Tel Aviv — As Israel-Palestinian peace talks resume for the first time since 2008, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be relying on his longtime personal attorney Isaac Molho to broker the deal of his life.
Israel’s chief negotiator to the peace talks, a highly respected Jerusalem corporate lawyer who stays out of the media spotlight regarding his political work, was first drafted by Netanyahu into diplomacy back in the 1990s as an emissary to Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and as a delegate to the Wye Plantation talks.
With a record of brokering bailouts of bankrupt real estate projects, Molho has the negotiating skills to prod Israelis and Palestinians into a deal most believe is unlikely. But he also lacks the policy expertise of diplomacy and national security wonks that could be necessary to hammer out a deal.
“To the extent that commercial negotiations overlap with political negotiations, he is top caliber. The problem is that they don’t entirely overlap. … He is probably not in command of the expertise to deal with the thorniest issues of final status,” said a legal colleague who asked to remain anonymous.
“He creates a legally and commercially sound mechanism that can salvage something out of a potentially catastrophic situation, and he does that better than anyone I know. These are the kinds of skills he can apply.”
Just as important: if the sides advance toward a final peace agreement, it will be crucial having a point man who is known as a loyal confidante of Netanyahu, a pragmatic deal broker who operates discreetly without a political or personal agenda.
“He’s looking after Bibi’s interest, not his own. Bibi relies on him implicitly to do the job, and also as a friend and counselor,” said Mitchell Barak, a former Netanyahu aide in the 1990s.
“Bibi doesn’t trust a lot of people. He will believe that Molho is trying to tell him something as it is, and not trying to influence him.”
In essence, Molho is expected to continue the lawyer-client relationship that dates from before Netanyahu’s first rise to become Likud leader in the early 1990s. Barak said that Molho handled Netanyahu’s campaign finances, and the fact that the Israeli leader has never been implicated in any wrongdoing is evidence that the attorney is a “straight shooter.”
Molho shuns the spotlight and routinely turns down media requests for an interview, according to a government official. He turned down a request to comment for this article.
Molho, who will be joined in the talks by National Security Adviser Uzi Arad and policy adviser Ron Dermer, has been immersed in the Netanyahu government’s recent talks with the U.S. administration over a settlement freeze and in starting the indirect proximity talks.
The two men, born in successive years, have known each other since they were in their 20s and were a part of the intimate world of Jerusalem’s elite families.
Molho, who is a fifth-generation Jerusalemite, is said to conduct himself with the noblesse oblige of the old world Sephardic Jewish aristocracy, say those that know him.
When Netanyahu was first elected in 1996, he sent Molho to Gaza to meet with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the United Nations under Netanyahu and an adviser today, traveled with the lawyer on the first trip.
“Molho is highly respected by Palestinian negotiators. He is seen as highly professional and a person who gets things done. He doesn’t come to the negotiations to give long speeches or hear himself talk, which can certainly happen in negotiations,” Gold said. “His impact is in his skill and his closeness to the prime minister and his candor.”
The Jerusalem lawyer, the managing partner of Shimron, Molho and Persky & Co., is one of several private professionals drafted by prime ministers as personal diplomatic emissaries. Ariel Sharon enlisted Dov Weissglass, and Ehud Barak relied on Gilead Sher.
“It’s a way to bypass the bureaucracy and to appoint someone who is 100 percent loyal to you. It gives the prime minister some flexibility. They aren’t loyal to another minister or ministry,” said Alon Liel, a former director general of the foreign ministry.
Liel is one of several dovish critics of the government who nonetheless praised the prime minister for enlisting Molho. “He’s the best possible choice. He is considered a very sensible guy. A relatively moderate guy. He’s good with human contacts.”
Just as critical, is Molho’s ability to push back against his boss if he believes Netanyahu is moving in the wrong direction.
“He is capable of telling him things he doesn’t want to hear, and Netanyahu might accept things from Molho he wouldn’t accept from anyone else,” said the legal colleague, “If Netanyahu does move to final status I do believe that Molho will be an asset, and if he doesn’t move to final status he is going to provide the prime minister the best possible defense the way that any good defense lawyer would.”