Israeli President Shimon Peres has revealed that he reached agreement on a peace package with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas three years ago, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quashed the deal and told Mr. Peres to cease further negotiations.
News of this agreement, which covered "nearly all points of dispute," according to Mr. Peres, was divulged Tuesday night in an interview with the President on Israel's Channel 2 television station.
The agreement, Mr. Peres said, was arrived at in four secret meetings in Jordan. It called for mutual recognition of "a Palestinian state" and "a Jewish state," a goal Mr. Netanyahu made a priority in his recently terminated peace talks with the Palestinians. It also included an understanding on how to resolve the vexing refugee issue.
The matter was settled, Mr. Peres said, when Mr. Abbas "agreed to adopt the Arab League's proposal that this issue would be resolved in a just and mutually agreed upon fashion." This approach, which stems from the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, ruled out an unlimited return of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war. Instead, the parties would arrive at mutually agreed numbers, something very much to Israel's liking.
Only one final meeting was left, Mr. Peres said, when the Prime Minister halted everything.
"Netanyahu stopped it," said Mr. Peres, who indicated he was perplexed by the decision, since the agreement had been reached with the Prime Minister's knowledge.
"I didn't conduct private negotiations," Mr. Peres said. "The Prime Minister was an accomplice to the negotiations at every step of the way."
Mr. Peres, who is 90, is leaving the presidency in July at the end of a seven-year term. He has been in public office for more than seven decades.
He said that he and Mr. Abbas also reached agreement on how to deal with the borders of the Palestinian state: They elected to talk only about the size of the state rather than its specific borders. This approach would allow for territorial exchanges to take place and permit Israel to retain some of its large settlement blocs in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Mr. Netanyahu's office, in response to Mr. Peres's television appearance, denied that an agreement had been imminent.
"Abu Mazen did not agree to anything," an official in the Prime Minister's office told the Times of Israel, referring to Mr. Abbas by his familiar name. "All he wanted was to receive and give nothing in return."
"This is a known tactic of his," the official said, "to take an ambiguous stance until he's pushed into a corner and then flees."
"The only agreement [Mr. Abbas made] was with Hamas," the official added. "He who hugs a mass murderer on our Memorial Day is not looking for peace with Israel," the official was quoted saying, a reference to Mr. Abbas's warm meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Qatar on Monday.
Yossi Beilin, Mr. Peres's former deputy and a confidante, confirmed the Peres-Abbas meetings had taken place as Mr. Peres described them. "It's not really a secret," he said.
"Abu Mazen was already on his way to the final meeting in Jordan when Netanyahu told Peres to stop everything," Mr. Beilin said. "Peres had to call Abu Mazen and tell him he wouldn't be coming."
This was not the only time Mr. Abbas has secretly negotiated an agreement for peace.
He, like Mr. Beilin, was also one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo Accords arrived at in clandestine meetings in the Norwegian capital. Following that, in the mid-nineties, he met secretly with Mr. Beilin over a two year period in Geneva. The result was the "Beilin-Abu Mazen Plan" for a final status peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Never implemented, it became a blueprint for future talks.
Nor is it the first time Mr. Peres has been stopped in his tracks attempting something like this. In 1987, Mr. Peres, then foreign minister, concluded a deal with Jordan's King Hussein. It was referred to as the London agreement, having been negotiated in the office of an English doctor of whom both men were patients.
The agreement was intended to restore much of the occupied West Bank to Jordanian control, along with all the Palestinians in it. It was torpedoed by then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, who didn't want to give up any of the territory.
The importance of Mr. Peres's interview, Mr. Beilin said, is that "here we have a President saying Abu Mazen is a good partner for peace, even though the Prime Minister and many of the people around him are saying he's some kind of serial refusenik."
"I don't believe Abu Mazen has turned his back on peace," said Mr. Beilin. "He has joined with Hamas, yes, but with him still setting Palestinian policy toward Israel. I think he is trying to square this circle the only realistic way he can."