It was supposed to be a secret, but by now everyone who takes an interest in the Middle East knows about the meeting, which was organized by then Secretary of State John Kerry. The secret meeting was in a picturesque white villa just outside of the Jordanian port city of Aqaba about a year ago, and it was between leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia.
Details of the meeting were first published in one Egyptian newspaper and two Hebrew Israeli newspapers, but by now, they have been published everywhere. Most likely, Kerry let the secret loose himself.
But why? And why now?
The meeting was Kerry’s plan to force Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas—who was not present but with whom Kerry spoke with, face-to-face, the day before in another secret meeting in Amman—to resume final negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Not only did Kerry have a specific plan, but he also had a list of responsibilities to be assumed by each of the involved parties. This division of responsibilities was reported in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz and corroborated in the centrist-leaning Israeli newspaper Yediot. According to both sources, the plan was to have Secretary Kerry and Egyptian President al Sisi pressure Netanyahu to sit down at the negotiation table and to have King Hussein of Jordan pressure Abbas. The entire plan had the blessing of the King of Saudi Arabia.
Netanyahu brought Isaac Herzog, the leader of the opposition, into the secret. Herzog, eager to participate in what he thought would be the beginning of the end of a decades long standoff, pledged to join a unity government with Netanyahu.
In the end, the plan fell apart.
We know about most of what transpired through an Egyptian “open letter,” as it was called in the Arabic press. Not surprisingly, the letter lays total blame at the feet of Netanyahu and Israel. The letter was penned over the past weekend by Dr. Yehia Mistafa Kamel, a close adviser to Egyptian president al Sisi and a renowned Egyptian scholar. He begins his letter, “My Dear Netanyahu” and proceeds to express the frustration shared by so many others: Netanyahu was so close to an agreement, and he had the support of his opposition as well as the support of the mainstream Arab states.
What happened? Did Netanyahu torpedo an opportunity to move ahead? Yes, he probably did. But why? There was so much to gain from a successful agreement, and this was a real opportunity to move ahead and to potentially come to a resolution. If only the Israeli and the Palestinians would have met, decades of conflict could have been resolved.
The reason is clear: Israel’s prime minister made a calculation and his calculation was correct.
Netanyahu bet that Donald Trump would become the next president of the United States and with that victory would come a better, more friendly, United States administration. Netanyahu bet that with the new status Israel would have under a Trump presidency, Israel would have more leverage in an agreement with the Palestinians. Israel would not be dependent on Kerry and Obama.
Kerry’s plan was a good one. He brought all the right parties together, but he failed because Palestinians and Israelis really do not want to speak. That seems pretty clear.
It’s all comes down to power. Israelis and Palestinians don’t want to speak when they are feeling weak and intimidated, but they also don’t want to speak when they feel empowered and cocky.
John Kerry, the now former secretary of state, convened his secret meeting when he was in a position of power. Now that he is no longer in power, he has nothing to lose.
Go ahead. Spill the secret. Secure your place in history as the man who almost brought about an end to the standoff between Israel and the Palestinians.
Unfortunately, as we all know, almost doesn’t count.