When Israel sends representatives to Washington for the relaunch of long-dormant Middle East peace talks, the country’s delegation will be headed not by one but by two chief negotiators.
That’s not the usual way that peace delegations do business. The Palestinian delegation, for example, will be led, as it was for many years earlier, by Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Authority negotiator with years of experience in the peace process and the complete confidence of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas.
The two-headed creature that forms the Israeli delegation reflects a different reality: Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister and a junior partner in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, was elected on a platform stressing the urgency of reaching a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. She agreed to join the coalition government only on the condition that she be given primary responsibility for advancing the peace process.
Yitzhak Molcho, the other delegation head, is the longtime private attorney for the country’s more hawkish prime minister, Netanyahu. As the Israeli leader’s personal envoy, he is seen in part by some as a kind of minder for the more eager Livni.
“Netanyahu made clear in the coalition agreement that his guy will always be in the room with Livni,” said an Israeli official who is involved in the peace negotiations. “That way he can control what comes out of the talks.”
But like Livni, Molcho has spent dozens of hours at the negotiating table. And some see his presence as adding the leadership’s seal of approval to the peace talks.
“People in the administration like working with Molcho,” said David Makovsky, an expert on the Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Every American likes someone who has the prime minister’s ear.” He added that Molcho is also appreciated in Washington, thanks to his discretion and to the fact that “you know he will never leak anything.”
Molcho’s role as Israel’s point man for peace negotiations began during Netanyahu’s first term in office, in 1996, when he was sent on behalf of the newly elected prime minister to hold the first set of discussions with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza. Later, after more than 50 meetings with Arafat, Molcho was put in charge of finalizing the 1997 Hebron agreement
But the friendship between Netanyahu and Molcho dates back much further. Molcho, 67, joined the Jerusalem law firm now known as Shimron, Molho, Persky & Co. in 1970 and married the daughter of the firm’s founder, Erwin Shimron. After Shimron’s death in 1978, Molcho became the managing partner and added Shimron’s son David, who is Netanyahu’s cousin, as a partner. While establishing the group as one of Israel’s leading commercial and real estate law firms, Molcho also took on touchy personal matters relating to the Netanyahu family, including a lawsuit filed against Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, by a former housekeeper.
While Molcho is widely recognized for his strong personal ties to the Netanyahus, little is known about his political views. Molcho represented the Likud in negotiations with coalition partners and was part of the team planning Netanyahu’s first 100 days in office in 2009. But Israeli and American officials who have worked with him describe the gray-haired attorney as anything but ideological. “He’s Bibi’s family lawyer, not a member of the Likud family,” said a former Israeli official who had worked with Molcho.
In a rare interview with Israel’s business newspaper, Globes, the otherwise media-shy Molcho praised Netanyahu as having the best chance of all Israeli prime ministers to achieve peace with the Palestinians. “I wouldn’t volunteer six years of my life as [Netanyahu’s] special envoy if I did not believe he can make a significant contribution to the peace process and to Israel’s strength,” he said in the 2012 interview.
Molcho may be a tough negotiator, described by one Israeli official as “not willing to budge an inch” without first checking with his client, Netanyahu, but he is known to defuse any tension with his sense of humor and his outgoing personality.
American officials preparing for the renewal of peace talks view Molcho’s official status as unusual. Molcho carries a title of “special envoy and adviser” to Netanyahu, a position for which he receives no pay. In early 2010, Molcho signed a conflict of interest agreement with Israel’s attorney general, ensuring that he will not deal with private business while on official assignment and that he will cease representing clients who have dealings with the Israeli government.
As an outside adviser, however, Molcho is free of many of the constraints regular civil servants must follow; most importantly, he reports only to the prime minister, thus bypassing Israel’s foreign ministry. Molcho’s past trips to Washington were not coordinated with the Israeli Embassy. According to a diplomatic official, the embassy staff usually learned about his visits from the press.
“Once, someone ran into him in the street, and that was how we found out he is in town,” the official recalled.
In talks with American officials, Molcho enjoyed a status similar to that of a Cabinet minister and has met regularly with the secretary of state and the national security adviser. He is also considered to have close ties to Dennis Ross, President Obama’s former adviser on Middle East issues.
Netanyahu is not the first Israeli leader to use lawyers and special envoys as key interlocutors for dealing with Palestinians and even with the American administration. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon appointed his personal friend and lawyer, Dov Weissglass, as bureau chief and later as his special adviser. In that capacity he coordinated all talks with the George W. Bush administration and with the P.A., leading up to the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.
Ehud Olmert, who took over as prime minister after Sharon fell ill, also used the services of his top advisers, Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turgeman, to negotiate issues relating to the peace process and to Israeli-American relations.
Livni comes to the peace talks from a different background. Born into a prominent family of Revisionist Zionists who saw the West Bank as an inviolable part of the Land of Israel, she has evolved from her early years as a staunch right-winger to her current centrist position. Citing pragmatic concerns, she is the strongest advocate of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the Netanyahu cabinet. During her recent election campaign, as head of the newly formed Hatnua party, Livni argued for a need to resume talks with Palestinians and warned of adverse consequences to Israel if it does not demonstrate willingness to compromise at the negotiating table. During her term as foreign minister, from 2006 to 2009, Livni coordinated peace talks and sat for hours with Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei, trying to work out a deal. Minutes of the talks, revealed by Al-Jazeera, show the seriousness of the negotiations, although they also highlighted Livni’s insistence on red lines regarding the refugee issue and the future of Jerusalem.
The chemistry between Livni and Molcho has already been put to a test. Both negotiators were dispatched by Netanyahu to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington in early May. The discussion centered on Kerry’s plans for renewing the peace talks and was followed by another meeting with the duo in Jordan later that month. While no information about the dynamic between the two negotiators was provided, an Israeli official said it is clear that Livni and Molcho have forged a working relationship in the months leading to the renewal of the peace talks and that no tensions had been apparent.
In the best of possible scenarios, as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks move forward, Livni and Molcho’s roles could prove to be complementary: Livni bringing to the table the political drive, and Molcho adding the assurance that any understanding reached will be accepted by Israel’s top decision maker.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.