Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a regional peace plan for the renewal of negotiations toward a two-state solution and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state less than a year ago, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported Sunday, days after he called for such an initiative at his first meeting with US President Donald Trump.
The proposal was the result of months of negotiations led by then-US Secretary of State John Kerry and culminated in a secret meeting on February 21, 2016, between Netanyahu, Kerry, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah, according the report.
Despite including two key tenets that Netanyahu has repeatedly declared as imperative to any potential peace accord — recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and cooperation with regional Arab nations — the prime minister is said to have rejected the proposal, saying he would not be able to get approval from his hawkish coalition.
Kerry had initiated the summit after complex bargaining with both Israel’s regional neighbors and its internal political players. Details of the proposal and the secret meeting came from former senior officials in the Obama administration who asked to remain anonymous, Haaretz said. The Prime Minister’s Office refused to comment on the report.
US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech on Middle East peace at the U.S. Department of State on December 28, 2016, in Washington, DC. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images/AFP)
The plan reportedly included six principles to guide the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Kerry presented in his final speech on the issue as US secretary of state in December. That speech also included a scathing attack on Israel’s continued settlement activity.
Firstly, Kerry said, peace must provide for secure and recognized borders, based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed land swaps and a contiguous state for the Palestinians.
Other principles included the fulfillment of UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which called for two state for two peoples; a fair and “realistic” solution to the Palestinian refugee problem that did not “affect the fundamental character of Israel”; shared capitals in Jerusalem that ensured free access to holy sites and no redivision of the city; Israeli security guarantees along with an end to the occupation; and a final end to the conflict and all outstanding claims along with the establishment of normalized relations.
While Sissi and Abdullah both accepted the proposal and agreed to put pressure on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept it, Netanyahu “evaded a clear answer on the proposed plan,” the report said, citing the Obama administration officials. He did however agree to release a statement “relating positively” to the Arab Peace Initiative, in return for a regional peace summit including several Sunni states.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas promotes the Arab Peace Initiative during a speech at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa in Jordan, May 26, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Jim Young)
The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative calls for significant concessions on Israel’s part, among them a full withdrawal from the West Bank, the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem and an agreed-upon solution for the Palestinian refugee problem. In return, numerous Arab states would officially recognize the Jewish state as well as establish normalized ties with it.
While it is unclear whether the proposal was ever formally rejected, it set in motion a series of political developments in Israel that lead to Netanyahu partially endorsing the Arab Peace Initiative and offering to negotiate with the Arab world the parameters of the plan.
Immediately after the meeting, Netanyahu reportedly called opposition leader Isaac Herzog to update him on the talks in an attempt to persuade him to join to coalition. That conversation developed into weeks of talks between the Likud party and Herzog’s Zionist Union.
Despite intense efforts by an alliance of foreign leaders to secure a national unity government, talks fell apart when it was revealed that the right-wing party Yisrael Beytenu would join the governing coalition, with its leader, Avigdor Liberman, taking the Defense Ministry portfolio.
Opposition leader Issac Herzog at the Knesset on January 17, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
A clause in the scrapped agreement between Likud and Zionist Union stated that the government would “relate positively” to the idea of a regional reconciliation agreement between Israel and several Arab states, as well as to certain elements of the Arab Peace Initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The clause in the document, published at the time by Channel 2, further stated that Israel would “express a readiness for the first time to enter a dialogue on the matter with the relevant Arab states.” The contents of the file were confirmed by the Prime Minister’s Office, Channel 2 said.
But at a press conference with Liberman after announcing Yisrael Beytenu would join the coalition, Netanyahu did make a dramatic declaration of partial support for the Arab Peace Initiative.
“I take this opportunity to make clear that I remain committed to making peace with the Palestinians and with all our neighbors. The Arab Peace Initiative contains positive elements that could help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians,” Netanyahu declared.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and incoming Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (left) hold a press conference in the Knesset on Monday, May 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
“We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in our region since 2002″ — when the proposal was first floated — “but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples,” Netanyahu said.
Despite the announcement and repeated statements by Netanyhau calling for wider cooperation with Arab counties, no diplomatic progress has been made since.
Last week, at a joint news conference with US President Donald Trump, Netanyahu said some Arab countries see Israel “increasingly as an ally,” suggesting they are driven by concern over Iranian expansionism and the spread of Islamic militancy. “This change in our region creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen security and advance peace,” he said in urging Trump to “seize this moment together.”
Trump said he wants to pursue “a much bigger deal” in the Mideast that would include “many, many countries.” He suggested there’s Arab interest, saying, “We have some pretty good cooperation from people who in the past would never, ever have even thought of doing this.”
US President Donald Trump, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN)
Neither leader provided specifics, though Trump said both Israelis and Palestinians would have to make concessions. Both men refused to endorse a traditional pillar of US policy — a Palestinian state alongside Israel — as the preferred solution to the long-running conflict.
Speaking to Israel Radio Sunday morning, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said the regional coalition could go ahead now because the Trump administration shared Israel’s view of Iran as the major regional threat.
“They have been no denials [from Arab countries] since the prime minister announced an alliance with these Sunni Arab states,” Katz said, adding that the cooperation was based on intelligence sharing focused common enemies in Iran and they have declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
However, he conceded these countries still “care about the Palestinian issue.”