Opposition leader Isaac Herzog on Monday confirmed reports that he entered negotiations to join a unity government last year in the framework of a secret regional agreement that was discussed at the time, and argued that the potentially historic deal fell through because Prime Minister Benjamin eventually caved in to domestic political pressures.
Addressing American-Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Herzog (Zionist Union) said Netanyahu had been willing to appoint him foreign minister to oversee a process that would include a freeze on settlement construction outside the settlement blocs — areas of the West Bank that Israel would seek to retain under a peace deal — in return for international and Arab consent to building within the blocs.
“What happened was amazing,” Herzog said, speaking in English. “I worked with Netanyahu on a draft appendix to our agreement, which had included certain steps that were quite dramatic. Had these steps been agreed upon, namely, had he agreed at the end to go for it, it would have changed the region.”
But as the deal took shape, ministers Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin — senior members of Netanyahu’s Likud party — pressured the prime minister to abort the process, Herzog charged.
Levin insisted the word “blocs” not be used, Herzog said, and so the opposition leader agreed to speak about “construction in the main urban areas.”
Said Herzog: “What I wanted was really to exhaust the possibility of trying to make history, of preventing another round of bloodshed, of soldiers and citizens in coffins.”
But as pressure from his right-wing coalition partners mounted, Netanyahu eventually went back on the idea of freezing settlement construction outside the blocs, in Herzog’s telling. The prime minister said he could speak about it but was no longer willing to commit to the plan in writing. At that point, the deal broke down, and Herzog aborted the talks to join a unity government, he said.
Herzog said that many details of Netanyahu’s meeting in early 2016 with then-US secretary of state John Kerry, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah ll, during which the prospective deal was discussed, have not yet been revealed by the press.
Having promised to keep the entire process secret, Herzog could not speak about it in public before now — a move that risked his political career and drew attacks from within his own party, the public and the press. But now that the story had been broken in a series of recent reports in the Haaretz daily, the logic of his behavior at the time was finally becoming clear, the opposition leader said.
Based on Netanyahu’s February 21, 2016, summit in the Jordanian town of Aqaba, and subsequent guarantees he received from Arab states, Herzog had been willing to enter coalition talks with Netanyahu in March, he said.
In mid-May, the talks over a unity government broke down because Netanyahu “simply reneged on basic understandings we had,” Herzog charged. “These understandings, had they been fulfilled, would have prevented the catastrophe of the UN Security Council vote” on December 23, 2016, which harshly criticized the settlements, according to Herzog.
“History will judge Netanyahu on that failure, unfortunately,” he said.
Speaking to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations during its annual Israel mission, the opposition leader laid out his own vision for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A final-status peace agreement was currently “almost impossible, especially bearing in mind the current leaderships of both nations.” But, he said, Israel must take steps toward that goal
For one, both Israelis and Palestinians should reiterate their commitment to a two-state solution.
“When I heard, at the White House [meeting of Netanyahu with US President Donald Trump], that the one-state solution was mentioned as a possibility,…I felt that every Israeli should wake up in the morning, sweating from the nightmare of Bosnia and Syria, that we will wake up one day to two communities equal in size or even to more Arabs than Jews, and to losing the whole notion of the nation state of the Jewish people.”
Furthermore, Israel should “identify a period of a few years, I’d say even a decade, whereby the area of dispute is clean of terror, incitement and adverse activities. And simultaneously, the Palestinians get more civil authority in Area C,” which covers about 60 percent of the West Bank and where Israel maintains security and civilian control.
The Palestinians should be allowed to build new neighborhoods adjacent to the major Arab cities, which they have requested for years, Herzog said, and Israel should declare a settlement freeze outside the main blocs in return for construction within the blocs and accept the main guidelines of the Arab Peace Initiative.
Israel should also complete the security fence and “move toward opening up and easing the pressure” on the Gaza Strip, he said. “Give hope to Gaza as part of the equation.”
Those steps would move the two sides closer to a process that could eventually lead to final-status negotiations. At the current point in time, however, it was unnecessary and perhaps unwise to negotiate the “extremely complex” final-status issues.