The Aqaba summit in February 2016 between Benjamin Netanyahu, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordan’s King Abdullah II was not the only meeting between the prime minister and the Egyptian president.
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In April of that year, at the height of global efforts to create a regional peace plan, Netanyahu and Knesset opposition chairman Isaac Herzog flew secretly to Cairo for a meeting with Sissi at the presidential palace. That meeting, disclosed here for the first time, took place in the context of then-secret contacts over the possibility of Herzog’s party, Zionist Union, joining the coalition.
As Netanyahu was assumed to be politically unable to lead a real peace process, namely due to his right wing coalition partners, international and regional powers reached out to Herzog through various channels. They told him that due to the new circumstances, a change in the right-wing coalition was critical for the regional initiative’s success.
Herzog, who is again fighting off challengers to his party leadership, has said in meetings with party members that he understood that there was a chance for a dramatic regional move, and that he had heard from the parties involved that without Zionist Union the chances of success were nil. Before that, Netanyahu had also reported to him on the issues discussed at the Aqaba summit.
In February this year, Barak Ravid reported on the four-way Aqaba summit in Haaretz, as well as the plan for a regional peace initiative that included recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the renewal of negotiations with the support of Arab states.
Herzog, having been burned in previous negotiations over joining the coalition, sought to ascertain whether there was a genuine possibility of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians that he could take to his party’s central committee. In conversations with various leaders (he told a parlor meeting he met with Arab leaders “whom no Israeli has ever seen,” meaning not only Sissi), they told him they hoped he would help Netanyahu to overcome the political obstacles in his path.
The meeting with Sissi was part of those marathon talks. Netanyahu, advisers, Herzog and a security team flew directly to Cairo at night, from an airfield in central Israel, in a private plane, and were brought to the presidential palace. Sissi pressured them to take the measures needed to advance the process forward. They returned to Israel, arriving before dawn.
In mid-May, shortly after that meeting, Sissi gave a memorable speech at the dedication of an Egyptian power plant, calling on Palestinians and Israelis to take advantage of “a realistic and great opportunity” and reach an agreement that would end the conflict. He even called on Israeli political parties to agree to the process.
These talks, like the regional initiative, failed due to Netanyahu’s refusal to give the Palestinians what was required. The unity-government saga ended with Yisrael Beiteinu joining the coalition in late May, with party chairman Avigdor Lieberman becoming defense minister.
Herzog was roundly mocked by his party and the media over his negotiations with Netanyahu. It was said that Netanyahu had misled Herzog and turned his back on him at the moment of truth. No one believed Herzog’s explanations about the historic regional move that was behind his talks with the prime minister. Herzog could not provide details because he promised to keep the developments a secret.
The February report in Haaretz presented Herzog in a different light, as acting responsibly and with good judgment. (Haaretz learned about the Cairo meeting from a figure who is not currently in politics and is not connected in any way to Herzog. His identity is known to Haaretz.)
In parlor meetings and meetings with party activists, Herzog has often been criticized over the failed coalition talks with Netanyahu. He has argued that the circumstances presented to him in the spring of 2016 were so extraordinary that he had to exhaust them. Herzog says that because he did not want to rely only on Netanyahu, who had disappointed him in the past, he demanded to speak directly with everyone involved.
“I acted in the spirit of the Labor Party throughout the generations, which always knew how to put the public interest above the personal interest,” Herzog said this week at a parlor meeting. “They came and said to me, in the 70th year of Israel’s independence, the time has come for you [Israelis] to be part of this region and end the conflict with the Palestinians. They demanded prices from Israel: significant construction in Palestinian cities in Area C, a freeze on construction outside the settlement blocs, recognition of various elements in the Arab peace plan and other things.” Herzog said those matters had been discussed in the past and the innovation was the attempt to move ahead through a regional channel. “Netanyahu ran away, as he has run away in the past, but I couldn’t ignore the circumstances that had been created. I had to explore them fully.”
Responding to Haaretz, Herzog said that he has met with "very senior officials in the international and regional communities" but added that he can't comment on the details of this report.