Feb 20, 2023 - World

Scoop: Israelis and Palestinians have been holding secret talks for weeks

Tzachi Hanegbi and Benjamin Netanyahu at a Cabinet meeting on Dec. 29, 2019. Photo: Abir Sultan/AFP via Getty Images

Tzachi Hanegbi and Benjamin Netanyahu at an Israeli Cabinet meeting on Dec. 29, 2019. Photo: Abir Sultan/AFP via Getty Images

Senior aides of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been holding secret talks for almost two months in an effort to de-escalate rising tensions in the occupied West Bank, three sources briefed on the matter told Axios.

Why it matters: The weeks of secret talks, which have not been previously reported, are among the first pieces of evidence of direct high-level engagement between the Palestinian Authority and the new right-wing Israeli government.

  • The White House has been updated about the backchannel, but it is unclear whether all the leaders of parties part of Netanyahu's coalition, some of them from the far right, are aware of the talks and their contents, the sources said.

Behind the scenes: In the weeks leading to the swearing-in of the new Israeli government, Palestinian Minister for Civilian Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh passed a message to Netanyahu’s office through the Biden administration about the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to work with the new prime minister, said the sources, who requested anonymity because they aren't authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

  • Al-Sheikh, who is also the secretary general of the PLO executive committee and the point person for Palestinian relations with the U.S. and Israel, passed on the same message again after the Israeli government was sworn in.
  • The sources said Netanyahu agreed and appointed national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi to lead the secret talks with the Palestinians. In the first few weeks, the talks focused on day-to-day issues and the effort to de-escalate the situation in the West Bank, where tensions have been rising for months.

Hanegbi and Al-Sheikh spoke several times on the phone and also met in person, according to the sources.

  • The sources said that their last meeting took place in recent days and focused on ironing out the understandings that led to the suspension of the vote in the UN Security Council against the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
  • A senior Israeli official said that even though the backchannel talks don't deal with final status negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is important in order to maintain a line of communication between the leaders in order to solve problems on the ground and de-escalate tensions.

What they're saying: Al-Sheikh didn’t respond to several requests for comment.

  • In a public briefing to the Conference of Presidents of the Jewish Organizations in North America on Monday, Hanegbi confirmed that talks with the Palestinians have taken place in order to stop unilateral steps from both sides.
  • “There were discussions with the Americans and also with us on creating some kind of a new environment by stopping the unilateral steps that were taken in recent months. We are ready for it," he said without discussing the secret backchannel or the fact the talks have been going on for nearly two months.
  • He was referring to talks to get the deal that averted a Palestinian-Israeli showdown at the UN Security Council.
  • Hanegbi added that Israel asked the Palestinians to stop steps connected to the legal procedures at the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. The Palestinians asked Israel to stop unilateral steps like incursions into the Palestinian cities, he said.
  • The Israeli national security adviser said Israel made clear to the Palestinians that it doesn’t want to send the Israeli military to the West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus but does it because Palestinian Authority security forces "don’t do it themselves."
  • He said Israel told the Palestinians they need to take back control of their cities. “We will be happy to help. There is room for dialogue with the Palestinians and hopefully it will start very soon," he stressed.
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