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The Secret Back Channel That Doomed the Israel-Palestine Negotiations


The latest wave of violence in the Holy Land has prompted influential centrist voices in Israel—including former intelligence chiefs and army generals—to call for new peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. But those calling for the revival of the eternal "peace process" admit that the most recent effort, which failed miserably earlier this year, offers some harsh lessons. Since the collapse of talks back in April, many have analyzed why Secretary of State John Kerry fell short of reaching any kind of agreement. One critical fact, however, has been kept hidden until now: a secret communication channel between the private attorney of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a confidante of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The secret channel—reported here for the first time—created substantial progress toward an agreement. But it also had one fundamental flaw, which contributed to the collapse of Kerry's entire process. Abbas’s supposed representative was in fact holding these talks without a real mandate from the Palestinian President; the concessions he discussed with Molho didn't represent the President's views. Parts of this story remain unsolved—most importantly, why this lack of a mandate was missed or ignored in real time. But what can be told is enough to raise some hard questions about Kerry's effort, and offer important lessons for future attempts at reaching an agreement. 

In 2010, Yitzhak (Itzik) Molho, Netanyahu's attorney and his point man for negotiations with the Palestinians, began to hold secret talks with a person considered very close to Abbas. The New Republic has decided not to publish the identity of this person out of concern for this individual’s security. Peace process veteran Dennis Ross—at the time a special foreign policy adviser to President Obama—was brought into the discussions as well.

Since their first meeting in 2010, Molho and Abbas's confidante focused on finding common ground—a basis for final status negotiations that both Abbas and Netanyahu could tolerate. Back then, they came up with a formula in which Israel would accept the 1967 borders (with land swaps that would allow it to annex some large “settlement blocs”). In return, the Palestinians would show flexibility regarding Netanyahu's insistence on recognizing Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people (while clarifying that such recognition would not abridge the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens). This formula, which was discussed but not concluded or agreed upon, included a huge concession from each side—Netanyahu's representative accepting the same borders Bibi had spent decades rallying against, and Abbas's supposed representative coming to terms with an Israeli demand that the Palestinian president had rejected time after time, on every possible stage.

Ross tried to make these conversations more prominent with the Obama administration back in 2011, but met with little success. One source in the administration said that except for former national security adviser Tom Donilon, no one was truly interested in this backchannel at the time. Washington wasn’t the only city where the secret channel didn't incite much excitement. Neither Netanyahu in Jerusalem nor Abbas in Ramallah gave any public sign of accepting the proposed formula. As it became clear no one was interested in their work, Molho and his counterpart reduced the frequency of their meetings.

Yitzhak Molho
AFP/Getty Images

Things changed in the spring of 2013, when Kerry began a serious push for new peace talks, visiting Jerusalem and Ramallah five times between March and July. As Kerry was laying the ground for an official negotiating track, Molho and his counterpart also renewed their backchannel, with Molho flying in and out of a European capital where the two would meet every few weeks.

Ross had officially quit the Obama administration late in 2011, but he remained involved in talks long after his resignation—even after Secretary Kerry appointed former ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk as his envoy to the official peace talks in July of 2013. Ross had no official mandate when the talks resumed in 2013, but used his personal relationships with Molho, Indyk, and Kerry to weigh influence.

In the early months of the Kerry talks, the official track, led by Indyk, stalled. As Ben Birnbaum and I detailed last summer, arguments, shouting matches, and other distractions dominated the negotiations during this period. Molho, who in addition to pursuing this backchannel was also representing Netanyahu in the official talks, showed little interest in what was being discussed there. His Israeli negotiating partner, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and the official Palestinian negotiators, Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh, all expressed frustration over his behavior. "It was clear he thought this wasn't where the important things were happening," says a source involved in the talks.

Important things were happening, however, in the secret channel. Molho and his counterpart were busy reconstructing their understanding from 2010, and transforming it into an outline of the terms for serious final status negotiations. Building from the Israeli acceptance of the 1967 borders (with land swaps) and Palestinian flexibility on the "nation state of the Jewish people" (with equal rights for Arab citizens) demmand, additional components were added. Molho and Abbas's confidante discussed the Palestinian refugee problem in depth, and were close to finding a creative wording they thought both sides could accept. On the explosive issue of Jerusalem, the two couldn't reach an understanding, thus postponing the discussion for later stages of the negotiations.

Kerry, Indyk, and Livni were all aware of the secret channel, and briefed regularly on progress. But Israeli officials believed that the official Palestinian negotiators had no idea about the backchannel. By December 2013, when Molho and his counterpart were finalizing their talks and working on a dramatic understanding that summed up everything they had discussed, a larger problem emerged: The Israelis began to realize that it wasn't clear if Molho's counterpart was truly negotiating on behalf of President Abbas.

Late that month, one of Israel's top newspaper columnists, Nahum Barnea, reported that during Netanyahu's prior term in office (2009–2012), Molho had a "secret Palestinian contact" with whom he exchanged messages between Abbas and Netanyahu. Barnea didn't report on the fact that this channel was still active and important—at least in the eyes of senior people in Israel and the U.S.—but the essence of his report was correct. Netanyahu's office refused to comment, but Abbas was quick to reply, saying in an interview that "there is no secret channel with Netanyahu, and never was one." He added that the official negotiations led by Indyk are "the only channel of communication I have with Netanyahu."

On the Israeli side, an argument erupted over the meaning of Abbas's statement. Some officials started voicing concerns that Abbas truly had no idea about the state of the backchannel talks, or that he knew about them but didn't consider them to be important. This concern was also shared by senior American officials, including Indyk, who had thought for some time that Abbas and Netanyahu did not see the backchannel in the same light. A Palestinian official close to Abbas claims that, from their very first day back in 2010, the Palestinian president had no interest in these talks: "He never took these talks with Molho seriously." 

The extent of Abbas's detachment from the secret-channel's product became clear in early 2014, when Kerry decided to merge the two negotiation tracks. The understanding that had developed through the secret channel was spilled into the discussions that Indyk's team was holding with both sides over a "framework document.” Netanyahu was willing to work with the fruits of the secret channel (although he insisted on airing his reservations, and the negotiations his advisers held with Indyk over the exact wording were endless). But Abbas completely rejected what had already, supposedly, been accepted by his own negotiator. He wasn't willing to show any flexibility on the Jewish state issue, and the idea of excluding any clear reference to a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem seemed like political suicide.

The anger Abbas expressed at the American framework caught Kerry by surprise: After all, these were all ideas his supposed negotiator was discussing with Molho. Realizing he had a problem with Abbas, Kerry tried to convince Netanyahu to tilt some of the provisions in Abbas's direction. But the Israeli Prime Minister was not having it. "We already agreed on these issues in the secret channel," he told the Secretary, according to a former senior U.S. official. "Bibi is angry at Kerry for opening up understandings that everybody considered a done deal, just because Abbas had changed his mind,” an Israeli Minister told me in February. But a Palestinian official rebuffed this criticism, saying that Abbas never changed his mind on anything: "He was presented with positions that no Palestinian leader could ever accept, and that he personally had spoken out against many times."

For some, it was always clear that the positions presented by the supposed "Palestinian negotiator" in this secret channel were totally unacceptable for Abbas. Officials involved in the process admit in retrospect that there was too much wishful thinking regarding the backchannel.

A major reason for the skepticism of some people involved in the negotiations toward this backchannel, had to do with Abbas's ostensible confidante. A number of Israeli, American, and Palestinian officials claimed that it was a miscalculation to assume this person would have authority to make concessions on delicate issues. One senior Palestinian official told me that those in the American and Israeli camps who thought otherwise were "fools." 

If Abbas really was unaware of, or not totally committed to, the backchannel negotiations, what was his “representative” telling Molho? And why did Kerry and Netanyahu treat this channel so seriously, if they had no proof that Abbas had any interest in the proceedings? Perhaps Netanyahu understood that Abbas didn't know or didn’t care about the backchannel, but decided to keep it going, hoping to bring the negotiations to a point where he could say: "We were willing to make historical concessions, but have found out that we have no partner." This could explain why some senior Obama administration officials have lately been saying that Netanyahu misled Kerry during the negotiations.

Then again, perhaps Abbas did know what was going on with Molho, but regretted it midway. There is historical precedent for this scenario: In 1993, Abbas held secret negotiations with Israel's then–Deputy Foreign Minister, Yossi Beilin. The negotiations gave birth to the "Beilin–Abu Mazen Understandings," the first-ever draft of a final status agreement. But when the document was leaked to the press, Abbas tried to distance himself from it and to minimize its importance. Some Israeli officials believe something similar happened in the last round of negotiations—that after extracting territorial concessions from Israel, Abbas backtracked on any concessions from his side. (The irony of this claim is that Netanyahu had also retreated from the positions presented by Molho in the secret channel, first by insisting on having reservations and later by going back to hardliner positions in the recent months.)

Both scenarios could serve some beautifully written conspiracy theories, but the truth could very well be much simpler: that this blunder was just a terrible misunderstanding. Perhaps what the Israelis considered a serious backchannel, the Palestinians—including their man in the room—saw as merely an unofficial exchange of ideas. Only two people can really solve the mystery, Yitzhak Molho and his negotiating counterpart. Both of them refused to comment.