Herzog says secret meetings with Arab leaders could have changed Mideast
Opposition leader blames PM, Likud ministers for torpedoing initiative after report emerges on clandestine session between himself, Netanyahu and Sissi in Cairo last year
Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said Monday that the meetings he took part in with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Arab leaders could have produced a deal that “changed the face of the Middle East,” but that the opportunity was ultimately torpedoed by hardliners in Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Herzog’s comments come after the Haaretz daily reported that he, Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi held a secret meeting in Cairo in April 2016 to discuss efforts at restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Speaking to Army Radio, Herzog confirmed that the meeting took place, but did not detail what was said, saying only that “it was part of a process… that yielded a document that would have changed the face of the Middle East.”
He also said that Netanyahu says things privately to leaders in the Arab world that he does not say to the Israeli public, but did not specify.
The Cairo summit came as Netanyahu and Herzog were holding intensive contacts aimed at bringing Herzog’s Zionist Union party into the government coalition.
But, said Herzog, once Netanyahu began involving members of his Likud party in the process, everything broke down.
“Once he brought in people from his own party,” including Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Herzog said, “they smashed the whole thing to pieces,” he said.
According to Monday’s newspaper report, in April 2016 Netanyahu and Herzog, along with advisers and a security detail, flew at night to Cairo on a private plane and were taken directly to the presidential palace to meet Sissi. They returned before dawn after Sissi had urged them to press ahead with a joint effort to restart peace talks.
Haaretz said it learned of the Cairo meeting from “a figure who is not currently in politics and is not connected in any way to Herzog.”
The Cairo meeting came shortly after the Aqaba Summit in February, another then-secret summit attended by Netanyahu, Sissi, King Abdullah II of Jordan and John Kerry, at the time US secretary of state.
Herzog indicated in the radio interview that leaks about these meetings were coming from the former US administration.
Netanyahu was reportedly trying to draw Herzog into the government because his right-leaning coalition would not back the kind of compromises he would need to make in order bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. In particular, a partial West Bank settlement construction freeze as a pre-condition to talks would not have been backed by the coalition Jewish Home party, which staunchly supports the settlement enterprise, as do many in Netanyahu’s own Likud party.
The Haaretz report said that “international and regional powers that were aware of Netanyahu’s inability to lead a significant peace process, due to his coalition partners, went to Herzog through various channels.”
Herzog, who had been informed of the Aqaba summit, was aware that there were opportunities for significant changes in the region but that it would require his Zionist Union party to be on board. He held talks with various Arab leaders and they told him they hoped he would assist Netanyahu to move things along, the report said.
However, negotiations between Netanyahu and Herzog broke down and the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, led by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, joined the coalition instead, effectively slamming shut the door on Herzog.
According to a February 2017 report in Haaretz, the negotiations with Herzog failed when Netanyahu got cold feet and cut off discussions.
In March Haaretz reported that as part of the regional initiative, Netanyahu and Herzog were to release an eight-point English-language text detailing Israel’s position in support of a new peace push.
The document, published by Haaretz, is dated September 12-13, 2016, and addresses Arab states, especially Egypt.
It thanks Sissi “for his willingness to play an active role in advancing peace and security in the region and re-launching the peace process.”
According to Haaretz, the proposed initiative never panned out because Netanyahu was caught in the political vise of the Amona outpost controversy.
The illegal West Bank outpost, which the High Court of Justice ruled in 2014 had been built on privately owned Palestinian land, was due to be demolished by the end of December of last year, and the weeks leading up to the deadline saw rising tensions with the Jewish Home party and many Likud ministers on Netanyahu’s rightist flank.
Netanyahu’s office told Haaretz at the time that the narrative according to which a possible regional peace process was prevented by Israeli political infighting was completely untrue. Herzog’s office declined to comment on the report.
In February 2017 Herzog, speaking to a conference of American-Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, said that in mid-May 2016, the talks over a unity government broke down because Netanyahu “simply reneged on basic understandings we had.”
The report on Herzog, Netanyahu and Sissi’s meeting comes amid renewed efforts by US President Donald Trump to restart talks between Israels and Palestinians as part of regional cooperation between moderate Sunni Arab states.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.