At Secret Aqaba Summit, Netanyahu Offered Construction Freeze Outside Settlement Blocs

In return, the premier wanted U.S. okay for building within the blocs, as part of a five-point plan he presented at the 2016 meeting for launching a regional peace initiative with Palestinians and Sunni states.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, February 19, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, February 19, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

As part of the five-point plan that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented at the secret summit in Aqaba a year ago, as reported in Haaretz Sunday, the prime minister proposed to freeze construction outside the large settlement blocs in the West Bank.

According to a former U.S. official and an Israeli source familiar with the details of the summit, attended by Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Netanyahu requested in return to get American recognition of construction within the settlement blocs.

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Both the former American official and the Israeli official noted that Netanyahu’s five-point plan included things that Israel was prepared to give to launch a regional peace initiative that would lead to renewed talks with the Palestinians, but also things that Israel insisted on receiving.

According to the two, the prime minister’s plan included the following clauses:

* Approval of massive construction for the Palestinians and the advancement of economic projects in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel has both security and civilian control; advancing infrastructure projects in the Gaza Strip and the tightening of security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, including allowing the entry of additional weapons needed by the Palestinian security forces.

* The Israeli government would make positive public references to the 2002 Arab peace initiative and express readiness to negotiate its components with the Arab states.

* Support and active participation by the Arab states in a regional peace initiative, including a public summit that senior officials of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni states would attend together with Netanyahu.

* A request to get American recognition for construction in the large settlement blocs in return for freezing construction in isolated settlements east of the separation barrier. Netanyahu did not clearly define what he meant by settlement blocs. In addition, he spoke of reaching quiet, unofficial understandings regarding recognition of the construction in the blocs, and even more so regarding the freeze outside them.

* A request for a guarantee from the Obama administration to block anti-Israel moves in UN institutions and to veto resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the UN Security Council.

At a meeting of Likud ministers Sunday morning, Netanyahu confirmed that the summit described in Haaretz had indeed taken place a year ago. At the time Netanyahu hid the summit from most of the government ministers. He said, however, that he was the one who had initiated the summit meeting, not Kerry.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who was told about the summit only a few days after it occurred and who spoke about it with Kerry, Sissi and Abdullah, told Channel 10 Sunday that as far as he knew the summit was Kerry’s idea, not Netanyahu’s.

An Israeli source familiar with the summit’s details said that although it was initiated by Kerry, Netanyahu played an active role in convening it. The Israeli source said Netanyahu wanted the meeting so he could personally present his alternate initiative to the Jordanian king and Egyptian president, and to make sure that Kerry wasn’t taking advantage of him.

“Kerry worked on a parallel and competing initiative that included the ... principles for renewing negotiations,” the source said. “Netanyahu didn’t want to be Kerry’s adjunct and certainly didn’t want his principles. He didn’t trust him and feared that Kerry would ruin the regional program.”

The Israeli source continued: “Netanyahu wanted a regional initiative that he would lead, together with the leaders of Jordan and Egypt, and only at a later stage add the American administration, and Kerry personally, to the process as a supporting actor. The Arabs weren’t so excited about Kerry’s initiative either, even though the U.S. secretary of state repeatedly claimed that all the Arab states backed his initiative.”

Haaretz’s report on the secret meeting in Aqaba created a political storm, particularly given that the issues discussed there were the basis for the negotiations that began two weeks afterward between Netanyahu and Herzog about forming a unity government. In his interview with Channel 10, Herzog said he entered those talks with Netanyahu in March 2016 after he was updated about the summit and understood there was an opportunity for a historic change in the Middle East.

“I wanted to prevent more rounds of killings and coffins,” said Herzog. “I accepted the request of the prime minister because the most important leaders of the world and the region clarified to me personally how much they wanted me to enter the government because they saw that as proof that Netanyahu was serious about the process.”

Herzog said that during March 2016 he conducted two days of marathon talks with Netanyahu, during which the two formulated a secret diplomatic memorandum of understanding that was meant to be revealed together with their coalition agreement. Herzog said he had agreed on freezing construction outside the settlement blocs and that as foreign minister he would work toward obtaining international support for construction within the blocs.

“At that point Netanyahu brought Yariv Levin into the talks and he dug into him and explained to him how the Likud can’t talk about settlement blocs,” Herzog said. “Then Levin persuaded him to drop the whole diplomatic appendix idea that was meant to be presented in the Knesset. Netanyahu told me it would break up Likud. We could have changed the Middle East, but Netanyahu ran off.”



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