Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
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Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi were also present at the meeting in the Jordanian city.
Netanyahu did not accept Kerry’s proposal and said he would have difficulty getting it approved by his governing coalition. Still, the Aqaba summit was the basis for the talks that began two weeks later between Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) on establishing a unity government.
Details about the summit and the plan emerged from conversations between Haaretz and former senior officials in the Obama administration who asked to remain anonymous. The Prime Minister’s Bureau refused to comment.
It was Kerry who initiated the conference. In April 2014, the peace initiative he had led collapsed, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians entered a deep freeze and U.S. President Barack Obama declared a time-out in U.S. attempts to restart the peace process. Over the next 18 months Kerry focused on attaining an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program; an agreement was reached in July 2015 and ratified by Congress in mid-September.
In October that year, Kerry renewed his work on the Israeli-Palestinian process following an escalation of tensions over the Temple Mount and a wave of violence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
At the end of October, Kerry was able to achieve understandings confirming the status quo on the Temple Mount by Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan. As part of these understandings, Israel and Jordan launched talks over the placement of closed-circuit cameras on the Temple Mount, an idea that was never implemented.
Two weeks later, Netanyahu came to Washington for his first meeting with Obama in more than a year – a period when the two leaders badly clashed over the nuclear deal with Iran.
During his meeting with Obama in the Oval Office on November 10, Netanyahu said he had new ideas for renewing talks with the Palestinians. Obama, who no longer believed that Netanyahu had serious intentions, asked him to discuss the matter with Kerry.
The following day Netanyahu met with Kerry and proposed a series of significant gestures to the Palestinians in the West Bank, including permits for massive construction by Palestinians in Area C, the area of the West Bank under Israeli military and civilian control. Netanyahu asked that in exchange Washington recognize that Israel could build in the large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, but did not make clear whether this meant construction outside the blocs would cease.
Two weeks later, Netanyahu held two long meetings with the security cabinet in which he tried to drum up support for the steps he planned for the West Bank. But a number of terror attacks at that time, along with staunch opposition by his coalition partners on his right – Habayit Hayehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked – cooled Netanyahu’s enthusiasm.
When Kerry came to Israel on November 24, Netanyahu informed him that the proposals he had presented just two weeks before were no longer on the table. Kerry, who was shocked at Netanyahu’s backtrack, met with Herzog the same day to explore whether the possibility of Zionist Union joining the government was a realistic one. Herzog’s reply did nothing to improve Kerry’s mood.
“There are zero signs of a change in Netanyahu’s policy or approach,” Herzog told Kerry. Under those circumstances, Herzog said there was neither a chance nor a reason for Zionist Union to join the coalition.
Kerry left the region frustrated and angry. In a speech to the Saban Forum in Washington a week later, he was severely critical of Netanyahu, saying the policy of Netanyahu’s government would lead to a binational state.
After the failure of Kerry’s mission, the Palestinians reverted to their steps against Israel in the United Nations, including a draft resolution at the Security Council on the settlements. In Israel, the security cabinet began discussing the possibility of the fall of the Palestinian Authority. In Europe, France began to prepare for a meeting of dozens of foreign ministers on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Despite the dead end, Kerry did not intend to give up. With his advisers in December and January, he crafted a document that included principles for the renewal of talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the framework of a regional peace initiative with the participation of the Arab countries. The plan he formulated in early 2016 was identical to the one he presented at the end of that year – three weeks before Donald Trump entered the White House. The following are the six principles.
* International secure and recognized borders between Israel and a sustainable and contiguous Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with agreed-on exchanges of territory.
* Implementation of the vision of UN Resolution 181 (the Partition Plan) for two states for two peoples, one Jewish and one Arab – which recognize each other and give equal rights to their citizens.
* A just, agreed-on, fair and realistic solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees that conforms to a solution of two states for two peoples and will not influence the basic character of Israel.
* An agreed-on solution for Jerusalem as the capital of both countries, recognized by the international community and ensuring freedom of access to the holy sites in keeping with the status quo.
* A response to Israel’s security needs, ensuring Israel’s ability to protect itself effectively and ensuring Palestine’s ability to give security to its citizens in a sovereign, demilitarized state.
* The end of the conflict and of demands, which will allow a normalization of ties and increased regional security for all, in keeping with the vision of the Arab Peace Initiative.
On January 31, Kerry met with Netanyahu in the resort town of Davos, Switzerland. During the meeting, with only the two men present, Kerry presented the document of principles and the regional-peace initiative to Netanyahu along with a tempting idea – a first-of-its-kind summit with King Abdullah and Sissi to discuss ways to push the process forward.
On January 31, Kerry told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of his discussion with Netanyahu in Davos. After Netanyahu agreed to the meeting, Kerry and his people began to organize it.
In the lead was Kerry’s adviser and confidant Frank Lowenstein, the special envoy for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. After behind-the-scenes talks with the Israelis, Jordanians and Egyptians, it was decided that the summit would take place on February 21 in Aqaba. The summit would remain secret and no side would release details about it.
Abbas did not take part in the summit, but was aware that it took place. On the morning of February 21 he met with Kerry in Amman. From the statements released by both sides at the end of the meeting, not even a hint could be gleaned of what was to take place a few hours later. Kerry ended his meeting with Abbas, and together with a few of his advisers and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, boarded a small Jordanian Air Force plane. They landed in Aqaba 45 minutes later.
Before the four-way meeting, Kerry met separately with each of the leaders. A former senior U.S. official said Kerry asked during his meetings with Abdullah and Sissi to show support for his plan. He asked that they persuade additional Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to support the plan as well, and take part in a regional diplomatic move that would include a renewal of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Kerry sought to have Abdullah pressure Abbas to agree to renew the talks based on the American plan, and Sissi would do the same vis-a-vis the Israeli government. The former senior U.S. official noted that Abdullah and Sissi agreed to express support for the plan even though it included recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Nevertheless, the official added, Sissi, who did not want a confrontation with Netanyahu, made clear to Kerry that he thought persuasion would be more effective than pressure and compulsion.
Former senior U.S. officials noted that at a meeting with Netanyahu in the context of the summit, the prime minister evaded a clear answer on the proposed plan. They said Netanyahu presented a series of reservations, arguing that the principles were too detailed and that he would have difficulty winning support for them in his coalition government.
The four-party meeting was highly dramatic. Even though the subject was the regional peace initiative, a substantial chunk of the discussions related to the situation in the overall region. Abdullah and Sissi took Kerry to task for the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East, both regarding Iran and Syria. Still, the two reacted positively to his proposal and tried to convince Netanyahu to accept it.
The former senior U.S. officials said Netanyahu was hesitant. Instead of relating exclusively to Kerry’s plan, they said he presented a plan of his own at the four-party meeting, which he called his five-point plan. Through the plan, Netanyahu expressed a readiness to take the steps regarding the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that he had spoken with Kerry about in November 2015. He also said he would release a statement relating positively to the Arab Peace Initiative.
In return, Netanyahu asked that the negotiations with the Palestinians be resumed and that a regional peace summit be convened that would include attendance by senior representatives from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni Muslim countries.
After several hours of talks, the leaders returned to their capitals agreeing to consider the various proposals. But the secret summit in Aqaba had an almost immediate effect on domestic Israeli politics. It provided the basis on which two or three weeks later Netanyahu and Herzog discussed a national unity government.
During the contacts, Netanyahu briefed Herzog on the summit in Aqaba. Herzog, who was skeptical, tried to clarify whether there was anything to it. He spoke by phone with Kerry, Abdullah and Sissi on the details.
The leaders of Egypt and Jordan were skeptical over Netanyahu’s ability to advance a genuine diplomatic process with his governing coalition. The two viewed the entry of Herzog or Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid into Netanyahu’s coalition as “earnest money” on the part of Netanyahu that would justify their pressing the Palestinians, or an effort to enlist the participation of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in a regional summit.
Yesterday, Herzog refused to confirm that the phone calls took place, or to provide details of any kind on the subject. Still, the information that Herzog received in March 2016 regarding the secret summit in Aqaba as well as the Kerry plan and the positions taken by Abdullah and Sissi are apparently what convinced him to enter intensive talks with Netanyahu and to publicly state on May 15 that a rare regional-diplomatic opportunity had been created that might not recur.
But just a few days after Herzog made his comments, the coalition negotiations ran aground. Netanyahu decided to abandon the talks with Herzog in favor of having Yisrael Beiteinu join the government, along with the appointment of the party’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, as defense minister.
On May 31, minutes after Lieberman was sworn in at the Knesset, he and Netanyahu told the cameras that they supported a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. They added that the Arab Peace Initiative included positive components that could help revive the talks with the Palestinians.
In the nine months that have elapsed since, there has been no progress on the diplomatic front. Last Wednesday, at a White House press conference with Trump, Netanyahu again called for the advancement of a regional peace initiative.
“For the first time in my lifetime, and for the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy, but, increasingly, as an ally,” Netanyahu said. Addressing Trump directly, he added: “I believe that under your leadership, this change in our region creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen security and advance peace. Let us seize this moment together.”