Israeli Opposition Leader: I Demanded Settlement Freeze as Part of Unity Deal With Netanyahu

The failed unity talks took place in the wake of a secret Aqaba summit where Kerry laid out his regional peace plan. Bennett: Establishing an independent Palestinian state would be a 'profound mistake.'

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog with ministers Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett at the Knesset.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog with ministers Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett at the Knesset. Olivier Fitoussi

Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog had demanded a total freeze on settlement construction as his condition for entering a national unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he revealed on Monday.

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“I demanded a full veto on settlement construction beyond the 1967 border,” Herzog, chairman of the Zionist Union, told participants at the annual Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization, which is convening this week in Jerusalem. “In return, I said I would work proactively to get international consent of sorts for construction within the settlement blocs.”  

The agreement between him and Netanyahu started to unravel, Herzog disclosed, when members of the prime minister’s right-wing coalition refused to acknowledge a distinction between the major blocs and other isolated settlements and demanded that the term “blocs” not be used.

“I worked with the prime minister on a draft of our agreement, which included steps which were quite dramatic, and had he agreed, it would have changed the region,” said Herzog. “But he started to get pressed by his peers, and he started melting.” Had the national unity talks succeeded, Herzog said, he would have been appointed foreign minister and put in charge of the peace process. 

According to an expose published Sunday in Haaretz by Barak Ravid, Netanyahu took part in a secret summit in Aqaba a year ago where then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presented a plan for a regional peace initiative including recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and a renewal of talks with the Palestinians with the support of the Arab countries. The Aqaba summit, attended by both Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, served as the basis for the national unity talks between Netanyahu and Herzog.

As part of the five-point plan he presented at the secret summit in Aqaba, Netanyahu offered to freeze construction outside the large settlement blocs in the West Bank, as reported in Haaretz.

The agreement never materialized, Herzog said, because “Netanyahu fled away and turned his back in violation of his commitment to third parties. Caving into pressure from his coalition, he simply reneged on basic understandings we had.”

Herzog added: “History will judge Netanyahu on that failure.”

The opposition leader expressed hope that the international community would ultimately accept an agreement that allows Israel to incorporate into its borders three settlement blocs: Maaleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel. 

He said he was extremely disturbed by statements made by Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump at their joint press conference last week in Washington. “When I heard at the White House, the one-state option mentioned as a possibility, and our prime minister maneuvering in lawyer-like rhetoric just to avoid saying two-states, I felt uneasy, to say the very least, and that every Israeli should be waking up sweating over the nightmare of Bosnia and Syria and over losing the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Herzog said the two-state option was a pre-condition for any broad-based regional initiative. “The regional partners are there, but they will not be able to be seen publicly moving toward a regional process without some compensation on the Palestinian front,” he said.

The opposition leader said he favored a multi-stage process, rather than a one-shot deal. He estimated such a process could take 10 years.

Also addressing the forum of Jewish-American leaders was Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who laid out his vision of a one-state solution that would include annexing large parts of the West Bank. Establishing an independent Palestinian state, Bennett said, would be a “profound mistake.”

Bennett, who heads the far-right Habayit Hayehudi party, said he was “pleased” that it appeared Netanyahu had come around to seeing things his way. “The jury is still out there, but both Trump and Netanyahu appear prepared to explore new venues and new ideas after 24 years of more of the same,” he said.