Senior aides to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been holding talks with Palestinian Authority officials for months through a secret back channel, Axios reported on Monday.
According to the report, which cited three sources briefed on the issue, the United States helped facilitate the talks, which were initiated by the Palestinians ahead of the swearing-in of the Netanyahu government in December.
P.A. Minister Hussein al-Sheikh reportedly passed a message to Netanyahu’s office through the Biden administration indicating Ramallah’s willingness to work with the new Israeli government. Al-Sheikh, who is also the secretary general of the PLO Executive Committee, passed along a second message of the same effect message after the swearing-in.
Netanyahu agreed to open the back channel, and appointed National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi to lead the secret talks, which have focused on day-to-day issues in Judea and Samaria and de-escalating tensions amid a wave of Palestinian terrorism, according to Axios.
Hanegbi and al-Sheikh spoke several times on the phone and also met in person, according to the report.
The most recent meeting took place in recent days, and focused on hashing out the understandings that led the P.A. to nix a U.N. Security Council resolution to condemn Israeli construction beyond the Green Line.
Instead, the Security Council issued on Monday a non-binding presidential statement denouncing Israeli housing plans in Judea and Samaria. “The Security Council reiterates that continuing Israeli settlement activities are dangerously imperiling the viability of the two-state solution,” said the U.N. body in a statement supported by all 15 members, including the United States.
In response, Netanyahu’s office released a statement calling the UNSC’s move “one-sided” and said it “denies the rights of Jews to live in our historic homeland, fails to mention the Palestinian terror attacks in Jerusalem in which 10 Israeli civilians were murdered, ignores the Palestinian Authority’s grotesque pay-for-slay policy, which subsidizes the murder of Jews, and belittles the evil of antisemitism, which has resulted in the slaughter of millions.”
As part of the broad U.S.-mediated understandings, Israel has reportedly agreed to postpone for several months the approval of additional construction in Judea and Samaria, delay planned demolitions of Palestinian homes built without permits in eastern Jerusalem, curb evictions of Palestinians in illegal housing, reduce the number of IDF raids in Palestinian cities and significantly curb Jewish access to the Temple Mount during Ramadan, which begins on March 22.
Netanyahu announced earlier Monday that his government will not advance plans to legalize outposts in Judea and Samaria for the next few months, without specifying a precise time frame. The move does not apply to the recent decision to authorize nine such communities made in response to a series of deadly terrorist attacks in Jerusalem.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with both Netanyahu and P.A. head Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday, reaffirming to both leaders Washington’s “commitment to a negotiated two-state solution and opposition to policies that endanger its viability,” according to the State Department.
Blinken also “underscored the urgent need for Israelis and Palestinians to take steps that restore calm, and [the Biden administration’s] strong opposition to unilateral measures that would further escalate tensions.”