Not Just Herzog’s Brother: Israel’s New D.C. Ambassador Was Netanyahu’s Man for Secret Negotiations

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Isaac Herzog and his brother Michael in 2008.
Isaac Herzog and his brother Michael in 2008.Credit: Moshe Milner/GPO
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

Israel’s next ambassador to the United States, Michael (Mike) Herzog, was unknown to most Israelis until last week’s announcement that he will represent Naftali Bennett’s government in Washington. After his appointment was revealed, most of the media reports about him emphasized the fact that he is the older brother of Israel’s recently elected president, Isaac Herzog.

In diplomatic and national security circles, however, Herzog is known and respected for a completely different reason: His involvement over the past decade in secret negotiations between Israel and the Arab world as an unofficial representative of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Herzog, a retired Israel Defense Forces brigadier general, first became involved in the “peace process” during the 1990s, when he was still in uniform and served in an advisory role during several rounds of negotiations between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and countries in the region.

Herzog’s most important contributions in this arena, however, took place between 2010 and 2014, when Netanyahu was leading Israel and Barack Obama was U.S. president.

The diplomatic talks that Herzog participated in weren’t official negotiations between government representatives. Instead, they were secret talks that were held with the blessing and approval of the leaders of both sides, but with a cushion of “deniability” in case things were leaked to the media.

In 2010, after he had already retired from the military, Herzog was asked by Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak to join a negotiation channel with the Assad regime in Syria, mediated by Frederic Hof and Dennis Ross – two veteran U.S. diplomats with extensive experience in Middle East diplomacy. The talks continued into 2011, but were stopped before any serious progress was made due to the breakout of the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Dennis Ross, at the time U.S. Middle East peace envoy, in 1998.Credit: AP

In 2012, Herzog told The New York Times that the talks included discussion of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, in return for a full peace agreement and Syrian detachment from Iran and Hezbollah. He emphasized, however, that nothing had been agreed during the talks, and that the violence that erupted in 2011 made the entire exercise irrelevant.

Another secret negotiation that Herzog participated in was the “London channel,” which involved talks between very close confidants of Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas between 2011 and 2014. Unlike the Syria talks, these talks yielded an unofficial joint document outlining potential guidelines for a future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. That document, however, was never fully accepted by either side, and it eventually joined its many predecessors in the graveyard of Israeli-Palestinian peace proposals.

The London Channel originally involved just two people: Isaac Molho, Netanyahu’s personal attorney and for many years his special envoy for sensitive diplomatic missions; and Hussein Agha, a Lebanese academic who had been involved in Palestinian political activism since the 1970s, and is considered especially close to Abbas.

The two began to meet regularly in London (where Agha resides) with the knowledge and blessing of Ross, who back then was still a member of the Obama administration.

The channel didn’t create much progress in the beginning, but in 2013 – when Obama’s then-secretary of state, John Kerry, began to push for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks – Obama and Netanyahu agreed that it could be helpful to run a secret, unofficial channel of negotiations alongside the official talks led by Kerry. Since Molho and Agha had already spent considerable time talking over the core issues of the conflict, it was decided that their channel would become the “unofficial” one accompanying Kerry’s effort.

Isaac Molho, Netanyahu's special envoy for diplomatic missions, in 2008.Credit: Tess Scheflan

By that point, Herzog was a regular attendee at their meetings in London. He was a private citizen at the time with no official role, but his involvement in the talks was done with Netanyahu’s blessing. As Herzog explained in an article he wrote in The American Interest in 2017, “The group commanded extensive experience in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, as well as the ability to communicate with the respective leaderships.”

The dynamic that soon emerged was a strange and fascinating one, known at the time only to a very small circle of Israeli, American and Palestinian officials. The official and publicized main negotiation track, led by Kerry and his special envoy Martin Indyk, was becoming an absolute waste of time. Molho participated in it together with then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, while on the Palestinian side the main representative was longtime negotiator Saeb Erekat. Their sessions led to one dead end after another, with both sides calculating their every move to avoid harmful media leaks.

But at the same time, in London, a breakthrough seemed at hand: Molho, Herzog and Agha were writing a joint document that included far-reaching compromises from both sides, outlining how a Palestinian state could be established next to Israel on approximately 90 percent of the West Bank’s territory. At the end of 2013, the Americans decided to “merge” the two negotiation channels, basically taking the document created in London and presenting it as a basis for negotiations in the public channel.

In his 2017 article, Herzog wrote that it was a “major mistake to forsake the back channel in favor of the public one, rather than let it run its course.” He mentioned doubts Israeli and U.S. officials had raised about Agha’s ability to “authoritatively represent” Abbas, but insisted that the London talks were “the most serious and promising attempt of its kind in many years to usher the parties into negotiations on a solid basis.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with peace talks negotiator Saeb Erekat in 2011.Credit: REUTERS

In November 2014, The New Republic exposed the existence of the London Channel, in an article by your correspondent. Since then, both Netanyahu and Abbas have done everything they can to bury the document created by Molho, Herzog and Agha, leading to years of a depressing stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Kerry’s efforts to kick-start the peace talks, like all previous attempts before them, ended in failure.

Perhaps now, from his new position in Washington, Herzog might have the chance to present those understandings to the Biden administration as the basis for another attempt at peacemaking.

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