What Really Happened at Kerry’s 2016 “Regional Peace Summit”?

On Sunday, February 19, Haaretz reported that anonymous Obama administration sources claimed:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took part in a secret summit in Aqaba a year ago where then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presented a plan for a regional peace initiative including recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and a renewal of talks with the Palestinians with the support of the Arab countries.

The Haaretz report included a detailed account of a series of meetings leading up to the summit, as well as details of the previously-secret discussions that allegedly took place among Netanyahu, Kerry, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and Jordanian King Abdullah II in February of 2016.  According to Haaretz’s sources, “Netanyahu did not accept Kerry’s proposal and said he would have difficulty getting it approved by his governing coalition.”


This story was picked up by the Associated Press, and the AP story was carried in the Washington Post, CBS, Stars and Stripes, and US News. The CBS headline read, “Israeli leader turned down secret peace initiative, ex-officials say,” and other headlines were similar. As is discussed further below, these headlines are not an accurate portrayal of what occurred. The Washington Post ran the headline, “Ex-officials: Israeli leader spurned secret peace offer,” despite the fact that there was never any actual offer made.


Reuters, in contrast, did better with its headline: “A year ago, Israel, Jordan and Egypt secretly met for peace: report.” However, Reuters still reported that, according to Haaretz, the initiative “ultimately fizzled out … after Netanyahu withdrew his initial support, pointing to opposition within his right-wing government.”


Buried in the AP story, however, is reporting from Washington that added an important detail – that a former aid to Kerry “said the Arab partners also showed varying degrees of enthusiasm, with the Palestinians most concerned about concessions forced on them.” In addition, according to Reuters, a statement from Sisi’s office called some of the information in the Haaretz report “incorrect.” (AP, however, selectively quoted Sisi’s statement and failed to mention that Sisi had contradicted the Haaretz report.)  


The next day there was a follow-up story focusing on Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog’s response to the previous day’s leaks.


Also the next day, former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, without directly mentioning the Haaretz report, tweeted about the Obama administration’s attempt to pursue a regional approach to the peace process:

The Palestinians were the most unenthusiastic party, fearing they would be bypassed & pressured to accept terms they deemed unacceptable…. Domestic political constraints in Israel & Arab states, & a complicated Arab-Palestinian dynamic (who pressures whom) made it difficult…. I prefer not to describe what caused the failure…. Suffice it to say that all parties - Arab, Israeli, Palestinian - contributed to the failure by their unwillingness 2 take certain risks. (Emphasis added)

A few days later, moreover, an Israeli government source contradicted the original story, claiming that the reason that the regional summit failed was that the US insisted on terms that were untenable for Israel. Israel’s i24 News reported on the 22nd:

A senior Israeli official in the prime minister's office told Israel Radio Wednesday that US officials thwarted an effort to reach a peace agreement in a secret regional summit initiated by Prime Minister Netanyahu last year by imposing conditions that Israel could not comply with.

 The report in the Times of Israel was similar:

The administration of former US president Barack Obama ruined the chance for a regional peace deal to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last year by trying to impose its terms for the accord, a senior Israeli official reportedly said late Tuesday.

 Looking again at the original Haaretz report, the Israeli official’s account is consistent with Haaretz’s assertion that two different plans were proposed at the four-way meeting – one by Kerry and one by Netanyahu – and that the US officials’ actual complaint seemed to be that Israel made a counterproposal that was unsatisfactory to Kerry. Haaretz wrote: 

Instead of relating exclusively to Kerry’s plan, they said he presented a plan of his own at the four-party meeting, which he called his five-point plan. Through the plan, Netanyahu expressed a readiness to take the steps regarding the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that he had spoken with Kerry about in November 2015. He also said he would release a statement relating positively to the Arab Peace Initiative.


In return, Netanyahu asked that the negotiations with the Palestinians be resumed and that a regional peace summit be convened that would include attendance by senior representatives from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni Muslim countries.


After several hours of talks, the leaders returned to their capitals agreeing to consider the various proposals.  

That aspect of the story, however, was predictably downplayed in the original Haaretz article, coming towards the end of a long report and receiving no mention in the title or lede – though Haaretz did provided details of what Netanyahu proposed in a subsequent report. It was similarly downplayed in the AP report (printed in multiple American news outlets) and ignored in the Reuters report. When additional information came from Ambassador Shapiro and from the Israeli official, which presented the story in a very different light than the Haaretz account, neither received prominent coverage in the American press.


The lack of coverage of Ambassador Shapiro’s comments as well as the comments of the Israeli official can’t be attributed to the credibility of the sources. Both the original Haaretz story and the Israeli radio story are based on accounts from anonymous government sources, that is, they carry the same weight. The third account, in contrast, is from a named and credible source with first-hand knowledge – the former US Ambassador to Israel. Moreover, another named source with first-hand knowledge, President Sisi, also said the Haaretz report was “incorrect.”


Nor can the difference be attributed to the relative importance of the stories. If the existence of the summit and the cause of its collapse were newsworthy in the first instance, then new information about the cause of that collapse ought to be equally so. Herzog’s comments received coverage in the mainstream American press, but the US Ambassador’s comments did not.


When all of the various accounts are pieced together, what emerges is a very different picture than the one originally painted by Haaretz: the Palestinians were reluctant, the other Arab leaders had mixed responses, and Kerry insisted on imposing his own set of terms. Yet, many American media outlets chose to continue to promote the false narrative that it is Israel that is the recalcitrant party, and that is the cause of the continuation of the conflict, and to ignore evidence to the contrary. 


Unsurprisingly, the pattern seems to be continuing. A report over the weekend that six months ago Netanyahu proposed, and then backed out of, forming a unity government with opposition leader Isaac Herzog to pursue a regional peace initiate has been covered in the US, but a report that Abbas objected to those efforts has been ignored. And, when peace negotiator Michael Herzog wrote an account of the 2014 negotiations that faulted Kerry and Abbas for the failure of those negotiations, that too, was ignored 
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Algemeiner.

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