‘Israel leader spurned secret peace offer’

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned down a regional peace initiative last year that was brokered by then-American secretary of state John Kerry, former US officials say.

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This seem an apparent contradiction to Netanyahu’s stated goal of involving regional Arab powers in resolving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

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

The secret meeting was first reported by the Haaretz daily.

According to two former Obama administration officials, Kerry proposed 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 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.

The initiative also appeared to be the basis of short-lived talks with moderate opposition leader Isaac Herzog to join the government, a plan that quickly unravelled when Netanyahu chose to bring in nationalist leader Avigdor Lieberman instead and appoint him defence minister.

Herzog tweeted on Sunday that “history will definitely judge the magnitude of the opportunity as well as the magnitude of the missed opportunity”.

Two former top aides to Kerry confirmed that the meeting took place secretly on February 21, 2016.

According to the officials, Kerry tried to sweeten the 15-year-old “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.

Among the proposed changes were Arab recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, recognition of Jerusalem as a shared capital for Israelis and Palestinians, and softened language on the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to lost properties in what is now Israel, the former officials said.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders reacted positively to the proposal, while Netanyahu refused to commit to anything beyond meetings with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

One of the officials said the main purpose of the meeting was to start a regional peace process that Netanyahu said he wanted. However, he said it was not clear if the Arab states would have gone along with it either.

He said it appeared that Netanyahu was not interested in doing anything beyond meeting with the Palestinian president and some Arab leaders and promising unspecified confidence-building steps.

A second former official said other Gulf Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, along with the Palestinians, the Europeans and the Russians, were also consulted as part of the process.

Netanyahu did not address the report in his weekly cabinet meeting and his office refused to comment.