The Palestinian official who held back-channel talks with Israeli negotiator Isaac Molho was Hussein Agha, a Lebanese academic and confidant of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Haaretz learned on Thursday.
On Thursday, the New Republic reported that Israel had made “substantial progress” toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians in secret back-channel talks with a negotiator who did not have a mandate from Abbas.
The talks were reportedly held in London in 2013, prior to and during U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to renew the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. They were also held while Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat held official U.S.-brokered talks.
According to the report, Agha and Molho reached agreements on borders and refugees, but not on Jerusalem.
The talks collapsed when it became clear the Palestinian negotiator did not have Abbas’ backing, according to the article published Wednesday by Amir Tibon, the diplomatic correspondent for Israeli news site Walla!
Agha is a lecturer in Saint Antony’s College in the University of Oxford. In the past 30 years, in addition to his academic work, Agha took part in several secret talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Some of the talks were official, some semi-official and others purely academic.
In 1993-1995 Agha served as the representative of Abbas, then Arafat’s deputy, in the negotiations with Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin and his team. The talks led to the “Beilin-Abbas understandings” that were supposed to have been the framework agreement for the core problems of the final-status arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, the understandings were not adopted by the two governments and Abbas eventually withdrew from them.
Molho held several meetings with Agha in 2010-2011. The talks were also shepherded by Dennis Ross, then-special foreign policy adviser to President Obama. Molho and Ross knew Agha from the ‘90s and knew he was a confidant of Abbas’.
Agha and Abbas are still friends, but it is not clear why they decided in 2010 that Agha was suitable to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
According to The New Republic and Walla! Molho, Agha and Ross tried to formulate general principles as a basis for the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. They did not make significant progress and the outcome of their meetings did not raise much interest in Jerusalem, Ramallah or Washington.
The report says that in 2013, after launching Kerry’s peace initiative and resuming the talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Agha and Molho also resumed their talks. Every few weeks Molho left for London to negotiate with Agha, while Livni and Erekat negotiated in Israel.
The members of the “official” negotiation team knew about the “secret back-channel,” as did the American negotiation team.
Ross, who had left the administration for a position in a research institute in Washington, used his personal contacts with Molho to continue taking part in the talks. Sources involved in the negotiations told Haaretz Molho had demanded and almost forced Ross’ involvement
On Kerry, to the chagrin of Martin Indyk, who was the American envoy to the Livni-Erekat talks.
But Israeli and American officials involved in the “back-channel” talks told Haaretz that at quite an early stage it transpired that Agha had no official mandate from Abbas to conduct negotiations. Abbas knew of the talks but did not see them as binding or especially important.
The New Republic and Walla! Reported that the back-channel talks yielded “substantial progress.” However, officials familiar with the talks said the back-channel discussed the same formulas that had already been discussed endlessly in the past since 2009 and did not achieve a breakthrough.
“Nobody there invented the wheel,” one of the sources said. “Molho said there was progress in the talks but it was clear Agha’s positions were not ones he had been authorized by Abbas to put forward,” he said.