Middle East peace talks in a London kitchen

‚óŹ Abbas and Peres held secret talks in Hampstead home of Anglo-Israeli billionaire

By Martin Bright, August 18, 2011

Secret peace talks between Israeli President Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, took place in London, the JC can reveal.

The encounter was hosted over dinner by UK businessman Poju Zabludowicz at his north London home.

It was modelled on the secret negotiations arranged by the late lawyer Lord Mishcon between Mr Peres and King Hussein, in advance of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1994.

There has been considerable speculation about the secret negotiations, but the JC can now confirm that the meeting took place in March during Mr Abbas's official visit to the UK.

No representatives of the UK government or the Israeli embassy were present during the meeting, which was conducted under the highest levels of security, although the JC understands the Foreign Office was aware it took place and gave it its blessing.

The UK government's line is that peace in the Middle East will ultimately come through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and that such "freelance" initiatives should be encouraged from a distance.

Mr Abbas arrived in London on March 7 and held meetings with David Cameron the next day. The visit coincided with the upgrading of the Palestinian delegation in London to a "diplomatic mission".

Mr Peres flew in secret to London for the talks.

Mr Zabludowicz is chairman of BICOM, the British-based Israel advocacy organisation, but the dinner was hosted in his personal capacity. His ownership of the private investment group, Tamares, makes him one of Britain's richest men and he and his wife are renowned art collectors. Various sources close to Mr Zabludowicz confirmed his involvement at the heart of the process.

Mr Zabludowicz has also acted as an intermediary in negotiations between Israel and President Bashar Assad before events in Syria escalated.

Only the closest advisers to Mr Peres and Mr Abbas were present during the negotiations. Israeli sources suggest the meeting was part of a series of four between the two men.

Mr Zabludowicz was unavailable for comment.

The 1990s secret meetings held at Victor Mishcon's home were considered vital to hammering out the peace deal between Israel and Jordan and provided the model for the latest negotiations. At a crucial point in the talks the two principal players were left alone to talk in total confidence: "The way it worked was that one was given the tea towel, and the other did the washing-up, so to speak," said one source close to the process.

The degree of secrecy surrounding the four meetings between the two leaders was such that not even some of Mr Peres' most senior aides were aware that they had met at Mr Zabludowicz's home in London.

Senior government sources confirmed the meeting and three others at different locations and that all had taken place with the knowledge and authorisation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Peres and Netanyahu were completely co-ordinated between them," said one of the sources.

However, at the weekend, reports in the Israeli press suggested that Mr Netanyahu had intervened to close off the channel in recent weeks. No government official has openly confirmed the meetings. Mr Peres celebrated his 88th birthday on Tuesday and in an interview with IDF Radio he would only say: "I will continue to work in every permissible way for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement".

The highly confidential nature of the meetings is a demonstration of just how stalled the official peace process has become in recent months. The situation is particularly sensitive for Mahmoud Abbas, who has publicly stated that negotiations can not begin until settlement building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is halted.

At the Palestinian mission in London, an official noted that the Palestinian president had never said that negotiations should definitively stop.

Yossi Alpher, former director of Israel's Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies said: "That a secret meeting had to be held between men who have met publicly many times in the past, reflects the current bankruptcy of the process."

Anshel Pfeffer contributed to this report

Last updated: 11:50am, August 18 2011