The administration of former US president Barack Obama ruined the chance for a regional peace deal to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last year by trying to impose its terms for the accord, a senior Israeli official reportedly said late Tuesday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly confirmed on Sunday that he attended a secret US-led summit with Arab leaders in early 2016 meant to jumpstart efforts toward a regional peace push, but told Likud ministers that he, and not then-US secretary of state John Kerry, was the initiator of the meeting.
The February 21, 2016 meeting in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba was attended by the prime minister, Kerry, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah.
The first report about the summit, published in Haaretz Sunday, said Kerry had started the ball rolling with a US-crafted two-state proposal for ending the conflict, which would include broad Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish nation-state, a key demand Netanyahu has sought in peace talks with Palestinian Authority leaders.
Netanyahu ultimately expressed doubts over Kerry’s plan and presented his own, which would have brought Gulf states into the bargain alongside Jordan and Egypt, but the initiative never got off the ground, according to that report.
The revelations of the year-old initiative came just days after Netanyahu called for such an initiative at his first meeting with US President Donald Trump in Washington.
The new comment by a senior official close to Netanyahu was reported late on Tuesday by Israel Radio. According to this source, the regional peace effort failed because the Obama administration sought to impose the terms of an agreement, and “Netanyahu could not agree to this,” the radio report said.
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 new US 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.”
In the Sunday report, sourced to former Obama administration officials involved in the discussions last year, Netanyahu is said to have told Kerry he would not be able to get approval for the US-proposed framework from his hawkish coalition partners.
Following the Haaretz report, lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum 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.”
The report noted that this initiative was the basis for coalition talks between Netanyahu and Herzog at the time over the possibility that the center-left Zionist Union would join the Likud-led government in order to pursue the regional talks.
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.
Kerry had organized 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 has refused to comment publicly on the report.
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 contributed to this report.