Reaching for the Heights

The Inside Story of a Secret Attempt to Reach a Syrian-Israeli Peace
April 2022
216 Pages
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216 Pages
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This important and eye-opening book is an insider’s account of secret negotiations to broker a Syria-Israel peace deal—negotiations that came tantalizingly close to success. Ambassador Frederic Hof, who spearheaded the US-mediated discussions in 2009-11, takes readers behind the scenes in Washington, Damascus, and Jerusalem, where President Assad and Prime Minister Netanyahu inched toward a deal to return Israeli-occupied areas of the Golan Heights in exchange for Syria severing military ties with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Hof’s candid assessments, refreshing self-criticism, compelling prose, and rich historical detail make this a masterful memoir of an unknown chapter in American diplomacy.

"If and when the leaders of Syria, Israel, and the United States return to discussing territory, peace, and security, this book will be their indispensable guide.”

— Yossi Alpher, author of Death Tango: Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, and Three Fateful Days in March (2022)

“Israelis and Syrians not able to reach an agreement? Nonsense! When a knowledgeable, experienced, and tough-minded diplomat is involved, it can happen. Hof reveals the oh-so-close agreement he negotiated in secret. If not for the murderous rampage against his own people by Assad and the reluctance of the Obama administration to use its influence to stop it, the Middle East map would certainly be changed. Opportunity squandered.”

— Ambassador Richard L. Armitage, former Deputy Secretary of State

“This book will be mined for years to come by those who seek to understand the subtleties and complexities of how diplomacy actually works at the sharp edge.”

— Dr. Peter Jones, Executive Director of the Ottawa Dialogue

“Hof has provided readers with an extraordinary and rare insight into the pointy end of US diplomacy as he and others sought to do the seemingly impossible: negotiate peace between Israel and Syria. In Reaching for the Heights, Hof opens a window not just into the negotiations but into the minds of all those involved and on a process about which very little has been known. Syria’s descent into chaos in 2011 may have brought a premature end to the talks, but as Hof makes clear, Assad’s decision to choose violence over dialogue also had profound consequences for the world we live in today.”

— Charles Lister, Director of the Syria Program at the Middle East Institute

“Reaching For the Heights is a masterful account of one of the most complex mediation efforts of our time. Hof’s memoir puts you in the nexus of hardball negotiations, offering invaluable lessons for mediators and policymakers alike.”

— Dareen Khalifa, Senior Syria Analyst, International Crisis Group

“Hof combines personal involvement with academic expertise to provide rare, revealing, and animating insight into the latest effort to resolve the Syrian-Israeli conflict. A must-read for anyone interested in US diplomacy and Middle Eastern politics.”

— Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former chief negotiator with Syria

“Reaching for the Heights reveals that the negotiations in 2010 and 2011 offered not a land-for-peace formula but a land-for-strategic realignment of Syria—with Syria turning away from Iran and Hezbollah. Hof rightly questions whether Bashar al-Assad, who waged war on his own people, would have lived up to such a deal. Anyone who wants to understand Assad’s Syria and what might have been needs to read this remarkable book.”

— Dennis Ross, William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

“Hof has written the definitive account of US efforts to overcome decades of hostility to secure a peace agreement between Syria and Israel. Drawing on his vast knowledge of the history of Syrian-Israeli relations and his unmatched experience as the lead US official mediating between them during the Obama administration, Hof provides a riveting account of just how close these historic adversaries came to a deal before the Assad regime’s brutal response to mass protests in 2011 caused negotiations to collapse. A masterful achievement, a compelling narrative, and essential reading for anyone interested in the story of US efforts to broker a peaceful settlement of one of the most enduring and challenging conflicts in the modern Middle East.”

— Steven Heydemann, Ketcham Chair in Middle East Studies, Smith College

“Achieving peace in the Middle East is a Sisyphean task, but no one could have been better prepared to work for an Israel-Syria accord than Frederic Hof and Dennis Ross. The problem they faced in 2011 was the players: Bashar al-Assad, a “duplicitous operator”; Benjamin Netanyahu, a leader disinclined to take big political risks; and Barack Obama, who lacked the necessary vision and political commitment. This tale about the nitty-gritty of diplomacy lays out the issues and the possible resolutions for the day when the stars and the players finally line up.”

— Roy Gutman, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and author of How We Missed the Story: Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan

“Reaching for the Heights is a compelling book that serves as a collection of lessons learned, a blueprint for future negotiations, and a must-read for anyone truly interested in understanding why a lasting and just peace between Syria and Israel remains elusive.”

— Rafif Jouejati, Non-Resident Scholar and Member of Syria Strategic Group, Middle East Institute

"Hof's book recounts his involvement in the 2009–2011 US-mediated Syrian-Israeli peace process. His recollections of his shuttle diplomacy during those years provides insight into the thinking of two enemy neighbors and the progress toward a peace treaty that would never materialize after the onset of the Syrian conflict. This book sheds light on Hof's commendable efforts and desire to finalize this peace process.”

— Jomana Qaddour, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council

“Ambassador Frederic Hof’s narrative of a secret shuttle diplomacy effort between Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel gives you an insider’s look into the major players involved from 2009 to 2011. Hof, a diplomat with great integrity and vision, also explains his motivations for taking on the Syria-Israel peace process, which many believed to be a doomed effort. While hopeful that the negotiations would lead to a peace deal, the ambassador also hoped to inspire behavioral change in Assad’s Syria. For Ambassador Hof, the ongoing diplomatic channel was a missed chance for the White House to avoid the last ten years of bloodshed in Syria. While hindsight is tricky, the reader is left wondering what could have been."

— Natasha Hall, Senior Fellow, Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

"Hof has delivered an authoritative chapter in the storied diplomatic history of the Middle East peace process. It is striking to consider that this account of a nearly consummated, comprehensive Syria-Israel peace agreement, generated through American initiative and with the direct participation of Syria’s president and Israel’s prime minister and their top aides might have gone untold."

— Lincoln Bloomfield, former US official and Chairman Emeritus, Stimson Center

Foreword by Madeleine Albright and Stephen J. Hadley


Key Actors

Timeline, 1920–2012

1. War and the Search for Peace, 1948–2000
2. Coming on Board
3. Getting Started
4. Escaping the Deposit Dead End
5. Mitchell, Assad, and Mediating in Earnest
6. Meeting Assad: Preparing the Way
7. The Meeting
8. On to Jerusalem
9. Opportunity Lost
10. Aftermath
11. Reflections Key Documents

Further Reading



Frederic Hof

Frederic C. Hof was the chief architect and mediator of the 2009–11 US initiative to broker peace between Israel and Syria. This mission was the culmination of Hof’s nearly three decades of public service, which began as a US Army officer in Vietnam and continued at the State Department. After a period in the private sector, he returned to the State Department, where, in 2012, he was awarded the rank of ambassador by President Obama. In 2018, after five years at the Atlantic Council, Hof was named the inaugural Diplomat-in-Residence at Bard College in upstate New York, where he resides with his wife, Brenda. Hof is the recipient of the Purple Heart and numerous other awards from the Department of Defense and the State Department.

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