Herzog on Secret Peace Summit: Netanyahu Ran Away From Historic Opportunity

Foreign leaders urged the opposition leader to join Netanyahu's government in 2016 to force prime minister to show he was serious about move, Herzog says after Haaretz reveals summit's existence.

Opposition Chairman MK Isaac Herzog at the Knesset.
Opposition Chairman MK Isaac Herzog at the Knesset. Olivier Fitoussi

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of running away from an "historic" opportunity in 2016 that could have changed the Middle East, when that latter refused to accept a secret peace plan presented by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Union party, commented to the Israeli Channel 10 on a Haaretz exposé that revealed Netanyahu met with Kerry in Aqaba, Jordan, along with Egyptian President Mohammed Abdul al-Sissi and King Abdullah for a secret peace summit.

>> Get all updates on Israel and the Palestinians: Download our free App, and Subscribe >>

During the summit, Kerry presented a plan for a regional peace initiative including recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation-state and a renewal of talks with the Palestinians with the support of the Arab countries. Netanyahu did not accept Kerry’s proposal and said he would have difficulty getting it approved by his governing coalition.

Details about the summit and the plan emerged from conversations between Haaretz and former senior officials in the Obama administration who asked to remain anonymous.

>> EXCLUSIVE: Kerry Offered Netanyahu Regional Peace Plan in Secret 2016 Summit With al-Sissi, King Abdullah >>

Herzog learned of the summit already at the beginning of March 2016, a few days after it took place. The summit served as the basis for talks he conducted at the time with Netanyahu over the forming of a unity government. These did not prosper, after Netanyahu preferred to bring Yisrael Beiteinu into the government and appoint Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister.

"The paper would have changed the Middle East, and in the end, the one who ran away was Netanyahu," Herzog told Channel 10.

Herzog was criticized from the left at the time for agreeing to consider joining Netanyahu's government, with some accusing him of falling for Netanyahu's charade of a peace opportunity. Herzog explained to Channel 10 that he was approached by leaders from across the world, including some in the region, who urged him to join the government. "They saw it as proof of Netanyahu's seriousness about the move, because they don't believe him," Herzog said, while refusing to name the leaders. 

According to Herzog, in the course of their negotiations he and Netanyahu agreed on several principles regarding a national unity government's policy on the Palestinians, which included support for the Arab Peace Initiative, building the separation barrier, disengaging from the Palestinians and freezing construction outside the settlement blocs. 

However, Netanyahu backed out, Herzog said, when he became convinced that his Likud party would never agree to limit construction in the settlements. 

Also on Sunday, Netanyahu confirmed the existence of the secret to his ministers, and claimed that he was the one to initiate the summit.

However, Herzog said that the summit's was Kerry's initiative. "It was important… I was happy about it, I thought it was a great opportunity to bring hope to us and to the nations around us," Herzog said.