Exclusive: Obama’s Detailed Plans for Mideast Peace Revealed - and How Everything Fell Apart

Documents obtained by Haaretz detail where Netanyahu was willing to compromise on borders, and how the U.S. failed to get Abbas on board over Jerusalem in 2014

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looking on as then-U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in the White House in Washington, March 3, 2014.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looking on as then-U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in the White House in Washington, March 3, 2014.Credit: Bloomberg
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – Haaretz has obtained two previously unseen documents from the height of the Obama administration’s efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which reveal how the talks fell apart in 2014.

They could offer U.S. President Donald Trump, who is currently trying to get the two sides to renew direct negotiations, some valuable lessons on what happened the last time the conflict’s core issues – such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees and mutual recognition – were put on the table.

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They also show the exact language that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was willing to accept on the issue of the 1967 borders during the negotiations, and how far the Obama administration was willing to go on the delicate and sensitive issue of Jerusalem in order to try and get a “yes” to its peace plan from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The documents are two internal drafts of then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s “framework agreement” in 2014, which was supposed to be the basis for the final stretch of negotiations between the two sides. One of the documents is from mid-February 2014 and the other from March 2014. Combined, these two documents show what it would take to “bridge the gaps” between Abbas and Netanyahu, as Trump is hoping to do.

Mid-February 2014 document: Netanyahu’s border concession

The first version of the framework agreement obtained by Haaretz is from mid-February 2014. It’s an internal U.S. draft that was written two days before a crucial meeting between Kerry and Abbas in Paris. The document’s title is “Working Draft Framework for Negotiations,” and its first line explains: “The following is a proposed framework to serve as the basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a permanent status, final peace agreement.”

A former U.S. official familiar with the 2014 negotiations told Haaretz that during the first two months of that year, the U.S. team held extensive talks with Netanyahu’s most senior advisers over this document. The ideas and positions expressed in the document were mostly based on the contents of a secret negotiations track that operated in London up to that January between Netanyahu’s envoy for the peace process, Isaac Molho, and Prof. Hussein Agha, a close adviser to Abbas. Netanyahu asked the U.S. team to take the fruits of those secret negotiations and turn them into an “American document” outlining the basis for a final peace agreement.

In the days ahead of Kerry’s meeting with Abbas, the U.S. team was fervently discussing the contents of the “framework” document with Netanyahu’s senior advisers. The idea was that if the Americans and Israelis could agree on most of the framework, Kerry could then present the document to Abbas – and hopefully get his approval as well.

The document obtained by Haaretz is one of the very last drafts the U.S. team was working on, and includes suggestions and objections from the Israeli side, which are clearly marked within the document.

The document touches on all the “core issues” of the conflict – the same issues that Trump’s team, sooner or later, will want the Israelis and Palestinians to discuss and resolve together.

The first of the core issues mentioned in the document is mutual recognition between Israel and Palestine. The document states that the peace agreement between the two sides “will need to be based on a shared commitment to fulfilling the vision of two states for two peoples, with full equal rights and no discrimination against any member of any ethnic or religious community. Achieving this outcome of two states for two peoples – Palestine, the nation-state of the Palestinian people, living in peace with Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people – will enable the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two states.”

A former senior U.S. official told Haaretz that this clause was an attempt to please both leaders: Netanyahu gets a clear reference to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, but Abbas gets an immediate clarification that this will include full equal rights and no discrimination against Israel’s Arab minority.

Israeli soldiers at the Qalandiyah checkpoint in the West Bank, 2016. Credit: Nasser Nasser/AP

The second core issue discussed is borders. This is perhaps the most dramatic part of the document, stating that “the new secure and recognized international borders between Israel and Palestine will be negotiated based on the 1967 lines with mutually-agreed swaps whose size and location will be negotiated, so that Palestine will have viable territory corresponding in size to the territory controlled by Egypt and Jordan before June 4, 1967, with territorial contiguity in the West Bank. In negotiating the borders, the parties will need to take into account subsequent developments, Israel’s security requirements and the goal of minimizing movement of existing populations while avoiding friction.”

Many U.S. and Israeli officials told Haaretz that Netanyahu was aware that this paragraph, which effectively means Israeli acceptance of the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiations, would appear in Kerry’s framework. According to these sources, Netanyahu was willing to enter final-status negotiations based on these words. But he had one reservation, which is indeed mentioned in the U.S. document: He wanted to avoid direct usage of the words “territorial contiguity.”

The Americans, however, refused to accept this demand by the prime minister, claiming it totally emptied the rest of the borders section of any meaning.

Jerusalem should not be redivided

One of the most complicated issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the fate of Jerusalem – yet in the February 2014 draft of the American framework, only one short paragraph was devoted to it.

“Jerusalem is perhaps the most complicated and sensitive of all the issues to be resolved in the agreement,” it stated. “Any solution to these issues must correspond to the deep historic, religious, cultural and emotional ties of both peoples to the city’s holy sites, which must be protected. The parties agree that the city should not be redivided and that there cannot be a permanent status agreement without resolving the issue of Jerusalem.”

This paragraph is accompanied by two notes. The first note includes two different sentences, one of which was eventually supposed to be included in the framework. The man who was supposed to decide between the two was Netanyahu.

Here are the two sentences:

Option 1: “Israel seeks to have the city of Jerusalem internationally recognized as its capital and the Palestinians seek to have East Jerusalem as the capital of their state.”

Option 2: “Palestinians seek to have the internationally recognized capital of their state in East Jerusalem and Israelis seek to have Jerusalem internationally recognized as their capital.”

Haaretz could not confirm which of these sentences Netanyahu eventually told Kerry he preferred, but one thing is clear: Both sentences fall far short of the Palestinian demand to have a capital in East Jerusalem, which Israel conquered in the Six-Day War in 1967. When Kerry presented this kind of formula to Abbas, the Palestinian leader became visibly angry, saying he could not put his signature on such a document, according to former U.S. officials.

What Abbas didn’t object to, though, was the sentence stating that Jerusalem would not be redivided. This may come as a surprise to many Israelis, but Abbas has actually stated publicly in the past he doesn’t believe Jerusalem should be physically divided as part of a peace deal.

No Right of Return into Israel

On the “core issue” of Palestinian refugees, the document states: “The establishment of an independent Palestinian state will provide a national homeland for all Palestinians, including the refugees, and thereby bring an end to the historic Palestinian refugee issue and the assertion of any claims against Israel arising from it.”

What this means, in effect, is that there will be no “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants into Israel. Instead, the framework offers four different solutions for the refugees: resettling them in the State of Palestine; settling for good in their current host states; resettlement “in third countries” around the world that would agree to accept them; and, in special humanitarian cases, admission into Israel, which “will be decided upon by Israel, without obligation, at its sole discretion.”

Another section in the document states that “during the negotiations, the parties will seek to promote an atmosphere conducive to negotiations and do their utmost to prevent deterioration in this atmosphere.” This phrasing would have most likely led to a partial freeze on building in the settlements during the course of the final-status negotiations. There are no Israeli objections attached to it – at least, not in the version obtained by Haaretz.

In this 1952 photo from the UNRWA archive, refugees walk through Nahr el-Bared, Lebanon refugee camp, one of the first camps established as part of emergency measures to shelter 1948 refugees.Credit: AP

The document also includes a reference to “an international effort to deal with the property claims” of Jews who were expelled from Arab countries as a result of the decades-long conflict with Israel.

With regards to security arrangements, the framework draft states there will be a “full and final” Israeli withdrawal from all parts of the Palestinian state, but that this withdrawal will be phased and gradual. The document sets no timeline for this, and says only that it will be negotiated between the two sides.

The document also states that Israel will preserve the ability to defend itself, by itself, in any case of emergency “or an emerging threat,” and that Palestine will be a demilitarized state but with an effective internal security force.

Abbas responds with rage – and the document is altered

When Kerry met Abbas in Paris on February 19, 2014 and presented him with this version of the framework accord, the Palestinian president responded with anger and disappointment. Former U.S. officials say his biggest concern was with how the document addressed Jerusalem. The weak wording on this paramount issue was a nonstarter for him.

As a result of Abbas’ reaction, the U.S. team realized that in order to get a “yes” from the Palestinian president, they would have to change some parts of the framework document. The challenge was how to do it without losing Netanyahu, who had verbally expressed his openness toward the February version of the document (although he never accepted it in writing).

Abbas was scheduled to meet President Barack Obama in the White House on March 16, 2014 – less than a month after his dinner with Kerry in Paris. Ahead of that meeting, the U.S. peace team crafted an updated version of the framework, which, unlike the February document, was not pre-negotiated with the Israelis. The result was a different document, one that on a number of issues was tilted more toward the Palestinians.

March document: Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem

The March version of the framework, as obtained by Haaretz, was written on March 15, 2014, a day before Obama met Abbas in the White House. This document, too, is a last internal U.S. draft. The changes between this and the previous document start in the very first section, “The Goal of the Negotiations.” This states that one of the goals is “to end the occupation that began in 1967” – a choice of words that didn’t appear in the February document.

While the February document included very vague language on the future of Jerusalem, the March version states clearly that “in order to meet the needs of both sides, the permanent status agreement will have to provide for both Israel and Palestine to have their internationally recognized capitals in Jerusalem, with East Jerusalem serving as the Palestinian capital.”

The document also stated that “the Old City, religious sites and Jewish neighborhoods [will be] addressed separately as part of the final status negotiations.”

During his meeting with Abbas in White House, Obama read this document to the Palestinian leader – including the Jerusalem paragraph. With regard to mutual recognition, the document states: “Once the needs of both sides are met on all the foregoing issues, the two-state solution will have to be expressed in the Agreement through mutual recognition and establishment of a state of peace between Palestine, the nation-state of the Palestinian people, and Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people. This is without prejudice to the historical narratives of both sides, and with full equal rights for all and no discrimination against any of their citizens.”

This language contains a major victory for Netanyahu: Even in the most “pro-Palestinian” version of the Obama administration’s framework, there was a clear reference to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. However, it also offers a significant “carrot” to Abbas by stating that this mutual recognition will only be the very last part of the negotiations, and will come only after everything else has been resolved.

On most of the other core issues, the March document wasn’t dramatically different than the February one – including borders, refugees and security arrangements. There were, however, a number of language “tweaks” that seem more favorable to the Palestinians. The borders section, for instance, no longer includes the words “subsequent developments” that were included in the February version and are a clear reference to Israel’s major settlement blocs.

After failing to first negotiate a document with Netanyahu and then get a “yes” from Abbas, the Americans now wanted to test the opposite option: Getting the Palestinian leader to agree to a document on the core issues, and then take it back to Netanyahu. But Abbas didn’t accept Obama’s framework document. He didn’t reject it, though – he simply didn’t respond.

The Obama administration was disappointed and frustrated by his reaction. Obama asked Abbas to “see the big picture” instead of squabbling with “this or that detail” – to no avail. A month later, Kerry’s peace talks collapsed.

Palestinian and U.S. officials later explained that Abbas was disappointed by the fact Netanyahu’s government was planning to delay a promised release of dozens of Palestinian prisoners, and that he felt the Obama administration could not truly “deliver” concessions from Netanyahu.

“Abbas was always afraid of saying yes to something, only to then discover that Bibi [Netanyahu] doesn’t accept it. He was afraid of being blamed by his opponents of selling out the Palestinians in return for nothing,” one former U.S. official told Haaretz, adding that “perhaps with Trump, he will believe that Israeli concessions are more of a real possibility.”

Other American officials, as well as Israeli ones, see this episode as proof of Abbas’ inability to deliver a final peace agreement, mostly as a result of his internal political troubles.

The March 2014 meeting was the last time Obama invited Abbas to the White House. Netanyahu, meanwhile, backtracked publicly from the positions he expressed during his conversations with Kerry, and later also lied to the Israeli public multiple times during the 2015 Knesset election about what he agreed to during the 2014 negotiations.

Ultimately, both Israel and the Palestinians didn’t officially accept – or reject – Kerry’s framework proposals. Maybe the Trump administration will have more luck in getting them to commit to actual concessions on “the core issues.”

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