Netanyahu Offered Opposition Leader to Push Together for Regional Peace Initiative – and Then Backtracked

Netanyahu and Herzog reached dramatic understandings six months ago; a joint declaration in Cairo, including readiness for territorial compromise and curb on settlement building, was set to be followed with announcement of unity government. But Amona crisis crashed talks.

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A giant campaign billboard rotates showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli MK Labour Party leader Isaac Herzog on March 14, 2015 in the coastal Israeli city of Tel Aviv.
A giant campaign billboard rotates showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli MK Labour Party leader Isaac Herzog on March 14, 2015 in the coastal Israeli city of Tel Aviv.Credit: AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent opposition leader Isaac Herzog a document six months ago containing a joint declaration for spurring a regional peace initiative and anchoring an Israeli unity government before backtracking weeks later.

Netanyahu sent the document to Herzog seven months after a secret peace summit in Aqaba, Jordan, reported by Haaretz two weeks ago.

The document reflected a willingness by Netanyahu for territorial compromise in a two-state solution with the Palestinians and a reining in of construction in the settlements.

Three weeks after sending the proposal and after sealing an agreement in principle, Netanyahu began to backtrack during the political crisis over the unauthorized West Bank outpost of Amona. Contacts between the two sides reached a dead end and finally collapsed in October.

The document, which Netanyahu gave Herzog on September 13 after two days of talks, was a draft they were to submit at a summit in Cairo or Sharm el-Sheikh alongside Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi and possibly Jordan’s King Abdullah II. That meeting would have taken place at the beginning of October.

The summit was expected to launch the regional peace initiative, and right after Netanyahu and Herzog returned to Israel, they were to announce the launch of marathon negotiations for a unity government.

A raft of world leaders were involved in the process; senior figures in Jordan and Egypt were familiar with the document, as was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair who was closely involved in the contacts and former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and some of his advisers.

The daily Maariv’s Ben Caspit reported a few months ago on some of the details of the proposal, but this is the first time the document is being published in its entirety.

In response to this article, the Prime Minister’s Bureau said: “The description concerning the possible regional process that wasn’t realized is false from the ground up. The matter has nothing to do with Amona. Prime Minister Netanyahu is interested in advancing a regional initiative. Whoever is giving you this information isn’t knowledgeable of the details, or is falsifying them.”

Herzog’s office declined to comment on the document, which reads as follows in full.

“* We wish to thank President al-Sisi for his willingness to play an active role in advancing peace and security in the region and re-launching the peace process.

“* We reaffirm our commitment to a solution of two states for two peoples and our desire to pursue this solution.

“* Israel seeks an end of conflict and finality of all claims, mutual recognition between two nation-states, enduring security arrangements and an agreed territorial solution which, among other things, will recognize the existing population centers.

“* In the quest for peace, Israel extends its hand to the Palestinians to begin direct, bilateral negotiations without preconditions.

“* Israel regards positively the general spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative and the positive elements in it. Israel welcomes a dialogue with Arab states regarding this initiative, so as to reflect the dramatic changes in the region in recent years and to work together to advance the two-state solution and a broader peace in the region.

“* In the context of the renewed peace effort, Israel’s settlement activities in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] will be implemented in a manner that would facilitate a regional dialogue for peace and the goal of two states for two peoples.

“* Israel will work with the Palestinian Authority to significantly improve economic conditions and economic cooperation, including in Area C, and to enhance security coordination.

“* Israel seeks long-term stability in Gaza, including humanitarian reconstruction and effective security arrangements.”

Kerry, Sissi and Abdullah attended the February 2016 summit in Aqaba, which formed a basis for Netanyahu and Herzog’s contacts between March and May to form a unity government. Their contacts foundered before resuming at the end of August.

Netanyahu and Kerry met on June 26 for a six-hour dinner at the Pierluigi restaurant in Rome. They ate and drank, and Netanyahu reportedly chain-smoked Cuban cigars. A former senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, provided some details about the conversation.

“What is your plan for the Palestinians, what do you want to happen now?” he quoted Kerry asking Netanyahu.

The prime minister said he sought to advance a regional initiative with Arab countries based on the five-point plan he had presented in Aqaba four months earlier.

Kerry told Netanyahu that the steps he was willing to take were not enough to get Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to join the regional peace plan.

“A positive but vague declaration about an Arab peace initiative and symbolic steps on the ground won’t help you bring Arabs to the table. I know because I’ve asked them,” the U.S. official quoted Kerry as saying. “You have no path of return to direct talks with the Palestinians or a channel to talks with Arab countries. You’ve hit the glass ceiling. What’s your plan?”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before their meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, November 24, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Kerry presented Netanyahu with an updated version of the regional initiative he presented in Aqaba. At the start of June, 30 foreign ministers met in Paris as part of a French peace initiative, but Netanyahu despised the French step. Kerry told Netanyahu that the updated plan he was suggesting would replace the French initiative and include the regional element that the prime minister so wanted to see.

Kerry’s proposal included a regional peace conference including Israel, the Palestinians, Sunni Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with which Israel lacks diplomatic relations, Russia, China and the European Union. Kerry suggested that the conference be held based on the same six principles of a permanent agreement that he presented at the Aqaba summit and which included recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Kerry told Netanyahu that Israel and the Palestinians would not have to adopt the principles and could even voice reservations about them publicly. But the summit would revive direct talks and establish a channel for negotiations with Arab countries. This would include talks on a regional security arrangement that Israel seeks and recognition by Arab and many Western countries of Israel as a Jewish state.

Egyptian minister’s surprise visit

A former senior American official noted that Netanyahu did not say yes to Kerry’s proposal nor reject it; he merely said he would think about it. But two days after meeting with Netanyahu in Rome, Kerry called Herzog and his Zionist Union alliance’s co-leader, Tzipi Livni. Kerry briefed them on his conversations with Netanyahu and on the initiative he proposed, and delicately inquired whether joining the governing coalition was an option for them.

The French initiative, together with Kerry’s revisiting of his proposal, ramped up the pressure on Netanyahu and led him to renew his contacts with Sissi and Blair. He also once again proposed a regional peace process that would bypass the Obama administration and not require Israel to commit to Kerry’s six principles.

On July 10, two weeks after the Rome meeting with Kerry, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry paid a surprise visit to Jerusalem. It was the first visit to Israel by an Egyptian foreign minister in a decade, and it was preceded by visits to Cairo by Netanyahu’s envoy for the peace process, Isaac Molho. Shoukry met with Herzog as well as Netanyahu during his visit.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Jerusalem on July 10, 2016.Credit: Ronen Zvulun, Reuters

A senior Israeli official familiar with the contacts said Shoukry came in order to verify whether Netanyahu stood by what he had told Sissi after his mid-May speech that he wanted Egypt to try to bring about talks between Israel and the Palestinians, with the support of Arab states. Shoukry told Netanyahu that Egypt wanted to know what steps the prime minister was willing to take to advance a peace initiative, stressing that Sissi still believed that bringing Zionist Union into the coalition would demonstrate Netanyahu’s seriousness. Shoukry delivered the same message to Herzog.

The international contacts lowered in intensity over the following weeks, the heart of the summer. But Kerry continued to hold weekly conversations with Netanyahu and many other leaders in the region. A former senior U.S. diplomat said Kerry refused to give up, even though his aides and the White House were telling him that Netanyahu was not serious and Kerry was making a mistake.

“The White House told Kerry that President Obama wanted to let Netanyahu and [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas stew in their own juices, but Kerry persisted because the matter was very important to him,” said the former senior U.S. diplomat.

On August 21, Kerry called Herzog and Livni once more. He told them he planned to visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia within a few weeks in a final attempt to push for a regional peace conference based on the principles he had presented to Netanyahu in Aqaba and Rome. The principles would be submitted at the conference on behalf of all the participants, but Israel and the Palestinians could voice reservations.

According to the former senior U.S. diplomat and an Israeli source familiar with the contacts, Kerry told Herzog and Livni that he believed he could bring Netanyahu, Abbas and Arab states including Saudi Arabia to such a conference, which would mark a historic change for the region.

Kerry then reached the main point of his call: “I don’t want to interfere in politics in Israel,” he said. “But under these circumstances, would you consider joining the coalition? That would also be a dramatic change.”

The former senior U.S. diplomat and the Israeli source noted that Livni did not reject Kerry’s remarks but seemed very skeptical about Netanyahu’s intentions. Herzog, who had been burned by Netanyahu a few months before, was also skeptical but expressed a willingness to examine the proposal if he received indications from countries in the region that the conference was a serious step.

That week, Herzog spoke with senior officials from Egypt, Jordan and Arab states that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, in an effort to determine whether a regional peace process stood a chance. In some of the conversations, he heard that Arab leaders were willing to cooperate with Kerry’s initiative, but in others the approach was more like “yes, but.”

Herzog realized that there were basically two competing tracks: Kerry’s, which included principles for reaching a permanent arrangement and the holding of a major conference, and a second one led by Blair and Egypt, which involved more limited measures and a smaller, more modest summit.

In the last week of August, when the international contacts were at their height, Herzog received a phone call from Netanyahu. The prime minister said he wanted to try once again to advance a regional process with Sissi, and wanted to know whether Herzog would once again consider joining a unity government. Herzog, who was skeptical and very cautious, made two requests: to hear directly from Egypt and Jordan on the matter, and to receive Netanyahu’s peace proposal in writing.

In the following days, both of Herzog’s requests were met. First, an Egyptian envoy who traveled to Israel told him that Sissi was indeed interested in a regional peace process, and senior Jordanian officials sent the same message in a phone call. Second, on September 13, Netanyahu sent Herzog the peace-initiative document, with a draft of the joint announcement.

Over the next two weeks, Netanyahu and Herzog held intensive contacts marked by frequent arguments. According to an associate of Herzog’s, the opposition leader asked for a number of changes to the document. First, Herzog refused Netanyahu’s request that the term “government construction” be used in the declaration referring to settlements, and demanded that any reference include all construction.

In addition, Herzog demanded that the suspension of construction in isolated settlements outside the settlement blocs not be dependent on whether there were talks with the Palestinians. Rather, policy here would be set by him and Netanyahu as government policy even if this was not expressed publicly. Netanyahu agreed to all the points, and the declaration was rewritten to reflect this agreement.

The second point involved a significant change to Israeli policy regarding land in the West Bank classified as Area C under the Oslo Accords, in which Israel holds exclusive control, both military and civilian, to enable broad Palestinian building and economic development. Netanyahu agreed to clarify this topic in the declaration.

Also, Herzog demanded the addition to the document of the term “Palestinian state with territorial contiguity.” Netanyahu disagreed, and the parties continued their negotiations on the issue.

Plans for dramatic press conference

Shortly before Netanyahu left the country for the UN General Assembly in late September, near total agreement was reached on the declaration’s language. The goal was for Molho to go to Cairo to seal the deal with Egypt as soon as Netanyahu returned from New York.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu and Herzog would pay a secret visit in early October to Cairo, where a dramatic press conference would be held with Sissi and possibly King Abdullah as well. They would read out the joint declaration that would anchor a regional peace initiative led by Egypt and Jordan with the participation of other Arab states.

According to the plan, upon their return from Cairo, Netanyahu and Herzog would hold a press conference at Ben-Gurion Airport where Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon would be on hand. A unity government would be unveiled, and Kahlon and Lieberman’s presence would demonstrate their support for the Cairo declaration.

On September 20, Netanyahu arrived in New York for the UN General Assembly. In his address, he hinted at the regional peace initiative being discussed behind the scenes.

“I have not given up on peace. I remain committed to a vision of peace based on two states for two peoples. I believe as never before that changes taking place in the Arab world today offer a unique opportunity to advance that peace,” Netanyahu said.

“I commend President al-Sissi of Egypt for his efforts to advance peace and stability in our region. Israel welcomes the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative and welcomes a dialogue with Arab states to advance a broader peace. I believe that for that broader peace to be fully achieved the Palestinians have to be part of it. I’m ready to begin negotiations to achieve this today not tomorrow, not next week, today.”

Two days later, Netanyahu met with Kerry in New York. Kerry briefed him on the Quartet foreign ministers’ meeting a few days earlier, which was also attended by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. According to a former senior U.S. diplomat, Kerry told Netanyahu that Jubeir made clear that if the Israelis and Palestinians agreed to the principles of the negotiations and progress was made, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states would begin to take steps to normalize ties with Israel.

“Jubeir made it clear that the Saudis wouldn’t do this only in exchange for a few Israeli work permits being issued to Palestinians,” the former U.S. diplomat quoted Kerry as telling Netanyahu. Kerry again urged Netanyahu to accept his proposal for an international conference to achieve a permanent agreement and said the Saudis would attend such a meeting.

“We moved the international consensus in your direction,” Kerry said. “Why aren’t you ready to accept my proposal?”

A former senior U.S. diplomat said Netanyahu told Kerry he was keener on the process with Egypt and Herzog. “It would be easier for me to move forward with Herzog inside the coalition,” Netanyahu said.

The ex-diplomat said Kerry was desperate at this point. “I understand what you’re doing,” he quoted Kerry as telling Netanyahu. “You’re trying to play for time until the new administration is installed.”

Netanyahu didn’t deny it. The diplomat said Netanyahu preferred the separate channel he was handling with Herzog and Egypt.

“Netanyahu wanted to control the process,” the diplomat said. “He wanted to widen the coalition, he wanted a small conference without too much international involvement, and most importantly, he didn’t want Kerry’s principles for a final status agreement. Therefore he diluted this proposal in every possible way.”

Netanyahu telephoned Herzog a few times from New York and they agreed to meet immediately after Netanyahu returned to craft a joint declaration and the details for establishing a unity government. A few minutes before takeoff from New York, Netanyahu’s people contacted Herzog’s people. Netanyahu is usually cautious about his telephone conversations, fearful of eavesdropping, but it seems that in this case he wanted and even hoped the Americans would listen in.

The prime minister’s aides made clear to Herzog’s people that they wanted to send Molho to Cairo, and they asked for final agreement on the declaration’s wording. Although a few sticking points remained, Herzog believed these issues were not major and told Netanyahu they would not block an agreement. Netanyahu took off for Israel and the feeling was that within days he and Herzog would be going to Cairo and reading out a dramatic declaration.

But 12 hours later, once Netanyahu had landed, he did not instruct Molho to head to Cairo.

Two days later former President Shimon Peres died, and for several days there were no contacts between Netanyahu and Herzog on the issue. After Rosh Hashanah contacts resumed but Netanyahu’s side began changing its approach.

Molho, Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, and Netanyahu told Herzog they wanted to wait with the move until the resolution of the Amona crisis, whose evacuation had at that time been expected at the end of December.

From there on it was clear to Herzog and his aides that Netanyahu had gotten cold feet and that the window of opportunity for a regional initiative and a unity government was closing.

“Netanyahu began to gradually withdraw from his political declaration,” said a source in the Labor Party involved in the talks. “Little by little he tried to back down from what had already been agreed on and tried to postpone it all because of Amona and pressure by Habayit Hayehudi” his coalition partner to the right.

The talks continued for a few days including a difficult and failed meeting between Netanyahu and Herzog the morning before Yom Kippur. After the fast was over, all that remained was for both sides to declare that their negotiations were over.

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