When Netanyahu joined the Geneva Initiative

A leaked document hugely discomfits the PM. Was this a case of Obama’s revenge?

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Seated from left to right: Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, and Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh, at a dinner marking the resumption of peace talks in Washington, DC on Monday, July 29, 2013. (photo credit: Charles Dharapak/AP)
Seated from left to right: Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, Israeli Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, and Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh, at a dinner marking the resumption of peace talks in Washington, DC on Monday, July 29, 2013. (photo credit: Charles Dharapak/AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Friday appearance at a meeting with Likud activists from the central Israeli city of Yehud exposed the pressure he is under following his return from Washington and the release of a document by Yedioth Ahronoth revealing past discussions with the Palestinian Authority.

It’s been a long time since Netanyahu has panicked, but he’s got plenty of reasons to do so now. He has not taken off in the polls, even after his “historic” speech to the American Congress. (And neither, lo and behold, has that address changed anything in the Middle East.) The transition from lofty Washington to humble Yehud has taken its toll. Television pundits have even discussed the possibility of Netanyahu announcing his retirement if Likud wins 18 seats or fewer in the elections.

And then there is that document.

The leaking Friday of the document exposing negotiations conducted in 2013 between Netanyahu confidant Yitzhak Molcho, Hussein al-Agha, a Fatah official and chief ally of Mahmoud Abbas, and former US administration official Dennis Ross was designed to weaken the prime minister’s support among right-wing voters. Despite Netanyahu’s claims, however, this leak was not the work of Arnon Mozes, Yedioth’s publisher and fierce Netanyahu critic. The document is legitimate and some of the journalists who have followed diplomatic communications between Israel and the PA in recent years knew of its existence. (Details of the back channel were reported on last November by the Walla news site.)

Furthermore, and here is where Likud hawks should be worried, the text agreed upon by Molcho and al-Agha, and documented by Ross (who wrote down the agreed formulations), shows an unprecedented willingness for one-on-one territorial exchanges in the event of a permanent peace agreement and the establishment a Palestinian state. This is a principle that no Israeli prime minister had ever fully accepted before. Not Ehud Barak at Camp David in July 2000, definitely not Ariel Sharon and not even Ehud Olmert, who offered far-reaching one-for-one exchanges in most areas but proposed to compensate the Palestinians with a tunnel route rather than accept one particular territorial demand.

Netanyahu cannot credibly claim that he was not “in the know” or blame his envoy for making unauthorized decisions. Molcho is the person closest to Netanyahu when it comes to handling the Palestinian issue — the prime minister’s gatekeeper.

So, what can he say? Pretty much the things we heard on Friday in Yehud. Or as the Prime Minister’s Office put it in a statement Friday, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has always refused to withdraw to the ’67 borders, opposed the division of Jerusalem and rejected recognition of the right of return.” True enough, but there is no contradiction. As the leaked document specifies, he “only” agreed that, for the purposes of the framework of talks on a permanent accord, “Palestine will be an independent and sovereign state in an area the size of that controlled by Egypt and Jordan before June 4, 1967…”

This was a non-binding framework, it should be stressed, but it still shows an unprecedented Palestinian success in the face-off with Israel, in that it grounds the negotiations on the basis of the pre-1967 lines and makes plain that, if a deal is achieved, there will be an exchange of territory and the Palestinians will be entitled to a state the size of the pre-1967 Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem areas pre-1967.

This amounts to a one-for-one land swap, and that means Netanyahu was committing to the same position as advocated by the left-wing Geneva Initiative and dovish former Labor minister Yossi Beilin. (The Geneva Initiative folks have some pretty good marketing material here.)

And what of Jerusalem and the refugees? No big surprises here. Netanyahu, as he has pointed out, did not agree to divide Jerusalem, but the document shows he was ready to recognize “the historical connection, social and cultural development” of the Palestinians in the city. The same applies to the Jordan Valley: Netanyahu makes clear in the framework drawn up by Molcho and al-Agha that he is prepared to accept a Palestinian presence in the Jordan Valley. And yes, there is a even talk of a humanitarian return for refugees to pre-1948 areas. And all this even before negotiations began in earnest.

Netanyahu’s statements on the Palestinian issue following the leak of this document are only likely to get harsher in the run up to election day. His people will hail their construction of thousands of housing units in the West Bank during his term in office as though it were a daring move behind enemy lines to thwart the Iranian nuclear program. Netanyahu, like a typical politician (in the worst sense of the word) has chosen to duke it out with Naftali Bennett for another Knesset seat or two on the right by staking out a hawkish position on the Palestinians. The national interest, which he chose to neglect, would have seen him present the document as proof of the efforts he was prepared to make for compromise. He could have highlighted the Palestinians’ stubbornness, or utilized the leak to push again for resumed talks.

Finally, it would seem that the White House on Friday showed Netanyahu how it gets even. The writers of “House of Cards” would be proud of a storyline in which the US administration takes its revenge against a prime minister who came to Washington seeking to reap a domestic political reward at the expense of President Barack Obama. Netanyahu has found out the hard way that there’s a price to pay for meddling in partisan American politics.

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