Abbas says mogul Lauder floated backchannel to Netanyahu
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Abbas says mogul Lauder floated backchannel to Netanyahu

Palestinian leader tells former MKs he agreed to the idea, but it never went anywhere; PA official says Abbas conditioned such talks on a settlement freeze

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Ronald Lauder in Leipzig, Germany, Aug. 30, 2010 (Sean Gallup/Getty Images, via JTA)
Ronald Lauder in Leipzig, Germany, Aug. 30, 2010 (Sean Gallup/Getty Images, via JTA)

World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder proposed running a backchannel between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian leader said this week, but the initiative ultimately fizzled.

Abbas told a group of former Israeli lawmakers that Lauder, who has been involved as a conduit between Netanyahu and Arab leaders for decades, floated the idea to him several months ago, according to former justice minister Yossi Beilin, who was at the meeting.

Abbas said he gave Lauder, who was once close to Netanyahu and is a friend of US President Donald Trump, his commitment to participate in the channel of communication, but that nothing ever came of it, Beilin told The Times of Israel.

Former Labor MK Efi Oshaya, who was also at the meeting, confirmed Abbas’s talk of Lauder’s backchannel proposal.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas chairs a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah Sept 15, 2018. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

Both Beilin and Oshaya said that Abbas did not provide any explanation as to why the line of communication did not materialize.

“Abbas just said he accepted Lauder’s offer and then nothing happened,” Beilin said.

The comments came during a Sunday evening meeting at the PA presidential headquarters in Ramallah. Former lawmakers Ophir Pinez-Paz, Yair Tzaban, Yosef Vanunu and others also participated.

An official in Abbas’s office, who asked to remain unnamed, said that Lauder had previously suggested running a backchannel between the Palestinian leader and Netanyahu. The official, however, said that Abbas had told Lauder he would only participate in the line of communication if Israel enacts a freeze on settlement building.

Yossi Beilin at the Israel Conference on Democracy in Tel Aviv, February 17, 2015. (Amir Levy/Flash90)

Nabil Shaath, Abbas’s adviser for international affairs, said he had not been generally aware of such a proposal for a line of communication between Abbas and Netanyahu.

In the past several years, Abbas and Netanyahu have rarely communicated with each other. The two have not met for talks since 2010, at the tail end of a settlement freeze. Lower-level talks launched in 2014 failed to garner any breakthroughs and eventually fell apart.

A spokesperson for Lauder said that the billionaire does not comment on private conversations.

When asked if Lauder suggested to Netanyahu opening a line of communication between himself and Abbas, the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.

Abbas and Lauder, an heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics empire and head of the World Jewish Congress, have met several times in the past. The mogul has been dispatched by Netanyahu in the past as a go-between with Arab leaders, including Syrian President Bashar Assad.

In May 2017, Maariv reported that Lauder hosted Abbas in his home in New York to prepare him for his first meeting with Trump on May 3, 2017. In the same month, The New York Times reported that Lauder had been “prodding Mr. Trump to forge an alliance with Abbas.”

Trump has since recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, stopped funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UN-body tasked with aiding Palestinian refugees, and cut all civilian aid for projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, infuriating Abbas and other Palestinian leaders.

In March 2018, Lauder authored a New York Times op-ed in which he asserted senior Palestinian leaders are “ready to begin direct negotiations immediately.” The op-ed also contained harsh opprobrium directed at Netanyahu over divisive Israeli legislation.

Lauder and Netanyahu once maintained a close relationship, but their ties reportedly soured in 2011 after Channel 10, in which Lauder owns a stake, aired a documentary critical of Netanyahu’s wife Sara.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the managing committee, and World Jewish Congress Chairman Ronald Lauder at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on September 11, 2016. (Haim Zach/GPO via Flash90)

Beilin, an architect of the Oslo Accords, also said that Abbas told the former lawmakers that he does not regret the landmark agreement, despite past statements in which he has threatened to leave the pact.

“He said people on the Israeli and Palestinian sides say him and me are traitors because of our roles in the Oslo process,” Beilin said. “But he said he does not regret the process and believes we did the most important thing for our peoples.”

The 25th anniversary of the signing of the first of the Oslo Accords took place last week. The Oslo Accords established the PA and mechanisms for cooperation between it and Israel. But the high hopes for peace that came with the 1993 signing have failed to materialize, leading despair among many Palestinians.

Several Palestinian leaders marked the anniversary of the first of the Oslo Accords, blasting them including Hamas Deputy Chief in Gaza who called them “a catastrophe.”

For his part, Abbas has said on more than one occasion in the past year that the Oslo Accords “are dead.”

At a recent meeting of the Palestinian Central Council, the second highest decision-making body in the PLO, he also suggested that the Palestinians may renege on some of their commitments to the Oslo Accords.

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