RAMALLAH — Israel and the Palestinian Authority tried to conduct backchannel negotiations, or at least initiate them, in late 2010 and early 2011 in a series of secret meetings between the prime minister’s envoy, attorney Yitzhak Molcho, and the head of PLO Executive Committee, Yasser Abed Rabbo. Abed Rabbo revealed these contacts in an interview with this correspondent here last week.
According to Abed Rabbo, during the conversations, which culminated in a meeting between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Molcho’s house in central Israel, Netanyahu seemed ready to renew negotiations within the framework of two states based on the June 4, 1967, lines. But the prime minister subsequently backed away from the contacts and the channel was discontinued.
Abed Rabbo said he and Netanyahu met for two-and-a-half hours in mid-February 2011, and mentioned — but did not negotiate over — various final status issues, including borders, Jerusalem and refugees. There had been no further contact since that meeting, Abed Rabbo said.
“The meeting with the prime minister occurred in mid-February, I think on the 15th,” Abed Rabbo recounted, beginning a detailed account of the contacts. “It was held in Molcho’s house in Caesarea. There were only four people present: Bibi, me, Molcho, and his wife. However, there were a series of meetings beforehand — I’d say 10 — between me and an envoy for the prime minister. The meetings were held in Jerusalem, again in Molcho’s house there. We discussed all the issues. But I sat and demanded in those meetings that Israel present its map for a two-state solution concept, and publicly declare its willingness to speak about the 1967 lines as the framework for the meetings. Molcho was not prepared to present a map and the meetings were truly exhausting, a lot of chatter without agreements. They were kept secret until now, actually. The only ones who knew about them on the Palestinian side were Abu Mazen (the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas) and Salam Fayyad (the Palestinian prime minister). (Saeb) Erekat (the head of the Palestinian negotiating team) was not in the know.
“Instead of a map,” Abed Rabbo went on, “Molcho was willing to include a military official in the meetings, a map expert who would present Israel’s security demands to me. Molcho emphasized in the meetings the importance of the Jordan Valley, settlement blocs, and early-warning stations on West Bank mountains. I ruled this option out. He claimed that he wanted to show me these considerations on a map, but I told him that Israel’s security concerns are not a starting point — it’s a non-starter and under the pretense of ‘security,’ you can claim anything. I made it clear that, first of all, we need to agree to speak about 1967 lines, and then start debating security issues, or even both in parallel.
“These meetings were not documented. At a certain point I said to Molcho that if they agree to the 1967 framework, we can talk about limited land swaps and security arrangements. From our standpoint, it was possible to discuss borders and security issues, but it cannot be that ‘security considerations’ would determine the borders. In the background, the Arab Spring began to gain momentum, and we also spoke about it quite a bit. In one of the last meetings, Molcho said to me, ‘I can’t give you an answer on the approach you presented (first recognition of the framework, then discussions of security considerations). My understanding and my job end here. I will propose to the prime minister that you meet, and if you manage to reach an understanding, then that is something else entirely. Only the prime minister can take it from here.’
“And the meeting with Bibi did indeed take place. It stretched on for about two and a half hours. He began speaking, and unfortunately, from the outset I feared he was trying to bullshit me. This was classic Netanyahu. He spoke about 3,000 years of Jewish history, about his father and what he saw with his own eyes. When he finished his preface, I turned to him and said, ‘Let me tell you something — we don’t trust you and we don’t believe you. This is the general feeling among Palestinians and this is my feeling also.’
‘Netanyahu spoke about how vital the Jordan Valley was for Israeli security, and noted the possibility that Iranian tanks could cross the Jordan’
“I said to him that speaking about 3,000 years of Jewish history will not get us anywhere. I care about what is now and what was 60 years ago. My memories and my family, they’re from Jaffa, where I was born. ‘Do you want us to start to speak about that?’ I asked, ‘Let’s leave it and move forward.’
“Netanyahu literally jumped up. ‘You were born in Jaffa?’ he asked. And he looked at me and said, “I promise you that after all this is over, I’ll allow you to return to live in Jaffa.’
“I smiled. I told him I’m not asking for a house for myself in Jaffa but for a homeland — a homeland for my people. And Bibi became serious again. He spoke about how vital the Jordan Valley was for Israeli security, and noted the possibility that Iranian tanks could cross the Jordan. I told him that I have a solution for this. I am always cynical — even my wife gets upset with me when I’m too cynical — but I couldn’t help but respond in this manner. ‘You know that the Jordan Valley and the river aren’t barriers to Iranian armored columns, and the only thing that can protect us from an Iranian invasion is the Jordanian mountains east of the river. That’s the only line of defense. So let’s conquer Jordan together and we’ll build a defensive line there.’
‘I told Netanyahu that Arafat already told president Bill Clinton at Camp David that his ultimate preference was to solve the refugee problem in Lebanon. Netanyahu didn’t rule anything out. He mostly listened. He asked me about the idea of a joint committee to manage issues related to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem — as Olmert had suggested’
“He said to me, ‘I’m not joking.’ And I explained that this won’t get us anywhere. In the meeting he didn’t mention the ‘Israel as the Jewish national state’ issue. I said to him that I was in the secret talks with [prime minister Ehud] Olmert and he showed us the map. ‘We were ready for land swaps of 1.9 percent and Olmert demanded 6.4%. That’s what we arrived at. We can start the conversations from here.’ I told Bibi that in the final meeting with Olmert in his office in Jerusalem, he said to us explicitly, ‘I’ll leave the negotiations file to my successor.’ And he told us that the one who would inherit it would be Bibi. He explained that he likes Tzipi Livni and she’s very nice but she won’t succeed in becoming prime minister. ‘I’ll leave it for Bibi,’ Olmert said.
“Bibi jumped up again and said, “I never saw any file.’ I said that we have something in common: ‘Our files also went missing.’ He laughed. I spoke to him about Jerusalem and about the refugees. I told him that Arafat already told [president] Bill Clinton at Camp David that his ultimate preference was to solve the refugee problem in Lebanon. Netanyahu didn’t rule anything out. He mostly listened. He asked me about the idea of a joint committee to manage issues related to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem — as Olmert had suggested — and I laughed and said that I see it looks like they did leave him a file, and he laughed. I told him it’s a good idea to discuss it. In the end I said to him, ‘If you want to start something serious, if you agree to the 1967 borders as a basis, including Jerusalem, then we can talk about the other things.’
‘Netanyahu said to me, “Give me two days and I’ll get back to you.” We said goodbye. He asked me to send his regards to Abu Mazen. And from that point on, I didn’t hear from him’
“He asked if we were ready to start negotiations immediately. I said yes. He asked who would be in the Palestinian delegation for the negotiations, and I told him that if he agrees to the principle I presented him, I would need a five-minute telephone call and I would return to him with the names.
“He turned to Molcho and said to him, ‘You lead the Israeli delegation, along with two others — you know who.’ He asked me if these were all our demands and I said yes. He agreed that we needed a convenient place to speak, a secluded place where talks would be conducted that could last between two weeks and two months. He asked me to prepare the Palestinian delegation and I asked him if he agreed with what I had proposed. He said to me, ‘Give me two days and I’ll get back to you.’ We said goodbye. He asked me to send his regards to Abu Mazen. And from that point on, I didn’t hear from Bibi or Molcho. A year later, I relayed him a message through a third party that I’ve been sitting waiting by the phone for a year, but Netanyahu did not respond.”
The channel between Abed Rabbo and Netanyahu has not been revealed until now. Direct conversations between Abbas and the prime minister in September 2010 preceded it, but ended without any results after Israel refused to extend the freeze on settlement building. Another round of conversations between Molcho, former Netanyahu aide Yoaz Hendel, and Saeb Erekat began in January 2012 and lasted for 20 days, this time in Amman. This too did not create a breakthrough that would lead to the renewal of direct negotiations between the two leaders.
In another week, US Secretary of State John Kerry is supposed to land in Israel, as part of his efforts to renew the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Prime Minister’s Office refused to comment on the contents of this report.