WASHINGTON - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the Obama administration in late 2014 to consider a plan in which Israel would annex large parts of the West Bank, and the Palestinians would in return receive land from Egypt in the northern part of Sinai, according to four former senior U.S. officials. The Prime Minister's Office denied the account, stating that "this story is not true."
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The officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity and had direct knowledge of the relevant conversations, told Haaretz that Netanyahu raised the idea with U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry on a number of occasions.
The officials also said that Netanyahu told Obama and Kerry that in his view, it was possible to convince Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to accept the idea. The Obama administration heard directly from Egypt, however, that it wouldnt accept such an idea, and came to a conclusion that neither would the Palestinians.
Netanyahus idea, according to the officials, wasnt to set up a Palestinian state in Sinai instead of in the West Bank – as some Israeli officials have suggested in recent years – but rather to create a Palestinian state in some parts of the West Bank and compensate the Palestinians for massive Israeli annexation in and around the settlements by attaching lands in northern Sinai to Gaza.
The idea which the officials say was raised by Netanyahu in 2014 is somewhat similar to those mentioned in a number of recent news reports about the Trump administrations peace plan, which is currently in the process of being drafted. Last month, The New York Times reported that Saudi Arabias Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented a plan along those lines to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting in Riyadh.
On Monday, Israeli journalist Ben Caspit wrote in the newspaper Maariv that the plan Jared Kushners team is working on would include land swaps in the Sinai.
Kushner is the presidents son-in-law and senior adviser. Among his many roles in the White House is heading peace efforts in a bid to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The White House, however, has strongly and consistently denied such reports, calling them a mix of ill-informed speculation and utter nonsense" and far from the actual content of the peace plan. Their plan, they said, will benefit Israelis and Palestinians and will be revealed when it is done and the time is right.
The Times report about a Sinai-based land swap was also denied by Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority.
But according to the officials who spoke with Haaretz, back in 2014 it was Netanyahu himself who raised a similar idea with the Americans. It started shortly after the 2014 Gaza war, one of the officials said. Netanyahu came to meet Obama in the fall of 2014, and his pitch was basically: John Kerrys peace talks fell apart a few months ago, we just had a war, and now the peace process is stuck. So I want to offer you a different kind of idea.
Netanyahu, according to this former official and three others who participated in the relevant discussions, told Obama and Kerry that under his new plan, Israel would annex a large part of West Bank. He used the term settlement blocs but didnt provide a map that actually defines those blocs," one of the officials said. But the idea was the majority of the West Bank would still eventually become a future Palestinian state. The compensation given to the Palestinians for the land annexed by Israel would come not in the form of a land swap with Israel itself, but instead, through Egypt ceding territory in northern Sinai and attaching it to Gaza.
We all thought this idea was a waste of time, one of the officials said. We knew it would be a complete non-starter for the Palestinians – why would they trade agricultural lands in the West Bank, close to their largest cities, for sand dunes in Sinai?
Another official said that Northern Sinai is home to one of the most powerful ISIS-inspired insurgencies in the world. Why would the Palestinians agree to take responsibility for it, in return for Israel getting to keep more of its settlements? It didnt make sense to us.
When the Obama administration reached out to Egyptian officials to ask them if they had discussed the idea with Israel, the reply was negative. The first time I heard Netanyahu talking about this was in late 2014, said one of the officials. By the time Netanyahu, Kerry and Sissi met at the secret Aqaba summit [in January 2016], this idea was already off the table. No one talked about it in Aqaba.
The Prime Ministers Office, as mentioned above, denied the former officials account.
As to whether or not this idea is in fact part of the Trump administrations peace plan, all the officials said they did not have enough information about Kushners work in order to answer that question.
I wish them luck, one of them said, and I hope their plan is better than what is being written about it in the papers.