every inch of the Golan and give Syria access to the Sea of Galilee, for good measure.
Netanyahu's proposal moreover runs parallel to Fred Hof's improved roadmap (which started life as an idyllic plan for the Golan to be transformed into a nature reserve shared by both countries).
The Hof plan is a roadmap in that it provides for Israel to withdraw to the Ridge Line in two provisional stages:
In Stage One, Israeli troops would pull back from the Hill Line to the central Golan heartland, but retain its cluster of early warning stations and surveillance posts on Mt. Hermon – so as to keep track of the ground from Golan up to Damascus, 40 kilometers away.
Israel would also continue to hold the southern sector of Golan and the moderate gradient sloping from the northeast to the southwest. The southernmost section is a sheer drop down to the Jordan River to the west and the Yarmouk River to the south. Its rocky cliff face cannot be traversed by armored units, as explained above.
The second stage only after the first has held for some years
Stage Two would take place after a specified number of years, when Israel is certain that Syria has abandoned its belligerent intentions and is ready to sign a full peace treaty. Until then, Israel will continue to hold this southern gradient, the east bank of the Jordan River and its early warning and surveillance facilities on Mt. Hermon.
According to our sources, an element of the Hof plan which the Israeli prime minister has not accepted is its inclusion of "small tracts in the Jordan River Valley" for placing on the negotiating table with the Golan. Otherwise, he is prepared to buy the improved Hof roadmap for peace with Syria and fit Israeli policies into its frame.
Any move to quit Golan would be extremely unpopular in Israel. It would require an 80-member majority (of the 120 members of Knesset) to revoke the law passed in 1981 extending Israeli jurisdiction to the territory.
To achieve this Netanyahu would have to reshuffle his cabinet, dropping right-wing factions in favor of left-of-center partners.