The following story probably won’t dispel the widespread notion among the Israeli public and leadership that since the Second Intifada there has been no partner on the Palestinian side. This is a notion that is based on statements from politicians from the right, among others, who claim that every time the moment of truth comes, PA President Mahmoud Abbas rejects peace agreements.
But in at least one instance, that preconception proved unfounded, even false. Less than four years ago, it wasn’t Abbas who ran away from the table, but rather Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who declined to advance talks between Abbas and then-president Shimon Peres.
Although Abbas came to far-reaching understandings with Peres on a framework deal, or principles according to which talks would be restarted, at the last minute Netanyahu changed his mind about the agreement. After that, the possibility of restarting talks centered on the principle of two states — based on the 1967 lines with land swaps — was gone, Israeli and Palestinian officials told the Times of Israel.
The existence of the talks themselves was previously revealed by journalist Ben Caspit, who also reported on the last-minute cancellation of a meeting between Peres and Abbas planned for July 28, 2011, in Amman, Jordan, in the wake of Netanyahu’s rejection of concrete proposals that Peres wanted to present.
What has not been published until now is the content of the conversations and the understandings reached by both sides, with the full knowledge of Netanyahu — until the moment of truth, that is, when Netanyahu backed out and refused to endorse the talks.
From Rome to Amman
The talks between Peres and Abbas were held far from the public eye for over a year. In light of the deep deadlock in negotiations between the sides, the president embarked on a series of meetings with the Palestinian Authority president designed to advance the possibility of restarting official talks. The meetings were held in several European capitals, including London and Rome, as well as in Amman, which became virtually the permanent host for the two men. The last, July 28, 2011 meeting, which was canceled, was also supposed to be held in Jordan.
The two presidents were accompanied by their special advisers: Avi Gil, who worked alongside Peres for decades, and on the Palestinian side chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. The goal from the beginning was modest – to agree on a framework document that would pave the way for renewed talks, with no intention of reaching a full agreement between the sides before the talks entered their official stage.
This is why it was decided to hold unofficial talks between the two men, without bringing in Netanyahu in the early stages. Peres received Netanyahu’s permission to hold the talks in order to look into whether an agreement was at all possible. At the same time it was clear throughout, to all the parties involved, that Netanyahu could distance himself from any understandings that would be reached and claim they merely represented Peres’s personal positions. That way, Netanyahu could have it both ways, negotiating through Peres while reserving the option of stepping back and saying “it wasn’t me” if the president reached understandings he didn’t like.
Though Peres was on relatively good terms with Netanyahu at the time, it was clear to the Palestinians that he wasn’t tantamount to the prime minister’s special envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, but was instead a deniable channel. A debate later arose as to the importance of that channel. There are those on both sides who claim that in the end, because of the lack of official commitment from Netanyahu to the talks, the significance was marginal. Others say that Netanyahu was fully supportive of the far-reaching understandings… until he backed away.
The talks made significant progress as they went along. Gil and Erekat also held separate meetings without their bosses to keep things moving. And all along, Netanyahu received updates. For his part, Abbas shared with his closest advisers the developing understandings around the framework agreement, whose terms were reminiscent of the memorandum of understanding that Secretary of State John Kerry later sought to create.
The main recognition between the sides was that they would have to reach basic understandings on the territorial issue, i.e. the borders of the Palestinian state, given the deep misunderstandings between the sides around the issue of Jerusalem (especially the holy sites), and on the fate of Palestinian refugees. Several formulations were tested before a mutual understanding was reached that the planned document would include a statement about the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967 lines, with equal land swaps.
At that stage, there was no discussion of exact figures. Abbas’s advisers explained recently that during the talks, the PA president reiterated that he would be willing to “settle for” 98 percent of the West Bank. He also insisted that the land swaps be equal in quality and size, which was reflected in the language of the framework agreement. It should be emphasized that specific figures were outside of the framework of the statement of principles, and arose in discussions between the men, but nothing beyond that. According to those close to Abbas, the understandings about the framework agreement included a statement on the demilitarization of the Palestinian state, with a third party to be deployed at the borders and crossings.
On Jerusalem, an understanding was created around some of the disputed issues, while the explosive matter of the Holy Basin was left for a later stage. Peres and Abbas agreed that Jerusalem would be the capital of both states and would remain an open city. Jewish neighborhoods would be under Israeli sovereignty; Arab neighborhoods would be under Palestinian sovereignty.
The remaining dispute was over the Temple Mount. At no stage did Abbas agree to Palestinians not having sovereignty on the mount, even in exchange for a general statement regarding Arab or religious sovereignty. Therefore, it was decided that the planned framework agreement would not include any mention of the Temple Mount.
Where did the Palestinian insistence on the sovereignty over the Temple Mount come from? Quite a few explanations have been given, including a recurring claim from senior Palestinian officials, which they also expressed in conversations with The Times of Israel, that “Al-Aqsa is ours” and there will be no peace agreement without Palestinian sovereignty there. This is not a new position, and it may stem from a Palestinian desire to gain a particularly prestigious position in the Islamic world. If Saudi Arabia is responsible for the two holiest sites in Islam, then the Palestinians would be the landlords of the third. For them, the mosque is not only a religious matter; it is a national matter and a religious symbol with the capacity to bolster their diplomatic status.
The Palestinians also suggested, with no Israeli opposition, that the final peace deal would establish a joint municipal body for taking care of electricity, water and sewage in the two capitals, which would only be divided by an imaginary line.
When it came to the refugees, the parties also agreed to a somewhat vague formulation for the framework agreement: a general statement saying that the solution to the problem would be mutually agreed and just, similar to the formulation in the Arab peace initiative, but with no mention of UN Resolution 194. The issue also elicited a slew of ideas from the Palestinians for a future peace agreement. A senior Palestinian official told The Times of Israel that Abbas gave Peres the four alternatives he sought to present to the refugees: maintain their current place of residence while receiving compensation; move to a third country and receive compensation; settle in the Palestinian state; and return to Israel, with the consent of the Israeli government.
The official said that no permanent annual number of refugees moving to Israel was presented. That is, the Abbas outline was that every year Israel would decide on the number of refugees it would allow to return to its territory (in later conversations Abbas’s position was that he wanted Israel to take in 10,000 refugees a year for 15 years, for a total of 150,000 refugees).
Abbas was ready to include a clause about the end of all mutual claims and the end of the conflict, contrary to claims on the Israeli right that he did not agree to that condition.
The impression gained from both the Israelis and Palestinians, then and now, was that Netanyahu monitored the talks from afar. He knew every detail and sentence, which was perhaps what caused the shock among the negotiators when he decided to nix the framework initiative.
At the moment of truth, the prime minister folded. Peres was scheduled to meet with Abbas on July 28, 2011 in Amman, and was supposed to give him a document or some assurance that would make the understandings official, or at least an official Israeli proposal.
But something went wrong.
While Abbas was making his way toward Allenby Bridge, the Israeli negotiator Avi Gil called him and told him there was no point in meeting: Netanyahu had not agreed to deliver the official document.
After that, relations between Peres and Netanyahu ran aground. The president had lost faith in his prime minister.
Why, then, did Netanyahu change his position and stance on negotiations at the last minute? That remains unclear. Peres’s office refused to comment, while the Prime Minister’s Office insisted that Netanyahu has never agreed to any of the clauses.
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