Our 102nd Capitol Hill Conference
Friday, October 23rd - 10am - noon ET
Full video from this event now available.
GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Good morning, everyone. I am Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, the vice chairwoman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. I’m pleased to welcome you to this, our 102nd Quarterly Capitol Hill Conference, virtually.
Our topic today is “Arab-Israeli Relations on the Eve of the U.S. Elections.” As we prepare for the next term of the presidential leadership in January 2021, the region and its relationships continue to evolve. What will the next president do with peace agreements that don’t include peace with a major party to the conflict? How might the administration resolve the tension of maintaining close ties with partners that ignores social justice challenges in their own country, while working to address them at home? How can the next administration build on peace agreements between countries that never made war with each other to support progress in countries suffering under hot wars – like Libya, Yemen, and Syria?
Well, we are fortunate today to have with us a panel composed of experienced policymakers and subject matter experts. They will lead us in an examination of the challenges and options the United States should consider in its approach to the Middle East. However, before I turn to today’s program I would like to say a few words about who we are.
The Middle East Policy Council was established in 1981 for the purpose of promoting dialogue and education concerning the United States and the countries of the Middle East. We have three flagship programs – our quarterly Capitol Hill Conference, such as today’s event; our quarterly journal, Middle East Policy, which enjoys a strong reputation among those with an interest in Middle Eastern affairs and can be found in some 15,000 libraries worldwide; and our education outreach program TeachMideast, which educational resources on the Middle East targeted mainly towards the next generation, secondary school students, and teachers. Please visit us on our website, www.MEPC.org, and our TeachMideast program on the web at www.TeachMideast.org to learn more about our organization and our activities.
Now to today’s event. I’m pleased to welcome all of those who have joined us from around the world. And this conference’s proceedings will be posted in video and transcript form on our website, as will a recap of the discussion. An edited transcript of the program will be published in the next issue of our journal, Middle East Policy.
Now let me briefly introduce our panelists. You can find their bios on the web, of course. We will begin the program with Ms. Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, who currently serves as director of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program at the United States Institute of Peace. She is the author of chapters on Israeli and Palestinian religious peacebuilding efforts and worked previously with the Department of State. Next we have Mr. Bashar Azzeh, a founding board member of the Tatweer Development Group, a board member of the United Construction and Investment Group in Palestine, and a member of the Palestine National Council. Following Mr. Azzeh, we have Dr. Shira Efron, who is a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security studies and a special advisor on Israel at RAND Corporation. She is also an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. Our final speaker will be Mr. Brian Katulis, who is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and an MEPC board member. His past experience advising policymakers includes work at the National Security Council, and the Departments of State and Defense.
I’d like to thank all four of you for joining us here today. The program will begin with each panelist delivering brief opening remarks. This will be followed by a discussion session which will be moderated by my colleague Dr. Tom Mattair, executive director of the Middle East Policy Council. For anyone wishing to ask a question of the panelists, please email your questions to MEPC.Press@gmail.com. And you can do it during the program.
Before I turn the screen over to Lucy, I do want to thank our executive director, Dr. Mattair, for his outstanding service to the Council, as he prepares to retire. His commitment to informed and lively discussion on the issues and events that have led the world’s headlines to decades has ensured these conferences are timely and provide valuable insight for policymakers, policy implementer, and observers – particularly our next generation. So thank you again, Tom.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to Lucy. Thank you.
LUCY KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Rookie unmute error. Thank you, Ambassador. And thank you to the Middle East Policy Council for hosting this event and inviting me to participate in this conversation. It’s really a pleasure to be here, and a pleasure to be joining Shira, Bashar, and Brian for this discussion of “Arab-Israeli Relations on the Eve of the U.S. Election.”
I’ve been asked to address this question in the context of U.S. policy. So what I’ll endeavor to do over the next few minutes is take us through how we got here in the context of the U.S. policy approach, what recent developments mean and don’t mean, and what we might expect to see going forward.
So in terms of how we got here, even before the announcement and subsequent signing of the Abraham Accords in August and September, watchers of Arab-Israeli affairs were noting and speculating on the ultimate direction of these clearly thawing relations between Israel and several Arab neighbors, specifically among the Gulf states. The proverbial conventional wisdom and longstanding assumption had been that there was a so-called glass ceiling to the limits to which these relations could reach, absent a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and specifically along a two-state solution line.
This assessment and assumption was not developed lightly. It was grounded, rather, in diplomatic efforts across many decades to foster a regional rapprochement, both in service of greater regional stability and security and what was often construed to be an inextricable element of that goal, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So when the current U.S. administration took up its efforts aimed at forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, much was made of what as being termed their outside-in approach – that is, their focus on primarily engaging the regional Arab actors towards that end – as distinct from an inside-out approach, which would focus on the core parties, the Israelis and the Palestinians.
I think what was often lost in this analysis upfront was the historically grounded sense that a regional engagement approach was certainly not new. Certainly, the most prominent example of this comes in the early ’90s – as many listening on this call and many I know were actually involved in the watershed moment in Arab-Israeli diplomacy – the Madrid Peace Conference, which seized on geopolitical opportunities created by context. Specifically, you had, you know, a declining Soviet Union. You had the U.S. success in forging an unprecedented coalition to push back the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This generated goodwill among several Arab actors, asserted the U.S.’s preeminent power in the region, and led to the conference that brought all these actors around the table with each other. So the stage had been set, obviously, at this point for the U.S. to enhance and wield its leverage through creative and dogged diplomacy and launch both bilateral and multilateral tracks at the Madrid Peace Conference.
For many here, again, the story of where the conference and the ensuing process led is familiar. The Washington-based bilateral talks foundered. The parties in frustration when their separate ways, though in doing so found their way forward toward the ultimate achievement of the Oslo Accords and Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of 1994. So while not as far-reaching in impact as the Bush administration had hoped, the legacy of Madrid lived on through a series of Arab-Israeli engagements, to include Israeli trade offices, even, in a couple of Gulf states, and ongoing if mostly quiet engagement of regionals in areas of regional scientific and technical cooperation.
So the bottom line, and in brief, the barriers to Arab-Israeli direct engagement – particularly Israeli-Gulf engagement – really came down in Madrid. I actually recall in 2011 Secretary of State James Baker gave a speech at my home institute, the U.S. Institute of Peace, in which he described it in biblical terms. He said it was like the walls of Jericho: Four decades and taboos and prohibitions against Arab states meeting face to face with Israel came tumbling down. And certainly while you’ve seen efforts to rebuild those barricades practically here and there in the face of setbacks and violent shocks in the Israeli-Palestinian context, such attempts have halfhearted and really left ample room for detours around them.
So jumping ahead, of course, we then had the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada, offering full normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state created by Israeli withdrawal to ’67 lines. In recent days I actually heard someone aptly and vividly describe the API, the Arab Peace Initiative, as a dead fish that’s been lying on the table for years, periodically being pointed to by different parties wanting to point to diplomatic possibility. And I like this metaphor because it speaks to the omnipresent yet utterly passive standing the document sadly had in terms of meaningfully pushing the parties – the Israelis and the Palestinians – toward conflict resolution.
The Israelis essentially ignored it. The Arab states made it easy for them to do so. And it served mostly as a symbolic paradigm for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that recent developments have proven is actually now shattered. But nonetheless, it was a paradigm praised by the second Bush administration, by the Obama administration. And in fact, during the second term of the Obama administration the Secretary Kerry-led Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy placed great emphasis on engaging Arab actors from the outset, getting the Arab League Follow Up Committee to notice some flexibility in the API document around ’67 lines, saying there could be some agreement to mutually agreed swaps around there. And in early 2014, when Secretary Kerry was garnering Arab support for an ultimately failed framework agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, Secretary Kerry even noted that the Saudi peace initiative was part of the framework they were developing both in inspiration and substance.
Less reported, at the time certainly, was the close but no cigar moment set in motion in February 2016, when Secretary Kerry brought Prime Minister Netanyahu, King Abdullah of Jordan, and President Al-Sisi of Egypt together in a then-secret meeting in Aqaba to present a six-principle plan to Netanyahu, enshrined in a regional approach to the peace process. Netanyahu ultimately rejected the plan, citing domestic political constraints. But back home talks began between Netanyahu and the leader of the opposition at the time, Isaac Herzog, toward the idea that Herzog and his party and bloc would join a Netanyahu government and together launch a regional peace initiative that would take an outside-in approach, upending the Arab Peace Initiative, so the peace with the Palestinians first paradigm. That also foundered due to domestic Israeli political considerations. And the capstone peace conference that was envisioned to happen that would launch that process – I think the idea was that that would have been in Cairo – never came to be.
There’s been a fair amount of reporting on this recently, noting the strong role that Tony Blair played in that process, and who was quoted as saying at the time that despite the failure of that process to launch, the train had, quote, “left the station,” and normalization would happen eventually. And so cut to four years later, and what we’ve seen recently when his prediction was right.
So what is the significance of these recent developments? And they are, indeed, significant. As will no doubt to be echoed by my co-panelists, the ultimate arrival, or certainly at the first couple of stations of this normalization train, speaks once again, as we saw in the ’90s, to opportunities seized amid a confluence of geopolitical shifts. I’ve heard some Israelis argue that if anyone deserves credit for the recent agreements, it’s first and foremost Iran for serving as the ultimate foil against which Israel and key Arab states have found common ground in terms of shared threat assessments.
The U.S., across both the Obama and Trump administrations, have also brought about this partnership even in ways not specifically intended, as both administrations have sown concern in Arab capitals in distinct ways that the U.S. is not to be relied upon as a solid and robust opponent of Iran in the ways that these countries would like to see. In the Obama administration, of course, the JCPOA was experienced with equal bitterness in Israel and in certain Arab capitals. And even as this current administration has taken an ostensibly distinct stance and a maximum pressure approach to Iran, Israel and Arab states are wary – aware of and wary of this administration’s propensity for transactional policy and have noted in that vein comments made by the president about wanting to reach a new accord with Tehran.
So a perceived pattern of U.S. withdrawal from the region has brought Israel and these Arab states into a shared sense of the need to pursue regional self-reliance in the face of Iranian regional ambitions. And combined with a particularly, I think, Emirati interest in pursuing what its officials speak of in terms of a modernization and moderation agenda, also combined with the Gulf-Palestinian tensions, a waning attachment among Arab publics – particularly in the Gulf, I should say – to the Palestinian cause, and a U.S. administration willing to put U.S. military hardware into play here if we think about the F-35 component of the – of the recent deal, the stars have aligned from a diplomatic agreement perspective for the U.S., Israeli, and Emirati leadership.
But since we’re discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today, it’s also important to acknowledge, even while I lay out this historic evolution of Arab-Israeli relations, what the Abraham Accords are not. I mentioned earlier that the API paradigm – the Arab Peace Initiative paradigm – was broken; that is, normalization for peace, and that peace in turn being based on a land-for-peace formula. So while some may argue that land for peace is a leg of disagreement, particularly when it came to the UAE, given that the cores were presented as having been reached in return for Israeli halting or, according to the Israeli government, to Prime Minister Netanyahu, suspending annexation, subsequent public statements by UAE officials underscore that at base this agreement is not conceived of as a way of facilitating Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Emiratis see that as up to the Israeli and Palestinian leadership and have made that fairly clear. Rather, it’s an agreement between two states pursing their own interests and no longer, from the UAE perspective, being held hostage to doing so by the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Very much by default, I think, rather than design, the aftermath of the Trump plan presentation, led by a seeming march by the Netanyahu government toward annexation, provided some comfortable room to maneuver for the UAE here. To the extent that there was still some concern that had been holding some of these and still is holding some of these Arab states back from making this move because of concern about public opinion, being able to sell this deal as having been – as having achieved a halt to annexation in the service of this deal enabled the Emiratis to frame their move as being in the service of the Palestinian cause, certainly as preserving the potential for a negotiated agreement to still happen. So there was an everybody wins scenario in some regard, with the exception of the Palestinians.
I mean, frankly, it was questionable, I think – and maybe Shira will get into this – whether Netanyahu had wanted to or intended to make good on those annexation pledges made minimally in the service of domestic political needs while facing reelection. He did need a way to climb down, given strong opposition internationally to the idea of annexation; strong opposition voiced from a contender for the U.S. presidency and from the potentially ascendant Democratic Party within the domestic politics sphere of the United States; and also opposition from security voices within Israel, who were warning that this was not the best move for a number of reasons from their perspective of Israeli interests. So the ability to be able to tout an agreement with the Emirates was the perfect ladder from which to descend from this annexation pledge. And likewise, the Trump administration scored a diplomatic achievement in the Middle East arena here in the wake of failed stated efforts aimed at brokering an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
So what we do not have is an agreement structured toward enabling progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. What we have, it seems, right now is a work around that conflict. And let’s keep in mind that the subsequent Bahrain agreement did not in any way ask for any concessions from Israel. So the question becomes, then, what’s next for Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution efforts in this context?
So let’s bear in mind, as the title of today’s event notes, we’re on the eve of a U.S. election. I note this because in addition to the forgoing analysis it’s equally important to think about the calculations regional actors are making and the decisions they are taking – or, for that matter, not taking. So, with uncertainty as whether we’re looking at a second term of a Trump administration or a first-term Biden administration, in addition to uncertainty over where the balance of power will be in Congress, it’s important to see the recent agreements in the vein of bet hedging.
Netanyahu, by stopping annexation, avoided doing something that a potential President Biden and Democrats have been clear they opposed. The UAE, wanting to ensure a favorable posture from a possible incoming Democratic administration, has shown itself to be wary of certain Gulf activities, particularly what has been happening in Yemen. You’ve seen the Emiratis try to distance themself from Saudi Arabia in that regard, and in other areas. And so they’ve made a bold here move – bold move here that has been welcomed. These regional engagements – agreements between Emirates and now Bahrain and Israel have certainly been welcomed and will continue to be welcomed in a potential Democratic administration.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians, too, have been keeping their eye on U.S. politics, although I would say substituting proactive strategy with a wait-it-out approach, grounded simply in a hope that Biden might win and an attendant assumption that what would come with that would be a rest that would put them back in the game with a more balanced U.S. mediator at the helm. But I think as we’ve heard in the U.S. political context in the past, we have to bear in mind that hope is not a strategy. Should we be looking at a second term of Trump there might be less motivation for that administration to vigorously pursue more normalization deals. These have certainly been important to this administration as we move up to – move into an election, but there would also be little incentive for the administration not to return to the Trump plan and the vision that it lays out for addressing the conflict if it is, in fact, back in power and addressing the issue. The Palestinians have registered the unworkability of that vision from their perspectives, but if Arab states continue to jump on the normalization train the less leverage they’re going to have in that regard.
I would say also – and I’m, sorry, Bashar; I’m focusing all on the Palestinians here and I know you’re coming up next to address this – but I think I’d say we should be wary of putting too many eggs in the Biden basket. While a Biden administration approach to the conflict would indeed reflect, I think, a pivot back to the understanding of a – or the goal of a two-state formula that is more aligned with the Arab Peace Initiative vision that had been the international consensus around the way to resolve this conflict for many years, this issue is just not going to be a top priority of really, frankly, either administration. There are too many domestic concerns – the economy, COVID. And even, frankly, on the foreign policy agenda other issues will likely rise to the top, chief among them addressing Iran and how there might be a reset on that. And as Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley mentioned at the beginning, even within the region itself – in addition to the region – Libya, Yemen, Syria are all issues that might take precedence over going in full-force on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I would also note that in – given where this administration has taken things on this issue, while certain steps that were taken in regard to this conflict might be – (audio break) – for example, aid that was withdrawn could be restored, a consulate in Jerusalem could be reopened – there are other trains, again to go back to the train metaphor, that have left the station. The capital is not going to be unrecognized. The embassy would not be moved back. And certainly there would be an embrace of the notion of further Israeli-Arab normalization, albeit likely, I think, then more of an effort to tie it to being a bridge to Israeli-Palestinian peace rather than a way to detour around it.
And I would add to this, and perhaps with apologies, in a shameless pitch for a book that I’m working on. The USIP published a book in 2013 called “The Peace Puzzle” that was looking at lessons learned from U.S. engagement as a mediator in the peace process. And I’m part of an authorship team now that’s working on the sequel, looking at the Obama and Trump administrations. One of my co-authors, Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, I think is on the line with us. But one of the lessons that was drawn from that first book is that – is that the anything but my predecessor approach is less than constructive in the peace process. You’ve seen a history of this, of the second Bush administration picking up, starting from scratch after where the Clinton administration left off, Obama doing the same after the Bush administration, and in taking that kind of approach there are often opportunities lost. So I would neither expect nor necessarily argue for a full pivot on every element of policy here. There certainly would, however, need to be a reset.
To make – to bring about a constructive restart of a process toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there would need to be – and to make these Arab-Israeli regional engagements serve as leverage towards doing that and facilitate doing that – there would need to be political will to do so among the U.S., the Arab actors, and the international community, let alone among the parties themselves. The political will would need to be there for these Arab actors and the U.S. to wield the leverage they have to bring the parties back into a serious approach.
I would be interested to hear Bashar’s thoughts on this, but I think for the Palestinians there’s going to need to be a repairing of their relations with the Arab states, I guess would be a very important component of that, and is something we can discuss in the – in the Q&A. Could other states still hold cards? At this point, as I said, the API paradigm has been shattered. The normalization has already been given, though there are other states and all eyes have been on Saudi Arabia. And there is – again, as we’ve learned and I said upfront, we should all be wary of longstanding assumptions and the wisdom or the steadfastness of them. But there is a sense right now that Saudi Arabia is going to hold out, and in that sense would have some cards to play if it wanted to in terms of conditioning normalization on concessions towards the Palestinians or moves back towards the API vision.
I will say in that, that while I’m noted a couple of times that the API paradigm is shattered, the vision is still, to date, being upheld, and upheld as being articulated by the Arab states who are considering or have entered into agreements with Israel, the idea of a two-state solution along the lines laid out in the API. So I do have little doubt that, again, if we are looking at a second Biden administration I think that vision is very much likely to be restored.
And it, frankly, I think need to be, for I do not see, if there were a second Biden administration, a rush towards pushing the parties back to the table. There’s just too much political cost that would be assumed. Again, other priorities and another failed effort at a time when the conditions aren’t ripe would just not be seen as something this – that an administration would take on. But to the extent they will be engaging on this issue, I would expect to see a reembrace of that API vision, as I said, put aside the paradigm of two states. And I think for efforts that you might see from such an administration, what might be termed confidence-building measures to improve conditions on the ground, for those to be successful they will need to be, I think, framed and articulated within the framework of setting the political horizon again as a two-state solution.
And finally, I would say if we’re looking, as I said, at a Trump administration again, the Trump plan would likely continue to be their roadmap towards where they’re trying to head. It is interesting to note that despite a lot of demurring on saying that they would not commit to a two-state solution, ultimately in the plan they did frame it in terms of a two-state solution, albeit that it bears no relation to the two-state solution conceived of before in the API vision. But in other words, there has not been a shift away from the notion that in order to resolve this conflict two states is the formula around which the parties and international mediators would need to work.
So I will – I will stop there. We can go into detail of any of those in the Q&A. And thank you.
MS. ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Bashar, yes. Please go ahead. (Laughs.)
BASHAR AZZEH: Oh, sorry. (Laughs.) Well, thank you so much, Gina, for this. And I thank everybody for being here today. It’s really a pleasure to be speaking among many friends. And also I see a lot of other friends on the screen. Well, it’s really – I’m going to get into the subject quickly.
I think it’s really interesting times in the Palestinian politics. And I’m going to try to focus my 10-15 minutes into the internal aspects of the Arab normalization deals with Israel and its reflection on the Palestinians. And I think I want to start my discussion with the first element being undermined by many people when it comes to how they view this normalization process and how much is reflecting on the Palestinians. The Palestinians today are feeling that this conflict has gone from what we called an Arab-Israeli conflict back to the core of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
This is a very important issue that we should not undermine. Today this is a pure – I mean, the deals that took place between Abu Dhabi-Tel Aviv, Bahrain and Tel Aviv, and the upcoming deals between Sudan and maybe other countries, expressed exactly that this is going down to be narrowed to a Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And this is a wake-up call for people both in Ramallah and Gaza of how would they start to deal with a new structure of a conflict with Israel that’s based only on Palestinians and not the whole region?
Now, within the context of this new Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with the lack of what I call the natural Arab support, we have to distinguish the Arab states and the Muslim states. And here you have to go into the different axes in the Middle East. Now, there’s a difference between Egypt-Jordan in comparison to the Gulf, as Bahrain, UAE, and even Oman. And then you have the crown jewel of Saudi Arabia. And then you have the other axis which is Turkey and Qatar. And then you have – Lebanon is in between, and you have Syria, and then you have the normal Iran-Hezbollah model, axis, and so on. I don’t want to get too much into the details.
So Ramallah today, Palestinians in general, actually both sides of the spectrum – of the Palestinian political spectrum are really thinking of how we could reshape the structure of this conflict and take it into consideration that we don’t want to be annexed to any of those axes or any of those regional players. And how can we, as Palestinians, deal with this conflict purely in the terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Why? Not forgetting the Arab path, that could be still capitalized on, which is what I call taking the API into ICU.
And three points that I’d like to point out under this Palestinian-Israeli conflict model that’s being built up today is, one, is the API. What is the future of API in the eyes of the Palestinian perspective? The Palestinians still see that there’s hope for the API to continue in the terms that it existed. However, there’s a clear image that this is not going to happen. And the question that’s rising is, are we going to see a 2.0 API, or a fusion API, or what we call an adjusted API? I think this answer will only come after the 3rd of November. It’s very difficult for anybody to address this question today. Third of November would give a clear image, but regardless of the results of the 3rd of November, we will have to see a new API because it doesn’t matter who’s going to be in the White House, the reality of those agreements on the ground exist and both Palestinians, different spectrums, have to deal with these existing agreements.
And this is exactly where I see that the Palestinians are trying to build a new narrative around the API, that still fits with those who didn’t normalize and could somehow fit with those who did normalize. And I think the current Palestinian leadership mainly is trying to approach it in what I call waiting phases. Rather than pushing into a further negative relationship with Arab states, but rather into waiting for the change in the U.S., regardless of who’s going to be in the White House, to really assess how can they work on the API? Purely API viewed as something that will have to be changed and have to be altered or have to be developed. This is a very important way how the Palestinians view the API and the conflict.
The second issue that they are looking at is exactly how to deal with these deals, regardless who’s going to be in the White House. How do you normalize with the new normalization? How do you build – reform the new Palestinian-Arab relationship? Many people were afraid that this deal that took place between UAE, Bahrain, and other Gulf countries will move Ramallah more toward Qatar and Turkey. And I think those who do know the old man that stays in the Mukataa in Ramallah understand that he will never go to that axis, either by ideology or either by his own political approach that has not changed all through the history of the conflict. The idea that Ramallah would go more closer toward Turkey and Qatar is invalid. But I would explain to you, why is it important to understand that the current entertainment of this relationship with Turkey and Qatar is important for the internal Palestinian politics.
And that leads me to the second point. That this normalization is a wakeup what we call the need to solve the big elephant in the room for the Palestinians, which is the inner Palestinian-Palestinian conflict. And here we talk about the Hamas-Fatah issue. Now, if you want to talk about positive collateral damage out of the deal of the century and the normalization deals that brought nothing to the Palestinians. You could say it’s the need for Palestinians to go back into unity. And I look in the Palestinian reconciliation differently than many other people. First of all, I don’t call it reconciliation anymore. I think living with the hypothesis that reconciliation is either one party will take over the other party and end the ideology of other party, or the other hypothesis is that things will go back to normal, to pre-2006 between Gaza and the West Bank is a wrong assumption.
We have to understand, and I think both political parties – Hamas and Fatah – started to understand that we need to move from the old approach of reconciliation that leads to partnership to what we call partnership that will lead to reconciliation. Both parties started to realize in the wake of those recent events that we are two different political entities and we cannot overcome each other. But rather, we should start to learn how to live as two political entities under one political umbrella under one nation. This is the new approach that both leadership of both parties have been seeing as the only way to get out of this deadlock.
And the new Palestinian partnership is really an important element that the Palestinians must fulfill in order for them to really know how to address the new and narrowed down Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or to deal with what I call the lack of popularity of the leadership of both sides within the major population in the West Bank and Gaza. And the only way that this could be achieved by the two parties by doing the following three things: One is building trust. Yes, confidence-building, trust measures between both parties is really necessary. And the only way that this could be done is by doing what we call election of the legislative council of the PA.
Now the legislative council of the PA is really an important parliament that will govern the daily life of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. This parliament exists. If we can bring back this dysfunctional democracy back to democracy, and build trust between both parties in this council, then we can go into the two – the second and third step, which is a unity government and, third, the reform and the entering of Hamas into the PLO.
Now, I really don’t want to waste your time on many of these details, but I think it’s really important to understand that the Palestinian inner politics, if they’re going to the right direction under the current pressure that both sides see that the only card they have in their hand is the need of unity, then we can have a better Palestinian narrative that could come up – a better Palestinian strategy that could come up that have at least what we call an agreed position by all different spectrums of the Palestinian politics behind it.
Now, the PLC election, if we reach that level, this PLC election is different than all other elections that we had in the past. And why this PLC election is very important? Because in the last PNC, the national council of the PLO, there was an agreement to lower down the number of members in the PLC from 550 to 350. Meaning by default usually in this election the PNC holds by default all members of the legislative council as default members in it. What I’m trying to say that the new election and the new partnership in the legislation council will bring a new half of the national council. And if they agree on the legislative council, then reform on the PLO could happen easily.
The big question that we have is that what Hamas will have to do? Are Hamas going to accept the quartet conditions? Are Hamas going to just simply go into the Palestinian politics without it? Let me just be clear, for Hamas joining the PLO means accepting the mandate of the PLO. And accepting the mandate of the PLO bypasses the need of Hamas solely to accept the quartet conditions. And that’s a very important point of how will we see that Hamas entry into the PLO could resolve the issue of the legitimacy of Hamas.
But regardless, this inner Palestinian politics of trying to achieve partnership is filled with obstacles. Still the president could issue a decree. There’s a lot of obstacles on both sides. Many people are saying, let’s wait for the third. Let’s see what happens. And then we can have better conditions. New obstacles are arising day by day by both sides of the conflict, by both sides of the spectrum. And I think this will have to wait for the 3rd of November. Both parties will be waiting for the 3rd of November. It could be a surprise that we will see a Palestinian agreement that is concluded into election before the 3rd of November.
But there’s another element that’s really important, that Hamas is going into what we call the new Hamas phase. Hamas is going through a new election, internal election in Hamas. I think it’s next month. It’s secretive. Nobody know about the details of it. And we will probably have new leadership within the political office of Hamas. There’s a lot of struggle internally in Hamas today. And these struggles will lead into what we call the new face of Hamas that could actually reflect positively on these needs of partnership. Also internally in Fatah there’s major problems. There’s major problems between different players within Fatah who are trying to be – to take leadership of this – of this initiative, but also have problems with going into this partnership directly without fulfilling other requirements.
So to conclude on this matter, the inter-Palestinian-Palestinian partnership is a prerequisite for what the Palestinians could do in the near future. And I personally view that – and this might be looked very differently – that having a Trump second administration will force both parties to go into this partnership, while having a Biden first administration might slow down this process in the beginning. And the biggest advice that could be given to Biden is that – the Biden team, is that they should actually push the Palestinians to go into what we call the Palestinian-Palestinian partnership as a first thing to do, as soon as they take into office, rather than focusing on other issues. This is a very important issue.
A third element that the Palestinians are seeing out of this new accords, especially the Abraham Accords, is being called – and I think this is being undermined by many people too, is the theological part that’s been enriched into the conflict today – into these agreements, into the view of the Palestinians who are in conflict, and into the reality of the U.S. politics today toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the Arab-wide Israeli conflict. The view of how theology had played deeply into these accords, and how much it’s reflecting on the daily aspect of the life of the Palestinians under this conflict is being underestimated, even in the Palestinian politics.
And most people don’t understand what is it and where to start when it comes to the theological part. And many are really concerned that this theological part is actually bringing more of what we call the theological political parties together, more than it is of the liberal traditional parties together. And this is something that’s been alarming, and really warning, and really concerning a lot of politicians in the West Bank, of how we will have to deal with the theological approach of these agreements, and the theological approach of the conflict. As an example, it’s been highly viewed that most of those agreements that took place between the Arab states and Israel were actually fueled by Christian Evangelicals in the U.S. for fulfilling specific theological approach of how to bring peace toward Israel.
And I think many are really concerned of that what is going to be the next step? This thing is being studied carefully today. And I believe the answer, if we have a second term of Trump, and a brief answer that could be given by the Palestinians is what we call the inclusiveness of the religious element, even in the Palestinian politics. And this is why the need to bring Hamas into the PLO today is a must, because if you don’t bring Hamas into the PLO today and this theological approach continue, and this steadfastness by the PLO continue in the second term, and you don’t have any engagement with these, you might have an organization like Hamas engaging directly with the U.S. administration, and engaging directly with Israel through what we call a hudna agreement.
Many of you recall the latest agreement between Taliban and the U.S. To me, this is what I call a test balloon. The test, the possibility of a “terror” organization having an agreement with a legitimate state. And in this Taliban agreement you have Taliban changing its name to Islamic State of Afghanistan, sign an agreement with the U.S. and Afghanistan. They have viewed the possibility of Hamas signing a long-term hudna under such terms, both with Israel and the U.S. I think this is – this is really an issue that will be seen in the second term, unless the Palestinians move into unity and inclusiveness of these different parties.
The last points I would like to mention, as I’m running out of time, is that how the Palestinians will cope with those agreements. If there’s a second term, we’re going to see more of these agreements. I believe that the Trump administration will try to narrow down the conflict toward the Palestinians – meaning they will go to each Arab and Muslim countries, try to make a possible peace agreement. Vis-à-vis the Lebanese, they’re trying to show that these border lining is a peace agreement. We have heard Syrians talking about a peace agreement. They’re going to try to do this with all possible Arab and Muslim countries.
The Palestinians have two options for those, after they do the internal unity. It’s either to work – and here, I concur with Lucy – to work to build a better, stronger Arab relationship – Palestinian-Arab relationship, and try to be inducing many demands and many further demands by those states when it comes to those agreements with Israel. And this is – have to be done. Or, the Palestinians will be facing that they will end up alone dealing with Israel. So this is a must. Ramallah, Gaza have to start lobbying not in D.C. and in Brussels. They have to go back to Abu Dhabi, to Khartoum, to – back to Cairo, and try to advocate the most possible out of this.
Now, the second issue that they need to do is what I call renew the legitimacy of the leadership. And this must be done and have to be approached with unity. These two elements must be done quickly, within the first term – or, the second term of Trump. Now, if Biden wins, I think there’s not that much change towards the Palestinians. The Palestinians will have to deal with what I call the reality that the U.S. will not be a quarterback anymore. This is reality that we have to live in. A second is that the normalization process will continue even legally or even publicly or non-publicly – because we know that’s been there for a while.
Third, they have to understand that there’s nobody’s going to stop Israel from taking more land and more settlements to be built. We haven’t seen any UAE position against the settlement building after the normalization. Fourth, they have to understand that funding and the financial support is going to be lowered down. So the best option to do is to reengage back with the U.S. administration, fix many internal problems including needs of Taylor Force Act that have to be fixed internally, and bring unity, and then work with this new administration into trying to find ways that could be possibly approachable in how to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
And last but not least, when I started saying this is a Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it’s not anymore an Arab-Israel conflict, direct relationship with Israel. Direct negotiation with Israel. I think these have to be the next term. This concept of mediation is over. We have to wake up. Everybody has to wake up. I don’t care who’s going to be in the White House, they have to understand: The Palestinians and Israelis – it doesn’t matter. We have right wing; they have right wing. We both have to understand that it has to be done on a direct basis. And if Palestinians succeed in unity they will be in a stronger position to force direct negotiations with Israel. And Israel have right wing that’s ready for such an approach – maybe in a different way. But they are ready for such an approach. But we first need the unity. Thank you.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR: Shira?
SHIRA EFRON: Should I begin?
MR. MATTAIR: Yes, please.
MS. EFRON: OK. Hi. Good morning or good evening, wherever you are. Bashar, we’re in a different time zone. Thank you, Middle East Policy Council, for inviting me. And it’s really good to be here among friends. I’m afraid it’s going to be a little bit boring, because I agree with a lot of things that the previous speakers spoke about. But I will speak about the Israeli perspective, that I don’t necessarily share on a personal level. But I think it’s important for our audience to understand where mainstream Israelis are getting at.
So, first of all I’ll tell you, among the policy circles – and I’ll get to the public in a moment. Among the policy circles and the media, left to right, there was a very positive response to the normalization agreements. Even in the shrinking peace camp – and it is a shrinking camp – there was – and they understand very well the implications of this normalization agreement, the setback that it brings to an Israeli-Palestinian process, maybe – or a temporary setback, if you will. There was – there was really sincere joy because, first of all, we can say this was really just opportunistic move, but still the normalization removed for now the annexation threat off the agenda.
And I’ll tell you, that even though I don’t think that Netanyahu for himself wanted it. I dare to say that I don’t think that in June he even knew whether he was going to annex or not. But I think it was a credible threat, nonetheless. And we can be cynical and speak about the de facto annexation, the creeping annexation. I’m sure most – many of you who have visited the West Bank, lacking a better – I know it’s a contentious word – the Israeli occupation. The annexation would have made things worse, in my opinion. And we should be happy that this threat was removed for now. The second thing I think – so this is a reason why everyone was happy about it, including on the left.
The second reason – and Lucy gave an overview of the process, that I think everyone in Israel, including, again, on the small left, is happy because since the Madrid process started, Israel wanted peace with the Palestinians, but the idea was to integrate in the region. This is what you wanted. And it’s not the first time Israel normalized time, right? We had Mauritania, we had Qatar, and we had presence before. These are things that have happened before. And Israel was very – everyone is really happy to see that it is occurring, despite not peace with the next-door neighbor.
I think it’s also important to add the language of the agreement, that does not speak about the two-state solution, and it doesn’t speak about this conflict. However, it is a constructive, positive language that Bashar referred to. Religious people on both sides – it gave some – it gave a stage – it mentioned the importance of tradition. It alluded to – it’s called the Abraham Accord. We’re all descendants of Abraham. It spoke about coexistence and mutual respect and mutual understanding. In the Israeli interpretation, even though it was not explicitly said, this is an acknowledgement of Israel as a Jewish state, which of course the Palestinians have refused to grant Israel. And there’s no explicit recognition, but this is how it’s interpreted in the Israeli mindset.
In the Israeli perception, the rhetoric that comes from the PLO, and even though the PLO really evolved, Zionism was a colonial movement from Europe. Jewishness and Judaism is a religion, but not peoples. And here comes this agreement that says, no, no, we recognize that you are a nation, you are peoples. And this is something that I think made it easier to make these agreements popular. And it helped make these agreements appeal even to conservative Israelis.
There was a very small group that was critical of the agreement. And this was the hardcore right, that didn’t see – that saw the agreements in a positive way but were against the removal of annexation off the table. As much as for them I think this was a very large, you know, frog to swallow. With all due respect to Burj Khalifa and the Glass Towers of Dubai, they care about Shiloh and others places in Judea and Samaria on their minds. But the language was helpful. So they criticized the Israeli concessions, but I think in their mind it’s concession. For most of the Israeli public, Israel paid no price for this. But their criticism was muted and as – maybe you follow in the Israeli Knesset – the parliament, all parties except for the Arab Joint List ratified this agreement.
Now however, as much as the reactions among the policy circles and the media to the agreements were positive, I will tell you that the public received it with a big yawn. Some would say it’s because everyone here knew that either anyway the Israeli companies – maybe 300-500, depending on how you count them – operated in the UAE through foreign intermediaries before. So the normalization doesn’t really change things. It’s not because of that. It’s because of COVID-19. And I know from people who speak with the prime minister he does not understand why the public doesn’t thank him for bringing this historical opportunity and why he’s tanking in the polls. Likud, which now has 36 seats in the Knesset, doesn’t climb over 20-something depending on the day – but it’s in the 20s. He doesn’t understand why it’s not recognized.
And it’s because of COVID. I think we’re used to think of Israel as an economic success. And Israel has indeed made great advancements in – primarily in the tech sector. But when it comes to a crisis like this, it shows that the tech sector it was never an engine of the train – of the economic train. It just might be a car. The advancements have not trickled down to the actual economy. Israel is failing to provide basic services to its people. The situation is terrible. I’ll give you a few examples. Israel is now in a final stage of a second lockdown, but everyone is talking about a third. Unemployment, which was very low – it was only 4 percent before COVID – is now at 18 percent.
Economists are speaking about Greece in 2008. Education system, which was anyway teetering on the brink, the K-12, is collapsing. There was – mental illness is on the rise. There was a suicide yesterday that was attributed to COVID. And it’s a very small country, so these things, you know, they affect everyone. And there’s no – of course, the rest of the world suffers from COVID also, but there’s no margin in Israel. It’s a very, very small country. It’s not the U.S. It’s not even Greece that can, you know, bank on an EU bailout. There’s no margin. And this is what we’re saying.
It sounds better in Hebrew, but what you hear: Not corona, not interesting. And that’s why these agreements change nothing in the Israeli discourse. We speak about it more in the U.S., in probably the think tanks that we think of. And also, the annexation debates didn’t get enough stage in Israel because the public was indifferent. They care about other things, their day-to-day existence. If the peace agreements didn’t inject a new discourse on the normalizations with the Gulf, of course the Palestinian issue receives no public stage.
It’s – I’m sorry to say this because, you know, as an Israeli American, anywhere where I sit I know this really defines Israel. People talk about Israel, they speak about Israel, the occupation, the Palestinians. It’s a non-issue for most Israelis. They don’t talk about it. They don’t think about it. For most Israelis, they have not – there’s this separation barrier. There’s the West Bank where the Palestinians live and the settlers. And there’s been some mainstreamization of the settlement movement, which I’m happy to speak about, because of their place in society, and in the media, and in the IDF.
And lacking alternatives to travel internationally, some West Bank settlements have developed zip line and adventures and attracted people, visitors from Tel Aviv. You know, I wouldn’t – it’s not my principles to go and enjoy – (laughs) – West Bank settlements, but people did go. But still, it’s like it’s a different country and most of the Israelis, they just don’t care. They don’t see the occupation. They don’t feel it. There’s no conversation that is constructive at all. Unfortunately, and I say this with great sadness, there’s only conversation in Israel when this becomes an issue when there’s violence or when there’s going to be a change in leadership. You know, I’m a policy researcher, and I think it’s really hard to recommend a change of leadership as a policy prescription. (Laughs.) That doesn’t get you much in either capital, whatever we’re looking at.
What can we do? You know, and this is sort of the thing that I’m grappling with now. Can we use the Abraham Accords to steer some movement on the Palestinian front? I think – I don’t have really positive views. I think that as long as Israel doesn’t say – and Bashar, you can correct me if I’m wrong – but I think someone in Israel should acknowledge that the Trump plan, the Peace to Prosperity, cannot serve as the terms of reference, because this would not fly with the Palestinians. I do not see anyone in Israel that would do that. Of course, it Trump stays for a second term, that goes without saying. But it’s very convenient for Israel, there’s no question. I mean, there was heavy Israeli input into this plan and no Palestinian input whatsoever. So it serves their position.
This is going to be difficult. I know Lucy said that there’s the silver lining of the plan is that it does talk about two states. But – I agree with you, it’s positive. But I think the fact it’s called two states, it’s not really a state. It’s autonomy, and we can argue if it’s autonomy plus or autonomy minus. Of course, Bashar spoke about it, and Lucy and I really don’t want to criticize the Palestinian leadership. They get their fair share of that. But I think their responses, obviously, to the normalization agreements were not very helpful, to say the least. They knew it was coming. And from what I know, they did not work to include commitments that would serve their interests.
I will tell you that I know from the Israelis – and I know this from personal knowledge, that have reached to Palestinians, and have reached to Emiratis, and say: Please include – maybe just try a settlement freeze. Try something. And the Palestinians that I know of that were in these discussions refused to play ball, and this was not very good. But I think that going forward to next – future normalization agreements, and Bashar alluded to this also, you know, the Palestinians could do this with other candidates, with other countries, with Saudi, but also with others to ensure that they’re included. If you want to call it API 2.0, that’s fine. But I think this important also.
What can be done in the meantime – and this really assumes the Biden administration, because I think it’s a second term it’s going to be very problematic, but we can talk about constructive modest steps, support the Palestinian internal partnership, reconciliation partnership, what you want to call it. I think it’s absolutely necessary to end the West Bank-Gaza split, and also to remove this excuse from Israel that there’s no – the Palestinians don’t speak with one voice. It’s difficult. I also think it’s really critical for economic development and for the humanitarian situation in Gaza. It’s something I work on a lot and this split is very unhelpful for it.
I think it’s also – maybe we can use the Abraham framework, this language that I mentioned before, to promote a more tolerant discourse. Bashar also spoke about his religious counterparts. It’s important to bring in the religions of both sides. The fact is on both sides there are people that are willing to kill and get killed over their narratives. And if you try to ignore them, we know where it led in the past. And it could lead there again. So I think that is important also. I can give an example. I want to get to Brian, but I do – you know, there’s no positive, constructive discourse now. Even Saeb Erekat is hospitalized in Israeli hospital that’s in Jerusalem. And the right, the way they speak about him, it’s just so shameful. And I think needs to be – the type of conversation really has to change.
I’m happy that Bashar also referred to what looked like a PA overture toward Turkey. I think there are critical changes in the region, and I understand why the PA needs to turn to Turkey or to look like it’s turning to Turkey for internal Palestinian politics. But it is a dangerous game. Israel also should not immediately adopt this, like, the friend of my friend or the enemy of my friend. These are all hesitancies in Turkey also. But this makes it harder for the Palestinians to fix their relations with the Arab states. But as they work on doing this – and I’m happy Bashar also brought this – I think some direct channel between the Israelis and the Palestinians is needed. If you want, is like a back to the past thing. Maybe there could be a back channel between Benny Gantz and someone on the Palestinian front, something that you could build on later for a public – when public negotiations can resume.
And finally, and I think this is probably the worst – where I have more questions than answers – is how we think creatively in how to incentivize the Israelis to make compromises, because for Israel’s perspective – with the Trump plan, the normalization agreements not requesting Israel to make any compromises – Israel does feel now that time is on its side. And I’ll end with that . Thank you.
BRIAN KATULIS: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through Zoom. I don’t know about you, I really miss the in-person event in the field, but I also am grateful that we have forums like this, and grateful for all of you who have joined us, especially the other speakers. I hope my remarks will add some value and insights. I want to thank Gina for introducing us. It’s hard to believe, Gina, I met you first more than 20 years ago, when I was an intern from graduate school. And I want to acknowledge at the outset that in our audience is our friend Cathy Cooper (sp), who is a dear friend who worked with us, and also I reengaged with her at CAP and we’ve stayed friends through all the years.
And before I start my remarks I also want to salute Tom with my heartfelt admiration for your commitment to the organization. I know you’re moving to a transition with retirement ahead, but we hope that you’ll stay linked to the organization. I know I’m speaking for others who’ve been involved. We have only the highest respect for the things that you’ve done through your career. We hope that we can still use your talents.
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Brian.
MR. KATULIS: What I’m going to do in the next 10-15 minutes is two main things. One, just offer my take on where the region is, particularly in light of these Abrahamic Accords, and then second offer some thoughts about U.S. policy, in part because that’s my main job at the Center for American Progress is to think about U.S. policy. In doing that, I want to put my bottom line up front, which is that I think no matter who’s elected in November, the United States needs shift towards a fundamentally different approach in the Middle East, one that I call putting diplomacy first and putting inclusive diplomacy first.
I’ll outline what I mean by inclusive diplomacy, but the main ingredient that has been missing, I think, from the past three years especially, and even longer, have been the Palestinians. They’re crucial. And not only their leaders, but their people. And their voice needs to be part of inclusive diplomacy. And when it comes to the Arab-Israeli issue, I think the focus of diplomacy should be moving from the present reality – which in my view – I call it a de facto one-state reality. And my last visit to Israel and the West Bank was in January. And though I acknowledge that the PA exists and there’s a separate governing authority, in fact control and movement and things like this are very much under the hands of Israelis.
So we need to try to move from this de facto one-state reality towards a two-state scenario. And I’ll highlight that this inclusive diplomacy that I’m talking about will be extremely hard for any U.S. administration – whether it’s Trump or Biden – in part because of the bandwidth issues. The sheer magnitude of the coronavirus crisis and economic damage it’s caused here in America and around the world I think will dominant at least the first year of an administration. But my view is that the U.S. still needs to stay engaged in the Middle East. It just needs to fundamentally shift its engagement towards more diplomacy and working with actors in the region. If we don’t, the region itself tends to export a lot of its challenges to the international system. And it’s also a region where there’s competition with a lot of the key other global powers – Russia and China.
So first, my picture of the region. I’d like to just briefly paint this, because it sets the context, I think, for analyzing the Abrahamic Accords, and then some of my remarks on what could be done on the U.S. policy front. First, I think the overall stability of the state system in the Middle East has weakened substantially in the past 20 years, mostly by forces from within but also things like the 2003 Iraq War and other U.S. military actions haven’t helped matters. But the two main dynamics, I think, that are continuing the shape the regional environment are, one, an intense multipolar, multifaceted competition for influence among the key powers of the region.
Now, Bashar mentioned this briefly. And it’s complicated. And just yesterday I was in a meeting with a former secretary of state. And this formal official said: It’s just so hard to keep track of who’s in which camp. But it’s very, very important when discussing the Arab-Israeli and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially after the Abrahamic Accords. Of course, everyone knows about the big divide between Iran and Saudi Arabia – sometimes simplistically referred to as the Shia-Sunni divide. But it’s essentially about power. And these tensions in many ways have, again, strained the state system. It’s led to collapse, in some cases, in parts of Iraq and Yemen.
And there’s also stark divisions between the different camps, which Bashar somewhat alluded to, but I think is an important part of what an inclusive diplomatic approach requires some focus on. It’s these divisions between – over the issue of political Islam and, I would add, freedom and democracy. And it’s a very complicated political debate. And the main axis is, of course, Qatar and Turkey on the one hand versus many of the Gulf states, and Egypt. I highlight this because it’s, I think, the way that a lot of the more aggressive and assertive countries in the region see things. And it’s an important component, and it’s been there for a while. But in addition to the Arab-Israeli conflict it’s another point of tension that any U.S. policymaker needs to be sensitive to.
And in essence, it’s politics. It’s regional politics and diplomacy. And at times, it actually becomes quite violent in proxy wars and actual wars. We see this – and I think this is important because it becomes like a vortex, some of the situations, including like in the eastern Mediterranean. With Turkey and tensions there, you see some of the Gulf states moving military assets there. And it’s relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian divide, as I think Bashar’s comments allude to.
It’s interesting to me that after the Abrahamic Accords one of the first things that the Palestinian leadership did was go to Turkey. And for those in the region, you know what they’re doing and what they’re signaling because it’s part of this sort of complicated, again, multifaceted, multipolar competition for influence. And it’s actually drawing a lot of actors in. And to actually conduct diplomacy you need to understand those perspectives and hear them. So that’s one aspect of how the state system, I think, is being stressed.
Secondly, and I’ll be briefer here, is that the overwhelming and increasing sort of challenges on the demographic, economic, and social fronts. The sorts of things that we saw nine years ago in the Arab uprisings, those factors are still present in many of the countries. And we see this with transitions recently in Sudan and protests all throughout the past year in places like Lebanon. The main point being is that in this context these factors, this competition within the region for influence, the popular pressures for change and reform I think will still be part of the challenges for any U.S. diplomatic approach ahead.
And if you look at sort of the way the U.S. responded to the 2011 Arab uprisings, the response was quite mixed and uneven, I would say, and incomplete. And it’s very relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian issue because it is one piece – the Israeli-Palestinian issue is one piece of this broader puzzle. So that’s the first sort of take on where the region is. And it’s very complicated and I think in some cases deteriorating.
Second, the Abrahamic Accords, and my talk on it. It’s more of a product of shifting regional and global security dynamics, and on their own not likely to usher in a new era of Middle East peace. I’ll talk a little bit more about this. I think a steadier, more consistent and engaged diplomacy by the U.S., by Europe, and others could use this agreements to broaden conversations aimed at producing progress towards the sort of two-state scenario and away from the present de facto one-state reality.
But in essence, you know, these agreements signed between Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE this fall, plain and simple, establish full normalization of relations. And that’s a positive step, in my view, on their own. In a region where – that’s overwhelmed by too many wars and conflicts, a diplomatic move like this one is, of itself, an improvement. To be clear, I don’t view them as peace agreements. Bahrain and the UAE technically did not become nation-states until 1971 and didn’t participate in the 1973 war.
But what the agreements essentially do is bring out of the shadows relationships that have existed for decades, and have grown closer in recent years, mostly on the security front. And they open the door to wider arenas of cooperation between Israel, and Bahrain, and the UAE. There’s a heavy security component to it. And I think there’s going to be a very vociferous debate over the F-35 component of it – as there should be, because that’s just an important component and I think there’s more scrutiny and much-needed debate over those arms sales and weapon sales. But there’s also business ties and commercial ties that will grow.
And I actually think this discussion on the religious conversation is a very, very important one that’s overlooked by U.S. policymakers. Because religion, in my view, is not only a source of comfort, and meaning, and identity, it’s also a source of political legitimacy and power, and is sometimes harnessed in the region for good conversations and sometimes harnessed in negative ways. And the main point is that an inclusive diplomatic approach needs to be attuned to this and understand that for this to be deep peace there needs to be actually a broader conversation I think, again, as Bashar has indicated, and bringing more parties in.
But to me, on the Abrahamic Accords, the main question that remains is that: Does this realignment do anything, or could it do anything to improve the lives of Palestinians on the ground – and Israelis too, including and especially those Israelis that have been left behind in their own country – Arab Israelis and others. Can these agreements use – be utilized in any way? If the answer is no, then I think the potential of this step, the potential it offers would be squandered. And obviously, and it was said earlier by Lucy and others, is that the looming shadow of Iran is the main thing that, I think, brought these agreements out, as well as, I think, the time clock of U.S. elections, for a range of reasons. But ultimately, my main point is that right now it’s not about peace. It’s about shifting geopolitics and shifting regional tectonic plates.
Third point on the region, before I get to sort of what does inclusive diplomacy look like, and it’s about the U.S. role. And I think a lot of the shifts we’re seeing in the region, including the Abrahamic Accords, are linked to the growing perceptions and concerns about what the U.S. is doing or not doing, and whether the U.S. is a strategically reliable partner for a lot of countries in the region. I would say that this is a preexisting condition to Trump. I’ve been hearing for at least the last five or six years just concerns about America’s own internal divisions and its inward focus, but as well what is it the U.S. actually wants to get done in the region, and what it wants to achieve.
So in essence I think countries are cutting deals with each other and bringing conversations out of the shadows, in part because they see the U.S. absorbed with its own issues and debating what I think is probably the end of a 40-year period of U.S. engagement in the region. A 40-year period that began back in 1979 with the Camp David Accords and the revolution in Iran. And I think that period, for many years, has in essence been coming to an end, and actors in the region are testing the limits of their power, and they’re seeking new arrangements in anticipate of the fact that the U.S. will continue to shift its approach to the region.
So that’s my picture of sort of the region. And I’ll use the rest of my remarks to talk about what I think U.S. policy should try to do moving forward. And again, I’d highlight, temperate with this sense that the bandwidth of any new administration is going to be a major one, given the challenges we’re facing. But my first sort of suggestion – and I use the headline of inclusive diplomacy – and that’s the main focus, is to shift away from this decades-long approach that’s been heavily militarized and focused on what our Defense Department and intelligence agencies do, and look to create a new horizon now only on the Israeli-Palestinian front but for the broader region.
For me – and, you know, I’ve written a lot about this – but I would highlight maybe a few key components of inclusive diplomacy. Number one, it has to mean reengaging the Palestinians. And I know there’s a number of ideas, and the formula I think is clear in think tank papers about reopening a consulate and restoring aid, and a number of things that I think are all fine, and well, and good, and I support, but also very tactical. And I think we need broader imagination, in part because we need to prepare for a transition – a generational transition of Palestinian leadership.
As was noted, it’s sad to see Saeb Erekat in the condition that he’s in. He’s part of a generation that was there for years. And in the next five to 10 years, we are going to see a transition. And that transition, I think, requires U.S. diplomats and U.S. policymakers to fix this mistake that the Trump administration made in trying to exert maximum pressure on the Palestinians and isolate them. And we need to include them.
I also think – and I’m somebody who started my career living in the West Bank and Gaza – we need to not just get stuck on the current leaders and we need to have a more active listening of the Palestinian people. And this is not just a matter for U.S. diplomats. It’s for countries in the region, including Israel. It’s a matter also for think tanks and NGOs in including their voices. That’s why I’m really glad Bashar is part of this conversation. So reengaging the Palestinians, but not just in the limited tactical measures that policy analysts discuss in correcting the mistakes that Trump made.
I think another component of sort of this inclusive diplomacy is keeping the dialogue open with a broad range of regional actors. And here I’d highlight Jordan as a very, very important country and a close partner of the U.S. for years – Egypt as well. And I’d include in that list, of course, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, and the UAE, and other countries in the GCC. I think this dialogue needs to focus on a range of issues, but on – when it comes to the Arab-Israeli front I’m really not sure what to say about sort of reintroducing the API, or – to me, it seems – I like the dead fish analogy we heard from Lucy, and heard it before as well. But we need to have that sort of instinct in thinking of looking at this issue of the Israeli-Palestinian front not as something that’s just subsidiary to other issues but is a key component of the region.
And in my recent discussions in the last week or so with some senior officials from the Gulf and Egypt, it’s clear – particularly from the Gulf and from Saudi Arabia – they understand that they have a certain degree of leverage here on the Israeli front, potentially, if they want to use it. I mean, the problem is that the Palestinian question is not a priority for most of these countries right now in the way that it is a priority for Jordan. And it’s also certainly, if the U.S. administration under Trump is trying to isolate and exert pressure on the Palestinians, there’s not much of an impetus there to include them.
But I do think that keeping that dialogue open with key regional actors, with a focus on how do we improve the lives of Palestinians on the ground – the economic security conditions – not to go back to direct negotiations, but to set the conditions? And then, lastly, on inclusive diplomacy – this first bit – is the U.S., I think, needs to do more to deescalate tensions in the Gulf. I mean, obviously Iran is a looming challenge. And I do think that we need to reengage Iran with diplomacy and do it in a way that does not sideline the region and its concerns about Iran.
One of the key lessons from 2015-2018 is that there needs to be substantial improvements in the regional security environment is for there to be trust and confidence in a new agreement. I think the Gulf rift is also ridiculous, and a place where the U.S. needs to, again, exert its diplomatic leverage and have ongoing conversations to – with Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar to see this come to a close. So inclusive diplomacy, easier said than done. But I think it’s very important.
The second element I would say is that the U.S. should seek to achieve steady progress. I use the baseball analogy. It’s World Series time here. Sorry for those you who aren’t in America or aren’t baseball fans. But America should – a new team should seek to hit singles rather than grand slams on a range of fronts, but especially the Israeli-Palestinian front. I don’t see the prospect for grand bargains or major leaps forward on most of the key issues in the region, given the many complications here.
But the main point is that because so many of the actors – including some of our closest partners in the region – Israel, Jordan, Egypt, some of the Gulf states – they see the interlinkage between these issues, Iran, Israel, Palestine, some of the wars that are happening. U.S. diplomats also need to approach this not in a stovepiped way but understand that in many ways these are very difficult challenges that are interlinked. And I don’t know, you know, what the pathway – the clear pathway is to a new JCPOA with Iran, or what a two-state scenario – what the clear pathway is.
But my main point is that it’s very much interlinked in the minds of a lot of the countries in the region. And that’s going to require U.S. diplomats to actually navigate this with a sensitivity to the threat perceptions and security of some of our key partners – partners who are flawed and have taken steps that have undermined the regional security in things like the Yemen war, Libya, and other places. So my main focus, though, is inclusivity and simultaneous progress, steady progress, rather than disengagement or overt pressure and coercion.
So with Trump, if he’s reelected, I actually don’t know what to expect. For the last three and a half years, as an analyst, trying to analyze his foreign policy overall I have not seen much consistency or coherence in making a lot of things happen and having them stick in the world. And I see, sadly, a decline in America’s influence and its ability, actually, to achieve outcomes. I think with Vice President Biden it’s unclear what he’ll actually do, if you look at the various statements and position papers of people who are a part of his team. There’s so many different ideas, and some of them are quite good. But do they add up to a clear plan?
Some of them involve downgrading U.S. commitment to the region overall. Some ideas are about condemning what I think are the egregious crimes of some of our partners. And I think this is important. But then there’s also components of diplomacy and a new Iran deal. And again, my view is that you can’t get to progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and you can’t really get to sustained, long-standing progress on an Iran agreement, without building trust and confidence with a range of actors in the region. So I – you know, again, inclusive diplomacy needs to be attuned to all of these factors and understand that the region and the key actors see them as interlinked, and that the U.S. needs to understand the political dynamics within these countries and in the region.
I’ll close by saying, look, where I started – and I think achieving a lot of this actually requires a lot more mental energy and political dexterity and diplomatic dexterity than I think we’ve seen from America in a long time. And you add to it the challenge that America is facing, this bandwidth challenge at home. But if the U.S. wants to sort of right-size its approach and close this chapter of the last 40 years of its engagement with the region, I think what we need is a new network of relationships with key actors in the region. And it’s interesting to me that when you compare U.S. engagement even to this day under Trump, which is erratic and unclear, the U.S. still has a broad network of relationships with a wide range of actors – larger than what I think Russia has, and China has, I think, a different approach.
And I think that the U.S. – the notion that the U.S. could simply just retrench, and downgrade at home, and pivot or rebalance to compete with China and Russia misses the reality that actually the Middle East itself is an area of competition with some of these countries, and if some of the political issues, and those economic and social issues aren’t attended to, the region will continue to export a lot of its problems to the international system.
So to close, in an era that’s ending, I think, in the Middle East, the new order’s not yet clear. And I think the U.S., though we’re distracted, will have other priorities. It still has some influence to actually shape outcomes. But I think to exert that influence we need a stronger focus on diplomacy. The Israeli-Palestinian issue has calcified into this long-term stalemate. These regional moves, including the Abrahamic Accords, have offered some hope to some people that maybe things are shifting and could be used in a positive way to produce progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. I don’t see it coming from the present formula.
But I think if you had sort of a focus of how to work with key actors in the region, you could actually see, again, modest, gradual progress away from the one-state reality that exists today towards a two-state scenario. And whether the vehicle ultimate becomes some sort of regional approach like the Arab Peace Initiative revamped, I’m not sure. But the main point is that if the U.S. does not try to stay engaged in some way and working with some of the key actors and partners in the region – from Jordon, to Egypt, Israel, and the Gulf – then I suspect a lot of the problems that we saw emerge after the way that we disengaged from Iraq in 2011 – a lot of the problems aren’t likely to get much better.
And I think, you know, the focus on inclusive diplomacy, listening to actors, trying, again, not to solve everything all at once, but trying to produce gradual progress on multiple fronts more modestly I think is a much more pragmatic approach, as opposed to some sort of effort to have grand bargains. Thanks very much. Look forward to the questions and conversation.
MR. MATTAIR: All right. Thank you. This is Tom Mattair. Can you hear me?
MR. : Yes.
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you very much to the panelists. I would like to start with Bashar. Bashar, you have talked about the importance of inter-Palestinian partnerships. But I’d like to hear from you about – I’d like to make it as simple as possible, really. What is it now that you want? What is it now that you think you can get that is feasible under these current circumstances? We’ve heard that some of the Gulf states don’t put the Palestinians at a very high priority, that the United States has a lot on its plate and that its role will be modest. And so what – and you, yourself, spoke about the importance of direct negotiations with the Israelis. So what do you think you can get from direct negotiations with the Palestinians? And of course, there is an asymmetry of power when it’s just you and them. Can we start there?
MR. AZZEH: Thank you, Tom. Yes, that’s a very valid question. I think the Palestinians today, in my humble opinion, are going through what I call the fourth – or, the fourth narrative revolution. We had the first one ’67. After the defeat, as the Arabs call it, the occupation of the West Bank. We had the second in the ’87-’89 of the First Intifada. The third is the Second Intifada, moving into nonviolence, toward a current situation, where we’re going into the formation of the new Palestinian identity and narrative.
I believe personally – and, listen, I don’t – I’m here presenting myself. So just to be sure, I’m not presenting either the PLO or anybody else’s position. I believe the Palestinians today, the most important thing – before I jump into your question – is answering their inner question. What do we, Palestinians, want? First, we don’t have a common ground of what we want. What is a common vision? As an example, in Israel you have Zionism as an umbrella, and the state of Israel as an umbrella. You have different people fighting for different reasons, right left, but you have a common goal. The Palestinians are in need to bring in what is that common goal? Is it a one state? Is it a two state? Are we immigration movement? Are we a human rights, civil rights movement? These narratives have to be concluded into one political narrative today. And that only could be done by unity and the plight of people to express – you know, express their rights to a proper Democratic challenges to bring that new narrative out.
And then we could start talking to Israel. The problem is to talk to Israel about what? Even if you are power-wise weaker, but the one – the two-state model is clearly being destroyed and tortured right and left. And even if you have the proper conditions, you still really cannot talk of the two-state solution in the old narrative. That old way, unfortunately, of a two-state solution is over. And even if Israel is interested in direct negotiation, there will never the talk of the pure older approach of the two-state solution. And when people mentioned my good friend Dr. Saeb Erekat, who I wish him well. I think it’s going to be very hard, but I hope that he will make it out, as he always made it. He presents the end of that traditional talk to the two-state solution.
So what we can get? If you get the Palestinians to unite, meaning bringing Hamas into the umbrella of the PLO, resolving the – you know, bringing the weapons of Hamas into the PLO, and bring that right unity, then the power symmetric that you talked about it would change, definitely. And this is what Israel understands. This is why Israel is allowing Qatar to pay a monthly payment of $20-40 million through Ben Gurion Airport for one simple reason. First of all, not to worry about the burden of Gaza, and second to ensure there’s a divide between Palestinians. But if we do – if all these circumstances change, these direct negotiations will have to go into what I call three different layers.
One is upgrading the reality. And don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to call for, you know, what I call peace minus. What I’m saying is that there is a lot of reality today that we have in the current agreements – the economic agreement of Paris Protocol, the civil agreement, the security agreement. All these have to be fixed first. And this is what the leaders have been talking about in regard that situation should not go back to pre – to the annexation model. Meaning when annexation was announced by the U.S. – by the Israeli government, by the new-formed Israeli government as part of their agreement, the Palestinian leader, Abu Mazen, decided to what we call suspend the agreements with Israel.
The Palestinians should not go back to Oslo. Two, let’s just be clear, we talk about two Oslo’s here. We have Oslo one, which is declaration of principal, and we have Oslo two which is the technical agreements. I believe the Palestinians should never go back to Oslo two. We should never undermine Oslo one. We should always, you know, have declaration of principles. But Oslo two, we need to go back and say to the Israelis, hold one. We’re not going to go back to Oslo two. But we will renegotiate economics, trade. We will renegotiate civil affairs. We will negotiate security affairs, and so on. This is what I call the first layer.
If we succeed in this first layer, which is, I believe, Israelis will have to be, and forced to do it if we have unity – because they have no option but to do it – then we can go into the second layer, which is the layer of discussing the closer political issues. And here we are talking about a situation where you can start talking about territorial issue – area A, B, and C. And also, you can start talking about the contiguity and the continuity between the territories. If you have unity, you can start talking about the line between Gaza and the West Bank, with international pressure. And even Arab pressure, when you have those normalized countries in the end you can tell them that, you know, as I said earlier if you work with Arab countries at least even after normalization.
The second – the third layer is then you can start talking about what I called the future steps. Let me just be clear, when we talk about inclusivity, I believe also we need not to undermine what I call the development of the legitimization of political Islam in the Arab world. It’s happening. We have all to wake up. We need to ensure that political Islam have to become moderate. Political Islam has to be democratic. We need to ensure that the process of development of political Islam – that will happen, whether we like it or not – must be regulated and must be worked with in order to make it, what we call, part of the solution not part of the problem.
Taking that engagement of the new form of the political Islam within the spectrum, I think they could resonate a bit with those who are also religiously political in Israel. And then we can start talking about the future solutions. Hamas will open – let me just be clear. Hamas was open for a hudna of 15 to 20 years based on theological hudna that was done between Prophet Muhammad and the Jews in Khaybar and the “infidels” of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca. They are – the theology allows them to go into agreements that do not have full suspension of end of – sorry – end of status, and so on.
So what I’m trying to say is that we have to go gradually. That’s what I want to do. Now, let me just be frank – and this is my last point on this – we might reach a model where it’s a one-state model. We might reach a model where it’s a confederation of Palestinians and Israelis. We might reach a model where you have to resolve the issues relating to security through regional integration – meaning, as an example, I mean, and don’t quote me on this as a proposal. But if Jordan, Palestine, and Israel have a security arrangement. Now, all Arab countries have a relationship with Israel, why would that three countries have a defense unified position where the borders of Israel will be with Jordan – I mean, Jordan with Saudi Arabia and Iraq?
I’m just trying to say that the dynamics are changing in the region. And the dynamics that are changing day by day will be also – have to be inclusive in the way that we, Palestinians, are thinking. But I can tell you my last comment on this: The young Palestinians will never accept any model that will not bring civil rights, human rights to them, and freedom to them. Before it’s two states, one state, or three states. That’s the first thing that we have to do within these three layers. Any other model will not be acceptable.
MR. MATTAIR: All right. Thank you. Well, Shira, did you hear anything there that sounds feasible to you, if the Palestinians were to develop a partnership to approach the government of Israel. Would there be any receptivity to discussing and making progress on any of these possibilities?
MS. EFRON: You know, the Palestinians are not the only ones who speak with different voices. Also in Israel you have a defense security establishment that I think would be very open to many of the suggestions that Bashar outlined today. There are a lot of people in Israel that understand that. I don’t want to go too much into the weeds but, you know, Oslo was supposed to be a temporary agreement. The Paris Protocol, the economic annex, it’s clearly – cannot produce any sustainable economic framework and development for the Palestinians. There are a lot of people in Israel what would be sympathetic to thinking about changing the economic relationships.
On the security side, there are in Israel enough people that understand that Israel’s – I would say it was implicit policy, but maybe turning to explicit policy of the – helping the divide. Israel didn’t cause the divide between the West Bank and Gaza, but Israel definitely benefitted from maybe the way formally Israel sees it. I think there are people who would see a benefit to mending the fight. I think there are many in Israel that understand that humanitarian collapse of Gaza, it does not serve Israel’s interest. And for that, we need the PA. But that is on one side. (Laughs.)
Unfortunately, the political leadership of Israel is not there now because, you know, it’s busy with political survival. There are elections in the United States, elections in Palestine. And there’s always elections in Israel. Now we’re talking about whether there’s going to be elections in January or in May, but this is what we’re talking about here. And I think it would really depend – and I agree with Bashar, that those steps would be very, very constructive and very, very helpful, and they would have an address on the Israeli side. But to actually turn them into formal policy, that would depend on whether this comes from the Palestinians or it comes from the Palestinians with also the U.S.
If this becomes the U.S. policy, if the U.S. policy is involved with this, and back this, and if the new formal frenemies and now Israel’s partners in the Gulf support this, if Jordan supports it, if the Europeans support it – and the Europeans have a huge lever, by the way. The United States has one sort of lever, but the Europeans have a huge lever because they’re the only one bankrolling the Palestinian Authority. And they’re paying for all the infrastructure projects in Gaza, which Israel wants to be implemented. Qatar is involved as well, but the Europeans are the ones that – you know, they have leverage and I don’t think they use it very effectively on Israel.
So this has to come with a U.S. policy and European policy, because going back to sort of international diplomacy. I do want to point out that there’s something that I think that the Israeli left, the Israeli peace camp, has not done, and Bashar alluded to it at the end. I think a conversation about rights, about equality, and about values would resonate with the Israelis as well. I think there’s a silent majority in Israel – you don’t hear them much – but a silent majority in Israel that subscribes to these values, that sees Israel as a light unto the nations. They really appreciate democracy. And there’s some contradiction because they’re not seeing the occupation.
But this is something that can resonate with them, a conversation about the Palestinians there, we are here, two states. Just thinking about the Palestinians but not bringing to the discussion values did not help also Israelis on the left advance this cause. And I think that would be – I think that would be helpful. But it has to be a real conversation of values and rights and respect for all, not just for one side. It’s a challenge, but I think there’s a potential there.
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you. And that’s issue, yes. But if we returned to the – to the question of land, after the normalization agreements were made public, Israel announced that it is approving several thousand additional housing units and settlements in the West Bank, which would mean more than 12,000 new housing units since the Kushner plan was announced in January. So, you know, people have said I’m retiring. Yes, in the mid-’70s when I started this there were tens of thousands of Israelis in the West Bank. There are now many hundreds of thousands.
How much time do we have for the Palestinians to decide what they want and for talks to go forward? You even mentioned, Shira, the possibility of a settlement freeze as some kind of progress. How would we get to that? And this is really my question, really is – and that’s why I asked Bashar what does he really want. The next question is, how much time do we really have to resolve issues of territory?
And Brian and Lucy, I hope you’ll jump in.
MS. EFRON: Yeah. You know, I’ll be brief on this. Clearly Israel made this announcement on the settlements. I do think it’s important to note that there’s some phony accounting on the settlement accounts usually because, you know, they approve the settlements, and then they don’t – they don’t actually build them, and then they count it again – they double count it. Netanyahu had to give something to his base. So there’s always the settlements that were approved before, and it’s not really new ones. Or the announced housing starts, construction beginnings, but it – so, but the symbolic fact matters.
And you alluded to it. I mean, the rate to which settlements expanded, since you started working on this, is astounding. I think according to formal accounts there are 600,000 Israeli Jews behind the green line. But this is not a very constructive way of thinking about it, because when we talk about the numbers that would actually have to be evacuated to achieve a solution along the lines of the Geneva initiative or Abu Mazen parameters – some sort of the traditional two-state solution we’re talking about, we’re talking about still large numbers – between 30,000 and 50,000 households. This is a more useful way of thinking about it.
These are still very large numbers. And I will tell you, I see David Friedman the ambassador of the United States in Israel, as speaking everywhere in Israeli press about the U.S. vision. He’s not saying the Trump administration vision. He’s saying the U.S. vision is not to evacuate any settlement. I also alluded to that, that over the summer there were Israelis, even that I know, that went on vacation – a getaway weekend in the West Bank. This is something that I thought would never happen. And I asked, don’t you, like – aren’t you bothered by crossing Hismail (ph) as you go hiking in the Prampt (ph) River?
You know, so I think this time question is a big one. There are many people that say that we are past the point of division and that we have to look for some models. I don’t believe in a one-state – the one-state, you know, America, like kumbaya, we all live here together. I don’t think the movements are ready for that, unfortunately. Not me on a personal level, but I don’t think the Israelis and Palestinians are ready for that. Maybe you could think of creative models of how you have shared separate nation-states with sharing some territory. The confederation is one that is gaining support in some circles, I will say more in United States among readers of The New Yorker than here on the ground. And I see my colleagues from RAND on the phone. We have some surveys that show that Israelis and Palestinians don’t subscribe to it. Maybe.
But we might be past the point of no return on that. On the other hand, and I think that is important, leadership matters. I don’t think that the – it is possible still to evacuate settlements. It is possible to divide the land. I just unfortunately do not see the leadership that would emerge to do it right now. I think it’s possible to get a settlement freeze. Maybe a quiet one, because, you know, Netanyahu still has to cater to the base. I think the settlers do complain that despite his announcements there’s not as much construction as they wanted under his government. You can get something. You can achieve something. But the big – what we really need, which would be evacuation, you know, that’s – I don’t foresee good developments in the near future.
I don’t know, Lucy, Brian, you have conversations with a lot of people here too. What’s your –
MR. KATULIS: Yeah. Lucy, do you want to go first, and then I’ll add some thoughts?
MS. KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Sure. I mean, I think a lot of what I might say would echo what just has been shared. You know, I mean, I think the challenge – the challenge with slogans are the sort of self-fulfilling prophecies they create. We’ve heard the door is closing on the two-state solution for many years. And then there’s been this question of, well, how do we know when it’s closed, and how long does it take to be closed, and if it’s been closing for this long how do we say, you know, if there’s any space there? And the reality is I think I would subscribe to the Shira view that leadership matters and is important, when there is political will. Does it certainly make it harder the more – the more settlements grow, the more people you’d be considering have to move if you’re still looking at a traditional two-state model, along the lines, as Shira mentioned, whether you looking at a sort of Geneva initiative, Clinton parameters, that type of approach?
But I think that one humbling thing that many of us have learned is to sort of never say never recently in terms of what is possible. That said, that’s not to sound naïve. I think that the one thing that argues in favor of the – to use the rhetoric – of the two-state solution not being dead, as Shira pointed out, I haven’t yet seen support from Israelis and Palestinians, most importantly – robust support – for an alternative. I think why you see the strongest support amongst Israelis is status quo. They’re able to live with it right now. But again, this has become almost a cliché with this, too. The status quo is never static.
There is nobody that has come up with an answer to how you deal with the fact, as Bashar pointed out, that there will be no solution that is acceptable to the Palestinians that doesn’t account for the civil rights. And they will accept that probably ultimately under any model, as long as those rights are there. And you cannot square that – the Israelis are not able to square that currently with the direction with – whether you call it creeping annexation, whether you call it the de facto one-state solution, there is no answer yet to that question. And so for as long as that remains unresolved, and for as long as there is no support – robust support for alternatives to a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, I think you’re left with the fact that this is the solution that there are going to have to be creative ways for third parties and the parties themselves to move along.
The one point I would make on settlement freeze – you know, Shira mentioned quiet settlement freeze. Possibly, that would have to be the way to go. You know, the challenge, I think – as Shira very much mentioned – the phony numbers, I think, or the math around this, or the creative numbers that happens, it’s a very opaque – it’s a very opaque process. And what you see before – I go back to lessons learned from the Obama administration. Going in forcefully with a public announcement of the settlement freeze, it ends up sometimes putting both leaderships in rather tricky positions with their own constituencies.
If the U.S. is insisting on a full-fledged settlement freeze and counting – and there’s focus on every single number of every announcement that is made, I think it creates its own dynamic when trying to build confidence among the parties, and when the Palestinians certainly can’t insist on anything less than what the U.S. is asking for in that regard, and the Israeli leadership has a hard time selling a full public settlement freeze to certain constituencies it has to deal with. So I think there is – there is certainly room, and there is absolutely emphasis that would be needed on stopping the creeping annexation. But I think that any U.S. approach that would look to using that as a tool would need to be – need to be mindful of how it is being – how it is being articulated, implemented, and coordinated with the parties.
MR. MATTAIR: Brian, do you want to say something, and then after you talk I’ll have another question for you.
MR. KATULIS: All right. I’ll be – I’ll be quick.
Look, I lived in Ramallah and Gaza City in the 1990s for about two, three years. And there was a period from 1998 until 2006 I actually didn’t go back. When I went back in 2006, I didn’t recognize the landscape because what had happened was the Second Intifada and the security wall and all this. And I used to just commute between Ramallah and Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem and then Gaza City, and it’s been changing. And the pace of settlement expansion, I think, is alarming. And it does beg the question of what will – is a two-state solution even viable? I wrote a report back in 2009 about this window of opportunity for a two-state solution. And to me, the less interesting sort of discussion right now are the ones about the so-called paradigms – the confederation, or the things that sometimes get hot debate on Twitter and things like this, on one-state solution – so-called solution – one state or other scenarios.
What I think is more interesting, and some of my remarks tried to address this. I think Bashar, all of us in some sort of way, what are the tools for actually sharing the political, economic, and social conditions towards some sort of lasting sustainable arrangement? Because the simple reality is the Trump administration could try to ignore and sideline the Palestinians, but they’re there. And they’re – (laughs) – they demand self-determination and their rights. And they’re quite close, right? On this trip I took in January I went and saw some friends in Shu’fat refugee camp, right, right in Jerusalem. So they’re not going anywhere.
And the main thing that I would say on this issue of creeping annexation and connect it to the point I made about some of the Gulf states, and Jordan, and Egypt as well, is that these countries have potential leverage. The Emiratis were bragging about how they stopped annexation with this deal. But it’s still a fact that Israel expands the settlements. So if a U.S. administration was interested in actually keeping a two-state scenario and ultimate solution on the – on life support, you’d actually try to use that potential leverage that a country like Saudi Arabia, UAE, others have.
I don’t see that active, inclusive diplomacy coming from the U.S. under Trump. Maybe it might happen under Biden, but that team will have to also measure all of that potential engagement to try to leverage the region up against what it may seek to try to do on Iran, or on the Yemen war, or, you know, on Khashoggi – a number of things that I think are out there. And right now, I don’t see a coherent package coming from either the Trump administration or, as yet. I think the Biden team would probably get it together. But the piece is actually to an approach that prioritizes Israel-Palestine is not yet present and available in the minds of some of the folks.
MR. AZZEH: Tom, if I might add one thing, quickly.
MR. MATTAIR: You said – you said you didn’t really expect the Gulf states to use their leverage unless –
MR. AZZEH: No, no, no. I do. I do expect. I think – just to quickly give a couple points on this. One on the settlement freeze. If Biden wins, and the Gulf normalization agreements still exist, which is definite they will, I think, yes, the Biden team could work on the settlement freeze, leveraging these existing agreements by the Arab states. And I think the Arab states could work with Israel into the settlement freeze issue, with proper Biden pressure on Israel. And that counts. Biden should do the mistake of the previous administration of having a bad relationship with Netanyahu if he’s still the king of Israel on that day.
I think this is very important. And I think it should not be underestimated in the country. I think if you want me to advice Netanyahu, I think he will have problem if he have normalization with all those Arab states. One day this have to be leveraged on Israel. In my opinion, I think it’s underestimated to think that Arabs could not leverage in the long term. So I do believe settlement freeze under Biden, leveraging Arab pressure, including the regional players, such as Jordan and Egypt, is a very important issue.
Two other issues I wanted to mention that are important into where we go further. Let’s talk – we all have worked on this conflict for many years. The biggest obstacle to this conflict in internally, as Palestinian-Israeli, is the right-wing national Zionist movement in Israel and the settlement movement, and blah, blah, and the political Islam inside Palestine, which is represented by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Now, if you bring these people – I keep insisting, as part of the solution, inclusiveness of them. And you answer theological problems and ideological problems connected to faith when it comes to how can I pray and stay in going into, you know, the West Bank. How Palestinians can ensure they can pray in Al-Aqsa? What is it exactly?
I mean, these issues it’s time for us to answer and bring – and be inclusive of those people and make them part of the solution. This is a liberal person telling you this, not a religious person. And I think if we do this inclusiveness of the inner circles, who are today constitute more than 80 percent. In Palestine today traditional Muslims are over – and orthodox Muslim – are over 90 percent of the population. Liberals are only, what, 1 percent? That’s good if they are 1 percent. So how would you go into a pure liberal agreement without inclusiveness of the reality of your population?
I think we have to change our techniques. The same thing in Israel. We have to address the settlers and the ideological needs of those settlers who would be the biggest obstacle if we don’t do this. We are going to be running on circles and circles. And we will have those sessions again, and we will have the same answer. I believe this is the best way to move forward.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, let me come back to – thank you. And let me come back to Brian for one last question, because we’re running out of time. We know that the UAE and Bahrain had a lot of geopolitical motivations for these normalization agreements. We know that the United States has shared some of these interests vis-à-vis Iran, for example. But what’s the American national interest now in the resolution of the Palestinian issue? When we spoke the other day I was mentioning that the first thing Carter did was to send Cyrus Vance to see if he could resolve this. The first thing Bill Clinton did was to send Warren Christopher to see if he could resolve this. One of the first things Obama did was to send George Mitchell to see if he could resolve this. This won’t be probably what Biden does. But where does it stand in terms of its importance to us as a national interest, vis-à-vis the larger Middle East?
MR. KATULIS: Look, it’s a good question. And my answer would be that it is still essential for the U.S. to see some form of stability in the Middle East. That one of the lessons from the past decade is that a lot of these tensions that I described in my remarks within the region, and the pressures from below, have created a disaster that I would argue, in places like Syria and Yemen, have led to refugees and a number of different crises. But on the Israeli-Palestinian question, if the U.S. wants to maintain a strong partnership with Israel, it actually needs to help it understand that this factor is not going away. You can’t sideline it in the way that the Trump administration I think has tried to and go around it and just have a regional approach. You actually need to come to some sort of resolution.
And we talked today, all of us, about various formulas about how to get there, but I think the one consensus is that it’s not coming soon – (laughs) – or early, but that you need to actually produce some sort of progress. And I think from the – from the interests standpoint, if the U.S. walks away from the Israeli-Palestinian question and doesn’t try a different approach from what I think we’ve seen from Trump, then I think the broader puzzle of the Middle East and the stability of the region will still be quite uncertain. And what I’m saying is we should focus more on those political and diplomatic moves – the sorts of things that all of us have been talking about – to, in essence, resolve that.
And my view is that even under Obama, the Israeli-Palestinian question was a lower priority than other issues. And I understand why that’s the case. I am proposing that you could actually try to address these issues simultaneously. But the essential act that’s been missing is inclusive diplomacy, including listening to a broad range of Palestinians, which I think many actors – writers have talked about how the U.S.-Palestinian relationship, unfortunately, has always been viewed as a subset of Israel. And I think to get to a resolution we need a deeper engagement there. But the main interest I think relates to overall stability in the region.
And then I think there’s the values question, which is often dropped in U.S. foreign policy, unfortunately. But I do think the sense of injustice, the rights, and the sense of self-determination, we don’t talk about it here enough in Washington and in policy circles. And to me, it’s that mix of interests and values that I think are essential. It’s not as clear a picture today in our dialogue because we’re so internally focused. But I think there’s a way, again in working with partners in the region, to produce some progress on this front.
MR. MATTAIR: OK. Thank you. It’s noon, so we have exhausted our time. I’d like to say that the transcript of this event will be published in the winter 2020 issue of our journal, Middle East Policy, but will probably be available as a video on our website within a few hours. And that’s www.MEPC.org. And having said that, let me just say thank you to everyone for participating. I think it was an excellent discussion. Thank you to the audience as well. And goodbye.
MS. EFRON: Thank you.
Director, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program, U.S. Institute of Peace
Founding Board Member, Tatweer Investment Group
Member, PLO Palestine National Council
Senior Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies
Special Advisor on Israel, RAND Corporation
Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Vice Chair, Middle East Policy Council Board of Directors
Former Ambassador to Malta
Chairman of the Board and President, Middle East Policy Council
Former Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman
Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
The Middle East Policy Council held its 102nd Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, October 23rd: “Arab-Israeli Relations on the Eve of the U.S. Election.” The event was virtual and held through Zoom due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The panelists discussed recent Bahraini-UAE normalization agreements with Israel, what these mean for regional relationships and U.S. policy choices, and how these new dynamics impact internal Israeli and Palestinian political calculations as well as the ongoing quest for Palestinian civil rights.
Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley (former U.S. Ambassador to Malta; Vice Chair of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen (Director, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program, U.S. Institute of Peace); Bashar Azzeh (Founding Board Member, Tatweer Investment Group); Shira Efron (Senior Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies); and Brian Katulis (Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress).
Ms. Kurtzer-Ellenbogen viewed the recent normalization agreements as an indication that relations between Israel and the Arab states were increasingly divorced from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She views these agreements as simply states pursuing their own interests, with Israel, Bahrain and the UAE further unified of late by their opposition to Iran and the idea that the U.S. is an increasingly unreliable partner. While she noted there is nothing in these agreements addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict substantively, they do slow the pace of annexation and allow all three states to hedge on who will lead the next U.S. presidential administration.
Mr. Azzeh reflected on the internal aspects of Palestinian politics today and how these dynamics hold the key to the next phase of negotiations around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Generally, he views these agreements as confirming the shift from a broader Arab-Israeli conflict to a more localized Palestinian-Israeli one that ultimately must be resolved through direct negotiations between the two parties. Reaching this point requires addressing the “elephant in the room” on the Palestinian side: the political fracture between Fatah and Hamas. In this moment of waiting for the result of the U.S. presidential election, he suggested that Palestinians must unify politically as well as resolve the tension between Islamism and democracy that this political rift implies.
Dr. Efron shared that while the reaction of politicians to the recent Abraham Accords was cautiously positive, the news barely registered with an Israeli public consumed by the Covid-19 pandemic. She explained further that even without the pandemic, the occupation is a non-issue for most Israelis unless there is violence in-country. Also, many Israeli businesses have had commercial ties to the Gulf for a while now, further muting the significance of the announcement. In the longer term, she does not believe that the Abraham Accords can serve as “terms of reference” for a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as they are overly convenient to the Israeli side and fail to seriously address any of the most complicated components of the dispute.
Mr. Katulis described a Middle East where state stability has weakened over the past 20 years due to U.S. policy choices like the Iraq War but also ongoing tensions around Shia and Sunni affiliation, political Islam, and democracy. He advocated for the U.S. to engage in more inclusive diplomacy: working with a new generation of leaders in the region; pushing allies to use their leverage on the Israeli front; and doing more to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf. Most importantly, he believes the U.S. should be focused on steady progress defined by achievable “wins” while remaining engaged enough in the region to avoid having local problems spill out into the international system.
The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.