Four perspectives on Arab-Israeli relations in transition as a new U.S. administration takes shape
Access video and an event recap from our 102nd Capitol Hill Conference below
GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Vice Chairperson, Middle East Policy Council;
Former Ambassador, Malta
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?
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 for 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.
LUCY KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: Director, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program, U.S. Institute of Peace
I’ll endeavor to 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. 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 conventional wisdom and longstanding assumption had been that there was a so-called glass ceiling to the limits these relations could reach, absent a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along a two-state-solution line.
This assessment 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 is being termed their outside-in approach—that is, their focus on primarily engaging the regional Arab actors—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 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 involved in the watershed moment in Arab-Israeli diplomacy—the Madrid Peace Conference, which seized on geopolitical opportunities created by context. Specifically, 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 preeminent U.S. power in the region, and led to the conference that brought all these actors together around the table. So the stage had been set at this point for the United States 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, the story of where the conference and the ensuing process led is familiar. The Washington-based bilateral talks foundered. The parties, in frustration, went their separate ways, though in doing so found their way forward toward the ultimate achievement of the Oslo Accords and the 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 in areas of regional scientific and technical cooperation.
The bottom line, in brief: the barriers to Arab-Israeli direct engagement—particularly Israeli-Gulf engagement—really came down in Madrid. 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 of 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 in the face of setbacks and violent shocks in the Israeli-Palestinian context, such attempts have been halfhearted and left ample room for detours around them.
We then had the Arab Peace Initiative (API) 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 the ’67 lines. In recent days I actually heard someone aptly and vividly describe the API as a dead fish that’s been lying on the table for years, periodically being pointed to by different parties seeking diplomatic possibility. 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. It served mostly as a symbolic paradigm for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that recent developments have proven is now shattered. Nonetheless, it was a paradigm praised by the second Bush administration and by the Obama administration. 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 the ’67 lines, saying there could be some 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, he even noted that the Saudi peace initiative (API) was part of the framework they were developing, both in inspiration and substance.
Less reported at the time 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 El-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, the peace-with-the-Palestinians-first paradigm. That also foundered due to domestic Israeli political considerations. And the capstone peace conference that was envisioned would launch that process—the idea was that it 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, who was quoted as saying at the time that despite the failure of the process to launch, the train had “left the station” and normalization would happen eventually. Cut to four years later and what we’ve seen recently when his prediction was right.
What is the significance of these recent developments? As will no doubt be echoed by my co-panelists, the ultimate arrival, 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 United States, across both the Obama and Trump administrations, has also brought about this partnership, even in ways not specifically intended. Both administrations have sown concern in Arab capitals in distinct ways that the United States 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 (Iran Nuclear Deal) 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 aware of and wary of this administration’s propensity for transactional policy and have noted 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. Combined with a particularly Emirati interest in pursuing what its officials speak of in terms of a modernization and moderation agenda, combined with Gulf-Palestinian tensions, a waning attachment among Arab publics—particularly in the Gulf—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 recent deal, the stars have aligned from a diplomatic-agreement perspective for the United States, 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 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 this agreement, 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’s 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, rather than design, the aftermath of the Trump-plan presentation, led by an apparent march by the Netanyahu government toward annexation, provided the UAE some comfortable room to maneuver. To the extent that there was still some concern about public opinion that had been holding some of these Arab states back from making this move, being able to sell the deal as having achieved a halt to annexation 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.
It was questionable, I think, whether Netanyahu had 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 of the United States; and also opposition from security voices within Israel who were warning that this was not the best move, from their perspective of Israeli interests. So the ability to tout an agreement with the Emirates was the perfect ladder from which to climb down from this annexation pledge. Likewise, the Trump administration scored a diplomatic achievement in the Middle East arena here in the wake of failed efforts aimed at brokering an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
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 of that conflict. And let’s keep in mind that the subsequent Bahrain agreement did not in any way ask for concessions from Israel. So the question becomes, then, what’s next for Israeli-Palestinian conflict-resolution efforts in this context?
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 foregoing analysis, it’s equally important to think about the calculations regional actors are making and the decisions they are taking or not taking. So, with uncertainty as to 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 as 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 actions, particularly what has been happening in Yemen. You’ve seen the Emiratis try to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia in that regard and in other areas. They’ve made a bold move here that has been welcomed. These regional engagements between the 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 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 Trump term, 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 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. The Palestinians have registered the unworkability of that vision from their perspective, but if Arab states continue to jump on the normalization train, they’re going to have less leverage in that regard.
I would say also that we should be wary of putting too many eggs in the Biden basket. While a Biden administration’s approach to the conflict would reflect, I think, a pivot back to 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 either administration. There are too many domestic concerns—the economy, COVID. 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. As Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley mentioned at the beginning, even within the region itself, Libya, Yemen, Syria are all issues that might take precedence over going full-force on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Given where this administration has taken things on this issue, while certain steps that were taken in regard to this conflict might be recovered—for example, aid that was withdrawn could be restored, a consulate in Jerusalem could be reopened—there are other trains 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, more likely than an effort to tie it to being a bridge to Israeli-Palestinian peace rather than a way to detour around it.
I would add to this, 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. One of the lessons that was drawn from that first book 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 starting from scratch after where the Clinton administration left off, and Obama doing the same after the Bush administration. 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 bring about a constructive restart of a process toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and to make these Arab-Israeli regional engagements facilitate doing that—there would need to be political will among the United States, 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 United States to wield their leverage 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. 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, as we’ve learned and I said upfront, we should all be wary of longstanding assumptions, the wisdom or the steadfastness of them. But there is a sense right now that Saudi Arabia is going to hold out, and 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.
While I’ve noted a couple of times that the API paradigm is shattered, the vision is still, to date, being upheld, as articulated by the Arab states that 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 have little doubt that, again, if we are looking at a second Biden administration, I think that vision is very likely to be restored.
Frankly, 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 that an administration would take on. But to the extent they will be engaging on this issue, I would expect to see a re-embrace of that API vision, as I said, put aside the paradigm of two states. 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—to be successful they will need to be articulated within the framework of setting the political horizon again as a two-state solution.
Finally, if we’re looking at a Trump administration again, the plan would likely continue to be their roadmap. It is interesting to note, that despite saying they would not commit to a two-state solution, ultimately they did frame the plan 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. 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.
BASHAR AZZEH: Founding Board Member, Tatweer Investment Group; Member, PLO Palestine National Council
It’s really interesting times in Palestinian politics, and I’m going to focus my 10-15 minutes on the internal aspects of the Arab normalization deals with Israel and their reflection on the Palestinians. 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 it 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 understate. The deals that took place between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, Bahrain and Tel Aviv, and the upcoming deals with Sudan and maybe other countries, expressed exactly that this is going to be narrowed down to a Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And this is a wake-up call for people both in Ramallah and Gaza on how they would start to deal with a new structure of a conflict with Israel that’s based only on Palestinians and not the whole region.
Within the context of this new Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with the lack of what I call natural Arab support, we have to distinguish between Arab states and Muslim states. Here you have to go into the different axes in the Middle East. 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, Saudi Arabia, and the other axis Turkey and Qatar. And then you have Lebanon is in between, and you have Syria, and then you have the normal Iran-Hezbollah axis, and so on.
In Ramallah today, Palestinians in general, and actually both sides of the Palestinian political spectrum, are thinking of how we could reshape the structure of this conflict and take into consideration that we don’t want to be annexed to any of those regional players. How can we, as Palestinians, deal with this conflict purely in the terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Why? Not forgetting the Arab path, which could still be capitalized on, what I call taking the API into the ICU.
I’d like to focus on three points under this Palestinian-Israeli conflict model that’s being built up today. One, is the API. What is the future of the API in the eyes of the Palestinian perspective? The Palestinians still see that there’s hope for the API to continue as it was. However, it is clear that this is not going to happen. The question is, are we going to see a 2.0 API, a fusion API, or what we call an adjusted API? I think this answer will only come after the third of November. It’s very difficult for anybody to address this question today. But regardless of the results of U.S. election, we will have to see a new API. It doesn’t matter who’s going to be in the White House. The reality of those agreements on the ground exists and Palestinians, across the spectrums, have to deal with these existing agreements.
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 also fit with those who did normalize. I think the current Palestinian leadership is trying to approach it in what I call waiting phases, rather than pushing into a further negative relationship with Arab states, but waiting for the change in the United States, regardless of who’s going to be in the White House, to really assess how they can work on the API. The API viewed as something that will have to be changed or developed. This is very important to how the Palestinians view the API and the conflict.
The second issue that they are looking at is exactly how to deal with these arrangements, regardless of who’s going to be in the White House. How do you normalize with the new normalization? How do you reform the new Palestinian-Arab relationship? Many people were afraid that this deal that took place between the UAE, Bahrain and other Gulf countries will move Ramallah more toward Qatar and Turkey. And I think those who do know the old man in the Mukataa in Ramallah understand that he will never go to that axis, either by ideology or by his own political approach which has not changed throughout the history of the conflict. The idea that Ramallah would move closer to Turkey and Qatar is invalid. But I would explain to you that the current entertainment of this relationship with Turkey and Qatar is important for internal Palestinian politics.
That leads me to the second point. This normalization is a wakeup call about the need to solve the elephant in the room, which is the inter-Palestinian conflict. Here we talk about the Hamas-Fatah issue. If you want to talk about 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. I look at the Palestinian reconciliation differently than many people. First of all, I don’t call it reconciliation anymore. I think the hypothesis that reconciliation means either one party will take over the other party and end its ideology, or that things will go back to normal, to pre-2006 between Gaza and the West Bank, is wrong.
We have to understand—and I think both political parties, Hamas and Fatah, have 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 recent events that we are two different political entities, and we cannot overcome each other. 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 the leaderships of both parties have been seeing as the only way to get out of this deadlock.
The new “partnership” is an important element that the Palestinians must fulfill in order to really know how to address the narrowed-down Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or to deal with what I call the lack of popularity of the leadership of both sides within the majority in the West Bank and Gaza. The only way that this could be achieved by the two parties is by doing the following three things. One is building trust; confidence-building measures between both parties are really necessary. And the only way that this could be done is by calling an election of the legislative council of the PA.
This legislative council of the PA is 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 and build trust between both parties in this council, then we can go into the second and third steps: a unity government, and the reform and the merging of Hamas into the PLO.
It’s important to understand about inter-Palestinian politics, if it’s going in the right direction under the current pressure, that both sides see the need for unity. Then we can have a better Palestinian narrative, a better strategy that could come up with an agreed position with the whole spectrum of the Palestinian politics behind it.
The PLC election, if we reach that level, is more important than all other elections we had in the past. In the last PNC, the national council of the PLO, there was an agreement to lower the number of members in the PLC from 550 to 350. This means that the PNC holds by default all members of the legislative council. The new election and the new partnership in the legislative council will bring in a new half of the national council. If they agree, then reform of the PLO could happen easily.
The big question is what will Hamas have to do? Are they going to accept the quartet conditions? Or simply go into Palestinian politics without it? Let me just be clear. For Hamas to join the PLO means accepting the mandate of the PLO. This bypasses the need of Hamas solely to accept the quartet conditions. That’s a very important point. Hamas’s entry into the PLO could resolve the issue of the legitimacy of Hamas.
This inner Palestinian politics of trying to achieve partnership is filled with obstacles. Still, the president could issue a decree. There are a lot of obstacles on both sides. Many people are saying, let’s wait for November 3. Let’s see what happens. Then we can have better conditions. New obstacles are arising day by day on both sides of the conflict. Both parties will be waiting for the third of November. It could be a surprise that we will see a Palestinian agreement that concludes in an election before then.
There’s another element that’s really important: Hamas is going into what we call the new phase. It is going through a new internal election. It’s secret; nobody knows about the details. We will probably see new leadership within the political office of Hamas. There’s a lot of struggle internally, and these struggles will lead to the new face of Hamas, which could actually reflect positively on these needs of partnership. Also, internally in Fatah there are major problems between different players who are trying to take leadership of this initiative, but have problems going into this partnership directly without fulfilling other requirements.
To conclude on this matter, the inter-Palestinian partnership is a prerequisite for what the Palestinians can do in the near future. I personally think that having a second Trump administration will force both parties to go into this partnership, while having a first Biden administration might slow this process at the beginning. The best advice that could be given to the Biden team is that they push the Palestinians to go into the Palestinian-Palestinian partnership as a first step, as soon as they take office, rather than focusing on other issues.
A third element that the Palestinians are seeing out of these new accords, especially the Abraham Accords, is the theological part that’s been mixed into the conflict today—into the view of the Palestinians who are in conflict, and into the reality of U.S. politics toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict. Theology has played deeply into these accords, and how much it’s reflecting the daily life of the Palestinians in this conflict is being underestimated, even in Palestinian politics.
Most people don’t understand what it is and where to begin when it comes to the theological part. Many are really concerned that it is bringing more of what we call the theological political parties together, rather than the liberal traditional parties. This is something that’s been alarming to a lot of politicians in the West Bank, about how we will have to deal with the theological approach of these agreements. As an example, it’s been widely viewed that most of these agreements between the Arab states and Israel were actually fueled by Christian Evangelicals in the United States to fulfill a specific theological approach to how to bring peace toward Israel.
I think many are really concerned about what is going to be the next step. This thing is being studied carefully today. I believe the answer, if we have a second term of Trump, is what we call the inclusiveness of the religious element, even in Palestinian politics. This is why bringing Hamas into the PLO today is a must. If you don’t, and this theological approach continues, and this steadfastness by the PLO continues in the second term, you might have an organization like Hamas engaging directly with the U.S. administration, and with Israel, through what we call a hudna agreement.
Many of you recall the latest agreement between the Taliban and the United States. This is what I call a test balloon—the possibility of a “terror” organization having an agreement with a legitimate state. In this Taliban agreement you have the Taliban changing its name to the Islamic State of Afghanistan and signing an agreement with the United States and Afghanistan. They have viewed the possibility of Hamas signing a long-term hudna under such terms, both with Israel and the Untied States. This is an issue that will be seen in the second term, unless the Palestinians move into unity and inclusiveness of these different parties.
The last point, I would like to mention is how the Palestinians will cope with those agreements. If there’s a second term, we’re going to see more of them. I believe the Trump administration will try to narrow down the conflict toward the Palestinians, going to each Arab and Muslim country, trying to make a peace agreement. Vis-à-vis the Lebanese, they’re trying to show that a border pact 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, after they achieve internal unity. Here, I concur with Lucy—to work to build a better, stronger Palestinian-Arab relationship and try to make further demands on those states when it comes to the agreements with Israel. This has to be done, or the Palestinians will end up alone dealing with Israel. So this is a must. Ramallah and Gaza have to start lobbying, but in D.C. and Brussels. They have to go back to Abu Dhabi, to Khartoum, to Cairo and try to get the most possible out of this.
The second task that they need to do is to renew the legitimacy of the leadership. This must be approached with unity. These two elements must be done quickly, within the first term—or the second term of Trump. If Biden wins, not that much will change towards the Palestinians. The Palestinians will have to deal with the reality that the United States will not be a quarterback anymore. This is a reality that we have to live with. A second is that the normalization process will continue, publicly or non-publicly, because we know it’s been there for a while.
Third, they have to understand that nobody’s going to stop Israel from taking more land and building more settlements. We haven’t seen any UAE position against settlement building after the normalization. Fourth, they have to understand that financial support is going to be lowered. So the best option is to re-engage with the U.S. administration, fix the many internal problems, including the needs of the Taylor Force Act that have to be fixed internally, and then work with this new administration to try to find ways that could possibly resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Last but not least, when I said this is a Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it’s no longer an Arab-Israel conflict: direct negotiation with Israel, I think, has to be in the next term. The concept of mediation is over. We have to wake up. I don’t care who’s going to be in the White House, they have to understand: we have a right wing; Israel has a right wing. We both have to understand that this 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. Israel has a right wing that’s ready for such an approach. Maybe in a different way, though they are ready for such an approach. But we first need unity.
SHIRA EFRON: Senior Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies; Special Advisor on Israel, RAND Corporation
I’m afraid it’s going to be a little bit boring, because I agree with a lot of things that the previous speakers said. But I will speak about the Israeli perspective, which I don’t necessarily share on a personal level. I think it’s important for our audience to understand what mainstream Israelis are getting at.
First of all, among 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 shrinking—they understand very well the implications of this normalization agreement, the setback that it might bring to an Israeli-Palestinian process. There was really sincere joy, though this was really just an opportunistic move, but the normalization has removed for now the annexation threat from the agenda.
I don’t think Netanyahu himself wanted it. 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. We can be cynical and speak about the de facto annexation, the creeping annexation. Many of you who have visited the West Bank, the annexation would have made things worse, in my opinion. And we should be happy that this threat was removed for now. This is a reason everyone was happy about it, including on the left.
There is a second reason that I think everyone in Israel, including, again, the small left, is happy. Since the Madrid process started, Israel wanted peace with the Palestinians, but the idea was to integrate into the region. And it’s not the first time Israel normalized, right? We had Mauritania, we had Qatar. These are things that have happened before. And everyone is really happy to see that it is occurring, despite no peace with the next-door neighbor.
I think it’s also important to add the language of the agreement. It does not speak about the two-state solution, and it doesn’t speak about this conflict. However, it is constructive, positive language that Bashar referred to. It mentioned the importance of tradition. 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. There’s no explicit recognition, but this is how it’s interpreted in the Israeli mindset.
In the Israeli perception, in the rhetoric that comes from the PLO—even though the PLO has really evolved—Zionism was a colonial movement from Europe. Jewishness and Judaism is a religion, but not a people. And here comes this agreement that says, no, no, we recognize that you are a nation, you are a people. This is something that I think made it easier to make these agreements popular, to appeal even to conservative Israelis.
There was a very small group that was critical of the agreement. This was the hardcore right, that saw the agreements in a positive way but were against the removal of annexation off the table. This was for them a very large frog to swallow. With all due respect to Burj Khalifa and the glass towers of Dubai, they care about Shiloh and other places in Judea and Samaria. But the language was helpful. So they criticized the Israeli concessions, but I think in their mind it’s a concession. For most of the Israeli public, Israel paid no price for this. But their criticism was muted, and in the parliament, all parties except for the Arab Joint List ratified this agreement.
Now, however, as much as the reactions among policy circles and the media 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 Israeli companies—maybe 300-500, depending on how you count them—operated in the UAE through foreign intermediaries. So normalization doesn’t really change things. It’s not because of that. It’s because of COVID-19. 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.
It’s because of COVID. We’re used to thinking of Israel as an economic success. And Israel has indeed made great advancements, primarily in the tech sector. But a crisis like this shows that the tech sector was never an engine of the economic train. It might be just 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 the final stage of a second lockdown, but everyone is talking about a third. Unemployment, which was very low, only 4 percent before COVID, is now at 18 percent.
Economists are speaking about Greece in 2008. The education system, K-12 which was teetering on the brink, is collapsing. 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 affect everyone. 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 United States. It’s not even Greece, which can bank on an EU bailout. There’s no margin.
It sounds better in Hebrew, but what you hear is, “Not corona, not interesting.” That’s why these agreements change nothing in the Israeli discourse. We speak about it more in the United States, in the think tanks. And the annexation debate didn’t get enough attention 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 into public debate, the Palestinian issue receives no hearing.
I’m sorry to say this because, as an Israeli American, anywhere I sit I know this really defines Israel. People talk 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, there’s this separation barrier. There’s the West Bank, where the Palestinians live and the settlers. And there’s been some mainstreaming of the settlement movement, which I’m happy to speak about, because of their place in society, in the media and in the IDF.
Lacking alternatives to travel internationally, some West Bank settlements have developed a zip line and adventures and attracted visitors from Tel Aviv. It’s not in my principles to go and enjoy West Bank settlements, but people did go. Still, it’s like it’s a different country, and most Israelis 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. I’m a policy researcher, and I think it’s really hard to recommend a change of leadership as a policy prescription. That doesn’t get you much in either capital, whatever we’re looking at.
What can we do? This is the sort of thing I’m grappling with now. Can we use the Abraham Accords to steer some movement on the Palestinian front? I don’t have really positive views. I think someone in Israel should acknowledge that the Trump plan, 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 who would do that. Of course, if Trump stays for a second term, that goes without saying. But it’s very convenient for Israel, there’s no question. 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, that it does talk about two states. I agree with you, it’s positive. But I think the fact that 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. 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 know from the Israelis, from personal knowledge, who have reached out to Palestinians, and to Emiratis, having said: Please include a settlement freeze. Try something. And the Palestinians that I know of who were in these discussions refused to play ball. This was not very good. But I think that going forward to future normalization agreements, 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 is important also.
What can be done in the meantime—and this really assumes the Biden administration, because I think in a second Trump term it’s going to be very problematic. But we can talk about constructive modest steps, support the Palestinian internal partnership, the reconciliation partnership, whatever 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 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.
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 willing to kill and get killed over their narratives. And if you try to ignore them, we know where it has led in the past. It could lead there again. I think that is important also. There’s no positive, constructive discourse now. Even Saeb Erekat is in an Israeli hospital that’s in Jerusalem. And the way the right speaks about him is just so shameful. That type of conversation really has to change.
I’m happy 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 “The friend of my friend or the enemy of my friend.” These are all hesitancies in Turkey also. 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 up—I think some direct channel between the Israelis and the Palestinians is needed, 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, when public negotiations can resume.
Finally, and I think this is probably the worst and where I have more questions than answers: How we think creatively about incentivizing the Israelis to make compromises, because from 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.
BRIAN KATULIS: Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Before I start my remarks, I want to salute Tom Mattair with my heartfelt admiration for your commitment to the Council. 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.
What I’m going to do in the next 10-15 minutes are two main things. One, offer my take on where the region is, particularly in light of these Abraham Accords, and second, offer some thoughts about U.S. policy, in part because that’s my main job at the Center for American Progress. In doing that, I want to put my bottom-line up front: no matter who’s elected in November, the United States needs to shift towards a fundamentally different approach in the Middle East, one that I call putting diplomacy, inclusive diplomacy, first.
I’ll outline what I mean by inclusive diplomacy, but the main ingredient that has been missing from the past three years especially, and even longer, has been the Palestinians. They’re crucial, not only their leaders, but their people. Their voice needs to be part of inclusive diplomacy. When it comes to the Arab-Israeli issue, I think the focus of diplomacy should be moving from the present reality—which I call a de facto one-state reality. 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, control and movement and things like this are very much in the hands of Israel.
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 that America will face. The sheer magnitude of the coronavirus crisis and the economic damage it’s caused here in America and around the world will dominate at least the first year of an administration. But my view is that the United States 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. It’s also a region where there’s competition with a lot of the other key global powers, Russia and China.
First, my picture of the region. 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 things like the 2003 Iraq War and other U.S. military actions haven’t helped matters. The two main dynamics that are continuing to shape the regional environment are, one, an intense multipolar, multifaceted competition for influence among the key powers of the region.
Bashar mentioned this briefly, and it’s complicated. Just yesterday I was in a meeting with a former secretary of state, and this former 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 Abraham 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.
There are also stark divisions between the different camps, which Bashar alluded to. It is an important part of what an inclusive diplomatic approach requires some focus on. It’s these divisions among countries of the region over the issue of political Islam and, I would add, freedom and democracy. It’s a very complicated political debate. 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 is the way that a lot of the more aggressive and assertive countries in the region see things. 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. policy maker needs to be sensitive to.
In essence, it’s regional politics and diplomacy. At times, it actually becomes quite violent in proxy wars and actual wars. It becomes like a vortex, some of the situations, including those in the eastern Mediterranean, with Turkey, and you see some of the Gulf states moving military assets there. And it’s relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian divide, as Bashar’s comments allude to.
It’s interesting to me that after the Abraham Accords one of the first things that the Palestinian leadership did was go to Turkey. For those in the region, you know what they’re doing and what they’re signaling because it’s part of this complicated, multifaceted, multipolar competition for influence. It’s actually drawing a lot of actors in. And to conduct diplomacy you need to understand those perspectives and hear them. That’s one aspect of how the state system is being stressed.
Second, are the overwhelming and increasing 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. We see this with transitions recently in Sudan and protests throughout the past year in places like Lebanon. The main point is that this competition within the region for influence, the popular pressures for change and reform, will still be part of the challenges for any U.S. diplomatic approach ahead.
If you look at the way the United States responded to the 2011 Arab uprisings, the response was quite mixed, uneven and incomplete. It’s very relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian issue because it is one piece of this broader puzzle. That’s my first take on where the region is. It’s very complicated and I think in some cases deteriorating.
Second, the Abraham Accords are 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 think a steadier, more consistent and engaged diplomacy by the United States, Europe and others could use these agreements to broaden conversations aimed at producing progress towards the two-state scenario and away from the present de facto one-state reality.
But in essence, these agreements signed between Israel and Bahrain and the UAE this fall, plain and simple, establish full normalization of relations. That’s a positive step, in my view. In a region 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. They open the door to wider arenas of cooperation among Israel, Bahrain and the UAE. There’s a heavy security component to it, and I think there’s going to be a very sharp debate over the F-35 component of it, as there should be. I think there will be more scrutiny and much-needed debate over those weapon sales. But there are also business and commercial ties that will grow.
I think this discussion on the religious conversation is a very important one that’s overlooked by U.S. policymakers. Religion, in my view, is not only a source of comfort, 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. The main point is that an inclusive diplomatic approach needs to be attuned to this and to understand that for this to be a deep peace, there needs to be a broader conversation and bringing more parties in.
But to me, on the Abraham Accords, the question remains, could this realignment do anything to improve the lives of Palestinians on the ground—and Israelis too, including especially those who have been left behind in their own country, Arab Israelis and others. Can these agreements be utilized in any way? If the answer is no, then I think the potential this step offers would be squandered. Obviously, as was said earlier by Lucy and others, the looming shadow of Iran is the main thing that brought these agreements out, as well as the time clock of U.S. elections, for a range of reasons. Ultimately, right now it’s not about peace. It’s about shifting geopolitics and regional tectonic plates.
The third point on the region, before I get to what inclusive diplomacy looks like, is about the U.S. role. I think a lot of the shifts we’re seeing in the region, including the Abraham Accords, are linked to the growing perceptions and concerns about what the United States is doing or not doing, and whether Washington is a strategically reliable partner for a lot of countries in the region. I would say this is a preexisting condition to Trump. I’ve been hearing for at least the last five or six years justified concerns about America’s own internal divisions and its inward focus, but also, what is it the United States actually wants to achieve in the region?
In essence, I think countries are cutting deals with each other and bringing conversations out of the shadows, in part because they see the United States 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. It began back in 1979 with the Camp David Accords and the revolution in Iran. And I think that period has for many years been coming to an end, and actors in the region are testing the limits of their power. They’re seeking new arrangements in anticipation of the fact that the United States will continue to shift its approach to the region.
What should U.S. policy try to do moving forward? Again, I’d highlight 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 suggestion—and I use the headline of inclusive diplomacy—that’s the main focus, 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, not only on the Israeli-Palestinian front but for the broader region.
I would highlight a few key components of inclusive diplomacy. Number one, it has to mean reengaging the Palestinians. I know there are 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 are all well and good, and I support, but also very tactical. I think we need broader imagination, in part because we need to prepare for a generational transition of Palestinian leadership.
As was noted, it’s sad to see Saeb Erekat so ill [Note: he passed away November 9]. He’s part of a generation that has been there forever, and in the next five to 10 years, we are going to see a transition. This requires U.S. diplomats and policy makers to fix this mistake that the Trump administration made in trying to exert maximum pressure on the Palestinians and isolate them. We need to include them.
As somebody who started my career living in the West Bank and Gaza, I think we need to not just get stuck on the current leaders. We need to do more active listening to the Palestinian people. This is not just a matter for U.S. diplomats. It’s for countries in the region, including Israel. It’s important also for think tanks and NGOs to include their voices. That’s why I’m really glad Bashar is part of this conversation. So, reengaging the Palestinians is essential, but not just in the limited tactical measures that policy analysts discuss in correcting the mistakes that Trump has made.
Another component of this inclusive diplomacy is keeping the dialogue open with a broad range of regional actors. Here I’d highlight Jordan as a very important country and a close partner of the United States for years—Egypt as well. I’d include in that list, of course, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, and other countries in the GCC. I think this dialogue needs to focus on a range of issues, but when it comes to the Arab-Israeli front, I’m really not sure what to say about reintroducing the API. I like the dead-fish analogy we heard from Lucy. But we need to have that sort of instinct in looking at the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian front, not as something that’s subsidiary to other issues but as a key component.
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 Saudi Arabia—they understand that they have a certain degree of leverage here on the Israeli front, potentially, if they want to use it. The problem is that the Palestinian question is not a priority for most of these countries right now in the way that it is for Jordan. 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.
Kpeping the dialogue open with key regional actors is important, with a focus on how to improve the lives of Palestinians on the ground—the economic-security conditions—not to go back to direct negotiations, but to set the conditions. Lastly, on inclusive diplomacy—this first bit—is that the United States needs to do more to deescalate tensions in the Gulf. Obviously Iran is a looming challenge, but 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 2015-18 is that there needs to be substantial improvement in the regional-security environment for there to be trust and confidence in a new agreement. I think the Gulf rift is also ridiculous, and a place where the United States needs to, again, exert its diplomatic leverage and have ongoing conversations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar to see this come to a close. So inclusive diplomacy is key—though easier said than done.
The second element is that the United States should seek to achieve steady progress. To 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 a new team should seek to hit singles rather than grand slams on a range of fronts, 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 many of the actors—including some of our closest partners in the region: Israel, Jordan, Egypt, some of the Gulf states—see the linkage between these issues and Iran, Israel, Palestine, some of the wars that are happening. U.S. diplomats also need to approach this not in a stovepiped way, but understanding that in many ways these are very difficult challenges that are interlinked. I don’t know what the clear pathway is to a new JCPOA with Iran, or what the clear pathway is to a two-state scenario.
My main point is that it’s very much interlinked in the minds of a lot of the countries in the region. That’s going to require U.S. diplomats to 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 regional security in things like the Yemen war, Libya and other places. My main focus, though, is inclusivity and simultaneous progress, steady progress, rather than disengagement or overt pressure and coercion.
With Trump, for the last three and a half years, trying to analyze his foreign policy overall, I have not seen much consistency or coherence in making things happen and having them stick in the world. I see, sadly, a decline in America’s influence and its ability 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 are so many different ideas, and some of them are quite good, but do these ideas add up to a clear plan?
Some of them involve downgrading U.S. commitments to the region overall. Some ideas are about condemning what I think are the egregious crimes of some of our partners. I think this is important, but there are also components of diplomacy and a new Iran deal. 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. 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 United States needs to understand the political dynamics within these countries and in the region.
Achieving a lot of this requires more mental energy and political and diplomatic dexterity than we’ve seen from America in a long time. Add to it the challenge that America is facing, this bandwidth challenge at home. But if the United States wants to 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. It’s interesting to me that when you compare U.S. engagement even to this day under Trump, which is erratic and unclear, the United States still has a broad network of relationships with a wide range of actors—larger than what I think Russia has, and China has a different approach.
The notion that the United States could simply retrench and downgrade at home, and pivot or rebalance to compete with China and Russia misses the reality that the Middle East itself is an area of competition with some of these countries. If some of the political, economic and social issues aren’t attended to, the region will continue to export a lot of its problems to the international system.
In an era that’s ending, in the Middle East, the new order’s not yet clear. And the United States, though we’re distracted, though it will have other priorities, it still has some influence to 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 if you focused on how to work with key actors in the region, you could actually see modest gradual progress away from the one-state reality that exists today towards a two-state scenario. Whether the vehicle ultimately becomes some sort of regional approach like the Arab Peace Initiative revamped, I’m not sure. But the main point is that, if the United States does not try to stay engaged in some way and working with some of the key actors and partners in the region—from Jordan, to Egypt, Israel and the Gulf—then I suspect a lot of the problems we saw emerge after the way we disengaged from Iraq in 2011 aren’t likely to get much better.
I think the focus on inclusive diplomacy, listening to actors, not trying to solve everything all at once, but trying to produce gradual progress on multiple fronts more modestly is a much more pragmatic approach, as opposed to some sort of effort at grand bargains.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR: Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
Thank you very much to the panelists. I would like to start with Bashar. You have talked about the importance of inter-Palestinian partnerships, but I’d like to hear what it is 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. You, yourself, spoke about the importance of direct negotiations with the Israelis. What do you think you can get from direct negotiations with the Israelis? There is an asymmetry of power when it’s just you and them.
MR. AZZEH: I think the Palestinians today are going through what I call the fourth narrative revolution. We had the first one in ’67. After the defeat, as the Arabs call it, the occupation of the West Bank. We had the second in the ’87-’89 First Intifada. The third was the Second Intifada, moving into nonviolence, toward the current situation, where we’re going into the formation of the new Palestinian identity and narrative.
I believe personally, and I’m not representing either the PLO or anybody else’s position, that to the Palestinians today, the most important thing is answering their inner question, what do we Palestinians want? First, we don’t have a common vision on what we want. As an example, in Israel you have Zionism 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 of that common goal. Is it one state? Is it two states? Are we an immigration movement? Are we a human-rights, civil-rights movement? These narratives have to be conflated into one political narrative today. And that can only be done by unity and the ability of people to express their rights to bring that new narrative out.
Then we could start talking to Israel. The problem is what to talk to Israel about. Even if you are weaker, the two-state model is clearly being destroyed and tortured right and left. Even if you have the proper conditions, you still really cannot talk of the two-state solution in the old narrative. The old way, unfortunately, is over. Even if Israel is interested in direct negotiations, there will never be the talk of the pure older approach of the two-state solution. People mentioned my good friend Dr. Saeb Erekat, and 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 has. He represents the end of that traditional talk of the two-state solution.
So what we can get? If you get the Palestinians to unite, meaning bringing Hamas under the umbrella of the PLO, bringing the weapons of Hamas into the PLO, and bringing unity, then the asymmetric power that you talked about would change, definitely. This is what Israel understands. This is why Israel is allowing Qatar to make a monthly payment of $20-40 million through Ben-Gurion Airport. First of all, not to have to worry about the burden of Gaza, and second, to ensure there’s a divide between Palestinians. But if all these circumstances change, these direct negotiations will have to go into what I call three different layers.
One is upgrading the reality. I’m not calling for peace-minus. There is a lot of reality today that we have in the current agreements—the economic agreement of the Paris Protocol, the civil agreement, the security agreement. All these have to be fixed first. This is what the leaders have been talking about, that the situation should not go back to the annexation model. When annexation was announced by the new-formed Israeli government as part of their agreement, Palestinian leader, Abu Mazen, decided to “suspend” the agreements with Israel.
Two, the Palestinians should not go back to Oslo. Let’s just be clear; we talk about two Oslos here. We have Oslo One, which is a declaration of principles, and we have Oslo Two, the technical agreements. I believe the Palestinians should never go back to Oslo Two. We should never undermine Oslo One. We should have a declaration of principles. But Oslo Two we need to go back and say to the Israelis, we’re not going to go back to Oslo Two. 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, Israelis will have no option but to do it. Then we can go into the second layer of discussing the closer political issues. Here you can start talking about territorial issues—areas A, B, and C. 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 as I said earlier, if you will work with Arab countries, even after normalization.
The third layer is that you can start talking about future steps. When we talk about inclusivity, we need not undermine what I call the development of the legitimization of political Islam in the Arab world. It’s happening. We all have to wake up. We need to ensure that political Islam becomes 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 part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Taking engagement with the new form of political Islamists within the spectrum, I think they could resonate with those who are also religiously political in Israel. Then we can start talking about future solutions. Hamas was open for a hudna of 15 to 20 years based on the theological hudna between Prophet Muhammad and the Jews in Khaybar and the “infidels” of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca. The theology allows them to go into agreements that do not have an end of status, and so on.
We have to go gradually. We might reach a one-state model. We might reach a confederation of Palestinians and Israelis. We might reach a model where you have to resolve the issues relating to security through regional integration. Jordan, Palestine and Israel could have a security arrangement. Now, all Arab countries have a relationship with Israel. Why would three countries have a unified defense position on where the borders of Israel are? I mean, Jordan with Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
The dynamics are changing in the region, and we will have to be inclusive in the way that we are thinking. Young Palestinians will never accept a model that will not bring civil rights, human rights, and freedom to them, whether it’s two states, one state or three states. That’s the first thing we have to do within these three layers. Any other model will not be acceptable.
DR. MATTAIR: 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: 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 who understand that. I don’t want to go too much into the weeds, but Oslo was supposed to be a temporary agreement. The Paris Protocol, the economic annex, cannot produce any sustainable economic framework of development for the Palestinians. There are a lot of people in Israel who would be sympathetic to thinking about changing the economic relationships.
On the security side, there are in Israel people who understand that Israel’s policy—it was implicit, but may be turning explicit—of helping the divide. Israel didn’t cause the divide between the West Bank and Gaza but definitely benefitted from the way Israel formally sees it. I think there are people who would see a benefit in mending the fight. There are many in Israel who understand a humanitarian collapse of Gaza does not serve Israel’s interest. And for that, we need the PA.
Unfortunately, the political leadership of Israel is not there now because it’s busy with political survival. There are elections in the United States, elections in Palestine, and there are always elections in Israel. Now we’re talking about whether there are going to be elections in January or in May, I agree with Bashar that those steps would be very constructive and very helpful, and 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 from the Palestinians with the United States.
If this becomes U.S. policy, if the United States backs 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—the Europeans have a huge lever, by the way; they’re the only ones bankrolling the Palestinian Authority. 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 have leverage, and I don’t think they use it very effectively on Israel.
So this has to come with U.S. and European policy, international diplomacy. I do want to point out that there’s something 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 that subscribes to these values, that sees Israel as a light unto the nations. They really appreciate democracy. But there’s some contradiction, because they’re not seeing the occupation.
This is something that can resonate with them, a conversation about the Palestinians being there, we are here, two states. Just thinking about the Palestinians but not bringing values to the discussion did not help Israelis on the left advance this cause. I think that would be helpful. But it has to be a real conversation on values and rights and respect for all, not just for one side. It’s a challenge, but I think there’s a potential there.
DR. MATTAIR: If we return 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. In the mid-'70s, when I started at my career, 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? The next question is, how much time do we really have to resolve issues of territory?
MS. EFRON: Clearly, Israel made this announcement on the settlements. I do think it’s important to note that there’s some phony accounting on the settlements, usually because they approve the settlements but don’t actually build them, and then they count them again. They double count them. Netanyahu had to give something to his base, so there are always the settlements that were approved before; they’re not really new ones. Or the announced housing starts, but the symbolic fact matters.
The rate at which settlements have 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. 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 traditional two-state solution—we’re still talking about 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. I see David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador in Israel, speaking everywhere in the 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 the fact that over the summer there were Israelis, even that I know, who went on a getaway vacation weekend in the West Bank. This is something I thought would never happen. I asked, aren’t you bothered by crossing Hismail (ph) as you go hiking in the Prampt (ph) River?
I think this time question is a big one. There are many people who say that we are past the point of division and have to look for some models. I don’t believe in the one-state, like America, 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 separate nation-states sharing some territory. The confederation idea is one that is gaining support in some circles, more in United States among readers of The New Yorker than here on the ground. I see my colleagues from RAND on the phone. We have some surveys that show that Israelis and Palestinians don’t subscribe to it.
We might be past the point of no return on that. On the other hand, I think leadership matters. It is possible to evacuate settlements. It is possible to divide the land. I 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 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 achieve something. But for what we really need, which would be evacuation, I don’t foresee good developments in the near future.
MS. KURTZER-ELLENBOGEN: I think the challenge with slogans is the 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, how we know when it’s closed, and how long it takes to be closed, and if it’s been closing for this long, how do we say if there’s any space left? I think I would subscribe to the Shira view that leadership is important when there is political will. Does it make it harder the more settlements grow, the more people you’d have to move if you’re still looking at a traditional two-state model, as Shira mentioned, whether you’re looking at a sort of Geneva initiative, the Clinton parameters, that type of approach?
I think one humbling thing many of us have learned is to never say never, in terms of what is possible. That’s not to sound naïve. I think the one thing that argues in favor of the two-state solution not being dead, as Shira pointed out, is that I haven’t yet seen robust support from Israelis and Palestinians, most importantly for an alternative. I think the reason you see the strongest support among Israelis is the status quo. They’re able to live with it right now. This has become almost a cliché. The status quo is never static.
Nobody has come up with an answer to how you deal with the fact, as Bashar pointed out, that there will be no solution acceptable to the Palestinians that doesn’t account for civil rights. They will accept, probably, any model, as long as those rights are there. And the Israelis are not able to square that currently with creeping annexation or the de facto one-state solution. There is no answer yet to that question. For as long as that remains unresolved, and for as long as there is no robust support for alternatives to a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, 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 it along.
The one point I would make is that on a quiet settlement freeze, probably, would have to be the way to go. The challenge is I think—as Shira mentioned—phony numbers, the math around this. It’s a very opaque process. I go back to lessons learned from the Obama administration. Going in forcefully with a public announcement of the settlement freeze ends up sometimes putting both leaderships in rather tricky positions with their own constituencies. If the United States is insisting on a full-fledged settlement freeze, and there’s a focus on every single number of every announcement that is made, it creates its own dynamic when trying to build confidence among the parties. And when the Palestinians can’t insist on anything less than what the United States is asking for in that regard, 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 absolutely emphasis that would be needed to stop the creeping annexation. But I think that any U.S. approach that would look to using that as a tool would need to be mindful of how it is being articulated, implemented and coordinated with the parties.
MR. KATULIS: I lived in Ramallah and Gaza City in the 1990s for about two or three years. And there was a period from 1998 to 2006 when I didn’t go back. When I went back in 2006, I didn’t recognize the landscape. What had happened was the Second Intifada and the security wall and all that. I used to commute between Ramallah and Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem and then Gaza City, and it’s been changing. The pace of settlement expansion is alarming, and it does beg the question of whether a two-state solution is even viable. I wrote a report back in 2009 about this window of opportunity for a two-state solution. To me, the less interesting sorts of discussions right now are the ones about the so-called paradigms—the confederation, or the things that sometimes get hot debate on Twitter, on the one-state solution or other scenarios.
What I think is more interesting is, what are the tools for actually shaping the political, economic and social conditions towards some sort of lasting sustainable arrangement? The Trump administration could try to ignore and sideline the Palestinians, but they’re there. And they demand self-determination and their rights. They’re quite close, right? On this trip I took in January I saw some friends in Shufat refugee camp, right in Jerusalem. They’re not going anywhere.
The main thing that I would say on this issue of creeping annexation—and to connect it to the point I made about some of the Gulf states, 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 is expanding the settlements. So if a U.S. administration was interested in keeping a two-state scenario and ultimate solution on life support, you’d try to use the potential leverage that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others have.
I don’t see that active, inclusive diplomacy coming from the United States under Trump. Maybe it might happen under Biden, but that team will also have to measure all of that potential engagement to try to leverage the region against what it may seek to try to do on Iran, or on the Yemen war or Khashoggi—a number of things that I think are out there. Right now, I don’t see a coherent package coming from the Trump administration as yet. I think the Biden team would probably get it together. But an approach that prioritizes Israel-Palestine is not yet present and available in the minds of some of the folks.
MR. AZZEH: If Biden wins, and the Gulf normalization agreements still exist, the Biden team could work on the settlement freeze, leveraging these existing agreements by the Arab states. I think the Arab states could work with Israel on the settlement-freeze issue, with proper Biden pressure on Israel. And that counts. Biden should avoid 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. It should not be underestimated. If you want me to advise Netanyahu, I think he will have a problem if he has normalization with all those Arab states. One day this will have to be leveraged against Israel. In my opinion, it’s wrong to think that Arabs could not leverage it in the long term. So I believe a 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 to where we go from here. We all have worked on this conflict for many years. The biggest obstacle internally, is the right-wing national Zionist movement and the settlement movement in Israel and political Islam inside Palestine, which is represented by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. You have to bring these people in as part of the solution, and answer theological and ideological problems connected to faith when it comes to how Palestinians can ensure they can pray in Al-Aqsa? What is it exactly?
It’s time for us to be inclusive of those people and make them part of the solution. This is a liberal person telling you this, not a religious person. In Palestine today traditional Muslims and orthodox Muslims are over 90 percent of the population. Liberals are only, what, 1 percent? That’s good if they are 1 percent. 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 is true for 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 in circles. We will have those sessions again, and we will have the same answer. I believe this is the best way to move forward.
DR. MATTAIR: 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? The first thing Carter did was to send Cyrus Vance to see if he could resolve it. The first thing Bill Clinton did was to send Warren Christopher to see if he could resolve it. One of the first things Obama did was to send George Mitchell to see if he could resolve it. This probably won’t be 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: It is still essential for the United States to see some form of stability in the Middle East. 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 United States wants to maintain a strong partnership with Israel, it 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 need to come to some sort of resolution.
We talked today, all of us, about various formulas on how to get there, but I think the one consensus is that it’s not coming soon or early, but that you need to actually produce some sort of progress. I think from the interests’ standpoint, if the United States walks away from the Israeli-Palestinian question and doesn’t try a different approach from what we’ve seen from Trump, then the broader puzzle of the Middle East and the stability of the region will still be quite uncertain. We should focus more on those political and diplomatic moves, the sorts of things that all of us have been talking about, to resolve 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, listening to a broad range of Palestinians. I think many writers have talked about how the U.S.-Palestinian relationship, unfortunately, has always been viewed as a subset of Israel. And to get to a resolution we need a deeper engagement there. But the main interest I think relates to overall stability in the region.
Then there’s the values question, which is often dropped in U.S. foreign policy, unfortunately. But I do think the sense of injustice, of rights and of self-determination is not talked about enough here in Washington and in policy circles. To me, it’s that mix of interests and values that I think is 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.
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 email@example.com.