At a secret summit with Arab leaders on a regional peace push last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly presented a five-point plan that included an offer to freeze construction in areas outside the settlements blocs in the West Bank.
According to a report early Monday in the Haaretz daily, which first broke the story of the meeting with then-US Secretary of State John Kerry, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah, on February 21, 2016, Netanyahu asked in exchange for the freeze that the US recognize construction and expansion within the large settlement blocs, areas which are expected to remain part of Israel in any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
According to a US official and an Israeli source familiar with the plan cited by Haaretz, the prime minister detailed five steps Israel could take to promote a regional peace initiative aimed at reviving peace talks with the Palestinians, and also asked for US assurances on a number of issues.
The plan, according to the two sources, included:
1. The approval of large-scale Palestinian construction and advancement of economic initiaves in Area C in the West Bank, where Israel maintains security control, the approval of infrastructuve projects in the Gaza Strip, closer coordination with the Palestinian Authority, including allowing entry of weapons needed by its security forces.
2. Positive public references by the Israeli goverment to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, also known as the Saudi initiative, including a willingness to negotiate the components with Arab states.
3. The support and active participation of Arab states in a regional peace summit, including dispatching senior officials from Saudi Arabia , the UAE and other Sunni states to a public gathering attended by Netanyahu.
4. Practical American recognition of construction in the settlements blocs, in exchange for a freeze outside those areas.
5. A guarantee by the then-Obama administration to bloc any moves against Israel at the United Nations, including the use of its veto power at the Security Council.
Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu confirmed that he attended the secret summit in Aqaba but said he and not Kerry was the initiator of the meeting.
According to Haaretz, Kerry initiated the summit after complex bargaining with both Israel’s regional neighbors and its internal political players. Details of the proposal, ultimately rejected by Netanyahu, and the secret meeting came from former senior officials in the Obama administration who asked to remain anonymous.
The revelations came days after Netanyahu called for such an initiative at his first meeting with US President Donald Trump.
In public comments Sunday ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu did not mention the report on the regional initiative, but said he and the president agreed on the need for regional partners to be involved in any possible future negotiations.
“We see the possibility of trying to provide a basis for the growing regional interests that are forming between Israel, the US and countries of the region both to rebuff Iran and to develop other opportunities and normalization,” Netanyahu said. “In the end we hope to achieve peace. This is a fundamental change and, I would say, has accompanied all of our discussions and has formed the infrastructure of all the agreements between us.”
Despite the presence of 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 Aqaba proposal, saying he would not be able to get approval from his hawkish coalition.
Following the Haaretz report, lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum on Sunday criticized Netanyahu either for not pursuing the chance for peace, or for going down the two-state track in the first place.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who heads the Zionist Union faction, criticized Netanyahu, writing on his Twitter account that “history will definitely judge the magnitude of the opportunity as well as the magnitude of what was missed.”
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) tweeted that Netanyahu “was right when he raised reservations to the ‘Arab initiative’ in the Obama-Kerry era (if there was one). Why would Israel enter discussions on the basis of the ’67 lines?” Erdan asked. “And with Kerry as the initiator and mediator? To our sorrow, Kerry did not display a deep understanding of the region and of the Israeli interest (even if his intentions were good). The words ‘regional initiative’ do not mandate automatic agreement by Israel to every demand and condition.”
Jewish home lawmaker MK Bezalel Smotrich tweeted that his pro-settlement Jewish Home party, which opposes the two-state solution, will continue to “safeguard the State of Israel and Zionism and prevent political adventurism.”
Zionist Union MK Omer Bar-Lev, referring to the recently passed Regulation Law that enables the legalization of unauthorized settler outposts built on privately held Palestinian land, wrote that the prime minister was hiding behind the excuse of a lack of sufficient coalition support, noting that “he has a coalition for an anti-constitutional law, but can’t proffer one as a response for a regional initiative,” Haaretz reported.
Head of the dovish Meretz party MK Zehava Galon tweeted that Netanyahu has demonstrated that ending the conflict and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state are not what really interests the prime minister.
“The goal is always the same: to buy time,” she wrote. “The problem has always been Netanyahu, not the lack of opportunities” to make peace.
Immediately after the February 2016 summit meeting, Netanyahu reportedly called opposition leader Herzog to update him on the talks in an attempt to persuade Herzog to join to coalition. That conversation developed into weeks of talks between Netanyahu’s 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.
Last week, at a joint news conference with 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.”
AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.