Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fear of the right-wing flank within his own Likud party thwarted the potential for a regional peace deal last year, opposition leader Isaac Herzog said on Monday.
Herzog spoke the morning after Haaretz revealed that a four-way secret summit had taken place in Aqaba in February 2016, between Netanyahu, former US secretary of state John Kerry, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Herzog was not at the summit. But the center- left politician was brought up to speed on events, because in order to move a potential regional process forward in 2016, Netanyahu needed to bring Herzog’s Zionist Union party into the coalition.
For the Arab countries involved in the process and the international community as well, the placement of Herzog in the government was seen a sign that Netanyahu was serious about concluding a peace deal, Herzog explained.
Talks to create a national-unity government peaked in May, recalled Herzog, as he briefed American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ leadership mission to Israel. He spoke to them about the fledgling diplomatic process that might have changed the country and the region’s history.
At the last moment, Netanyahu widened his government with the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, handing its leader Avigdor Liberman the post of defense minister, Herzog said.
The talks broke down, he said, because “Netanyahu fled. He turned his back.”
“At the end he opted to go with Liberman, caving into inner pressure from his coalition, especially from [Bayit Yehudi party head] Naftali Bennett and his allies in the Likud, [Ministers Yariv] Levin, [Ze’ev] Elkin and others. He simply reneged on the basic understandings which we had,” said Herzog.
“These understandings had they been fulfilled, would have prevented the catastrophe of the UN Security Council vote [against settlements].
[They] would have prevented disturbing processes when it comes to the well being of democracy, when it comes to the strengthening of some of the more extreme elements of our society,” he added.
“History will judge Netanyahu on that failure, unfortunately,” he said.
“I was willing to risk my own seat and my own political career,” the opposition leader said.
A senior diplomatic official defended Netanyahu stating there were numerous inaccuracies in the Haaretz report, which like Herzog, claimed Netanyahu was largely responsible for the regional initiative not moving forward.
Herzog said the understanding he had reached with Netanyahu gave him the power to veto settlement construction. At the same time, Herzog said, he would have been tasked with convincing the international community to accept the concept of the settlement blocs.
Now, one year later, the idea of a regional peace process has been revived, Herzog said.
But it is not possible to do it in one shot, it must be done in stages, he added, as he put forward his own philosophy with regard to a renewed peace process for a two-state solution, within a larger regional framework. It would also include a regional summit, he said.
To move forward, both Israel and the Palestinians must reiterate their support for a two-state solution, Herzog said. The Palestinians must halt terrorism and incitement for a period of anywhere from two years to a decade, he added.
In exchange, the Palestinians would be given special civil authority over sections of Area C of the West Bank, with the ability to build new neighborhoods adjacent to existing Palestinian cities.
It’s presumed that this means new Palestinian neighborhoods in Area C, which is under Israeli military and civil control.
Israel would be able to build in and maintain the major settlement blocs such as Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel, Herzog said.
They “would be part and parcel of the state of Israel,” he said. In exchange, building in the isolated settlements would be frozen, he said.
The Jordan River would be Israel’s security border, stated Herzog, and Israel would complete construction of the security barrier.
The Palestinians would have a demilitarized state, with the IDF maintaining its ability to operate there, Herzog said.
There would be international recognition of the 1947 partition that recognized two states for two peoples, he said.
Herzog further urged for acceptance of the main guidelines of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
That plan speaks of an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines with minor land swaps as well as a just resolution for Palestinian refugees.
“I am not running away or giving up on our huge emotional, historical and religious connections to Judea and Samaria,” said Herzog, adding that this territory “is the cradle of our creation as a nation.”
But, he said, in order to maintain Israel as an ethnic Jewish state, the country must separate from the Palestinians.
Israeli democracy is at risk, precisely because this has not happened, he said.
The statement US President Donald Trump made at the White House last week that one state could also be an acceptable solution struck a chord of fear in his heart, Herzog said.
“When I heard at the White House the fact that an idea of a one-state solution was mentioned as a possibility and the prime minister maneuvered in a lawyer-like rhetoric just to avoid saying the two-state solution idea, I felt uneasy to say the least.
“I felt that every Israeli should wake up in the morning sweating from the nightmare of Bosnia and Syria,” said Herzog as he warned that their violent history could one day be played out in Israel.
It is important, he said, not to abandon the idea of a two-state resolution to the conflict.
Speaking to the group at the Knesset later in the day, Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told the group that he supported a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as he tried to understand what Trump had meant when he said he would accept either a two-state or one-state solution.
“The president said what he said. I guess the logic was, ‘Hey guys, I am not going to impose anything agreement on you. I am not going to say, like [former US president Barack] Obama, not one brick over the 1967 borders,’” Hanegbi said.
Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro tweeted on Monday that the Trump administration should approach regional peacemaking to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with their eyes open.
“Building on common interests of Israel and Sunni Arab states has obvious opportunities, obvious benefits; to Israel, to [the] region [and] to the US.”
When Kerry pushed for that option, “The Palestinians were the most unenthusiastic party, fearing they would be bypassed and pressured to accept terms they deemed unacceptable,” he said.
The problem, he said, is that “everyone has to give something, but no one wants to jump first and be left hanging.”