The arrival in Jerusalem of a US diplomat with a longstanding interest in bringing about Israeli-Syrian peace is fueling speculation that the Obama administration is trying to relaunch negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus.
Frederic C. Hof, a conflict resolution expert and senior adviser to US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, arrived in Israel Sunday. He will remain through Wednesday, and is meeting with a variety of Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak and senior military officers, before continuing to Damascus for talks.
Yediot Aharonoth, Israel's largest circulation newspaper, reports that Mr. Hof is in the process of presenting the draft of a plan for Israeli-Syrian peace that would find solutions to the two countries' dispute over the Golan Heights, a territory Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed. While Israeli officials have declined to comment on whether such a plan is being floated, Mr. Hof's vision was outlined in part in March when he published a report, "Mapping Peace Between Syria and Israel," with the United States Institute for Peace in Washington. (Click here for the full report in pdf format.)
An American embassy official in Tel Aviv confirmed that Hof was here exploring peace concepts with various officials in the region.
The status of the Golan Heights is the main obstacle to Israeli-Syrian peace, which various efforts have failed to secure in recent years. In 2008, Israel and Syria conducted back-channel discussions facilitated by Turkey, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad suspended the talks in protest over the January war in Gaza.
However, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who left office in late January, was optimistic that the talks would resume and eventually produce an accord.
"We started negotiations with Syria and... at the end of the day, we will be able to reach an agreement that will end the conflict between us and the Syrians," he said in a speech.
Hof envisions environmental preserve in Golan Heights
A key facet of the deal would involve shared water resources and the creation of a Jordan Valley-Golan Heights Environmental Preserve. While Israeli settlements would be dismantled, the plan envisions both Israelis and Syrians having free access to the territory for the purposes of tourism, among other things.
"In addition to mitigating Israeli concerns about the return of sensitive territories and providing a venue for informal people-to-people contacts, the Jordan Valley-Golan Heights Environmental Preserve approach would give the parties a good platform for practical bilateral cooperation even as the ink on a peace treaty is drying, allowing for a constructive, confidence-building start to the implementation phase of the withdrawal process," the report says, according to the USIP's website.
Israelis dampen expectations
Israeli officials have tried to downplay expectations over Hof's visit, noting that a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not on the schedule. Officials in Mr. Netanyahu's office have indicated that the emphasis should continue to be placed on reaching a two-state with the Palestinians.
Uzi Arad, Netanyhau's national security adviser, said in a weekend interview with Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Israel would not consider any peace deal that would prevent it from staying "deep into the Golan Heights," a definition sure to be off-putting to Syrian negotiators.
"The Syrians are certainly aware that the Netanyahu government and the majority of the public will not leave the Golan Heights," Dr. Arad said in the interview.
There are more than two dozen Israeli settlements in the area, with 9,000 settlers living there.
Israeli spokesman: It's Syria that's stalling talks
A spokesman for Netanyahu says that Syria should not expect Israel to agree to preconditions – such as recognizing verbal agreements that are said to have been made by the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s. Israel, in return, would be ready to talk to Syria, despite its disinclination to do so, given support in Damascus for Hamas and Hizbullah.
"We are ready for negotiations with the Syrians without preconditions, but it's the Syrians who are putting all sorts of preconditions on the talks that prevent them from happening," says Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu. "They're actively supporting both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, not just political support but very tangible support. If we wanted to say no talks until that stops, we could."
The Obama administration decided in June to send an ambassador to Damascus, ending a four-year hiatus in diplomatic ties.