Israeli opposition head: Netanyahu caved on peace initiative

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s opposition leader said Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ready to freeze settlement construction in most of the West Bank and reach out to regional Arab nations but ultimately backed out for fear of losing his grip on power.

Isaac Herzog, head of the opposition Zionist Union, said he was prepared to join Netanyahu’s government based on a secret regional peace initiative brokered by then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that would have limited settlement growth to just the major blocs that Israel is expected to keep in any peace accord. But he said the talks broke down when Netanyahu caved under pressure from his hard-line allies.

“Netanyahu fled away, turned his back as opposed to his commitments to third parties … and simply reneged on the basic understanding that we had,” Herzog told participants at the annual Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization gathering in Jerusalem. “History will judge Netanyahu on that failure.”

Herzog’s comments were the latest revelations about secret peace negotiations that have shaken up Israeli politics and raised new doubts over the genuineness of Netanyahu’s stated commitment to pursuing Middle East peace, expressed most recently in a White House press conference last week with President Donald Trump.

Former American officials have confirmed a report Sunday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Netanyahu turned down an offer that would have secured regional recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — a key Netanyahu demand — alongside a renewal of peace talks with the Palestinians with the support of the Arab countries.

Netanyahu took part in a summit that Kerry organized in the southern Jordanian port city of Aqaba last February and included Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.

Netanyahu rejected the offer, which would have required a significant pullout from occupied land, saying he would not be able to garner enough support for it in his hard-line coalition government. Two former top aides to Kerry confirmed that the meeting took place secretly on Feb. 21, 2016.

Haaretz, which broke the story, said Netanyahu presented a five-point plan that would include advancement of Palestinian economic projects, a freezing on constructing in isolated settlements and a positive reference to the 2002 “Arab Peace Initiative” — a Saudi-led plan that offered Israel peace with dozens of Arab and Muslim nations in return for a pullout from territories captured in the 1967 Mideast war to make way for an independent Palestine.

Herzog said the summit formed the basis of his short-lived talks with Netanyahu to join the government, a plan that quickly unraveled when Netanyahu chose to bring in nationalist leader Avigdor Lieberman instead and appoint him defense minister.

Herzog confirmed that Netanyahu was willing to make the concessions but cowed in the face of warnings from his own Cabinet ministers that he would lose his coalition and even the support of his own Likud Party. Herzog himself came under scathing criticism for his apparent groveling before Netanyahu, but now says his motives have been vindicated.

“I told Netanyahu `let’s go together, the country’s two big historic parties, to a tiebreaking move’ and he blinked and ran away,” Herzog told Israel’s Channel 10 TV Sunday night, saying such a union “would have changed the face of the Middle East.”

Herzog said Arab leaders in the region urged him directly to join the government.

“They saw that as an indication of Netanyahu’s seriousness for the move because in practice they didn’t really believe it,” he said.

The report and subsequent fallout has sparked renewed opposition attacks on Netanyahu as a serial refuser, while his nationalist coalition partners have lauded their own role in thwarting what they see as a dangerous gambit.

Netanyahu himself did not address the report in his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday and he departed shortly after for a weeklong trip to Singapore and Australia.

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