Philip H. Gordon, the Mary and David Boies senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at CFR, discusses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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MCMAHON: Thank you. Good afternoon and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Bob McMahon, managing editor of CFR.org. And thanks to all of you for joining us for the first call of the fall semester.
Today’s one-hour call is on the record. And the audio file and transcript will be available on our website CFR.org within the next few days. So if you’d like to share it with your colleagues or classmates, please feel free.
We’re delighted today to have with us CFR senior fellow Phil Gordon to discuss the recent developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I believe you have Phil’s bio, but I just wanted to emphasize he’s especially well-suited to be guiding us through this issue.
Phil was a special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region from 2013 to 2015. And as the most senior White House official focused on the greater Middle East, he worked closely with President Obama, the secretary of state and national security adviser on issues including the Middle East peace negotiations as well as the Iranian nuclear program, the conflict in Syria, security in Iraq, U.S. relations with the Gulf states as well as democratic transitions in North Africa.
Now, so, Phil, first of all, welcome. Welcome and thanks for being with us today.
GORDON: Thanks, Bob.
And thanks to everyone for joining. I look forward to the conversation.
MCMAHON: So the way this will work is that Phil and I will talk for about ten to fifteen minutes or so and then we want to make sure and open up the call to your questions. I think there’s a lot of people on the call.
And so I’ll kick it off right now. It seems like barely a day goes by without some other development going on involving Palestinian issues, especially Trump administration decisions. So, Phil, the United States has taken a series of actions that have seemed to have increased tensions between Washington and the Palestinians. Can you talk about how this has affected the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and the U.S.’s ability to act as an honest peace broker?
GORDON: Sure, Bob. That’s a good place to start. And you’re right, I mean, there’s always a lot going on in this space, but even in the last month or so and, frankly, the last two weeks, there have been even more steps taken by the U.S. that have, I think, really impacted the situation. So I will come to that and talk about those steps which have to do with cutting assistance, closing the Palestinian Liberation office in Washington, cutting U.S. assistance both directly to the Palestinians and the U.N. organization that helps refugees.
But let me, if I might, take a step back before that—
GORDON: —for a little bit of context, which I think is relevant to, you know, what’s happening today and really start by underscoring what I think is the, you know, whatever you want to call it—harsh, sad reality—that the prospects for progress on this issue are not very good and, arguably, as bad as they’ve been if the goal is a two-state solution since that really became the objective of U.S. policy, you know, twenty-five years ago.
And I say that, I mean, you noted to the group that, you know, I served in the Obama administration and worked on Middle East issues broadly and one of those was Middle East peace in this issue. And then as people recall, in 2013/2014 we made a big push at this issue on the ground that it felt like the clock was ticking, time was slipping away. And as challenging as it was then, it was important to try because it would only get harder over time. And we obviously didn’t succeed in bringing the two parties together then. And so what I’m about to say is sort of drawn from that experience and underscores the point I would make that I think, alas, the parties are even farther apart now than they were then.
As people who follow this issue know, there are four or five core issues that would have to be resolved between the Israelis and Palestinians for there to be peace. And briefly I’ll just say why there remains a big gap on all of this. One is the borders. Right? If you’re going to have a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians and two separate states, you’ve got to figure out what the borders are.
The Palestinian view is that the borders of a Palestinian state should be set along the lines that were established in 1967 prior to the war that was fought then. The Palestinian view is that that’s already sacrificing a large part of historic Palestine for a Jewish-Israeli state and that that should be the starting point for any discussion about borders.
The Israeli view is that that doesn’t work, that Israel’s security can’t be assured with those borders, and there would have to be adjustments both to make Israel more secure and to account for the now hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers that are now living in parts of the West Bank. So that’s a major gap between the two sides.
A second one is security. I mentioned security related to borders, but the Israelis and Palestinians have very different views about security after a possible peace plan. And security is probably the most important issue of all for the Israelis who have felt insecure for years and decades.
And just, for example, we worked, you know, very hard with General John Allen on a plan to try to ensure security for both sides in the context of a two-state solution. But again, there were major gaps.
You know, at present, for example, the Israelis have troops on the—in the Jordan Valley between the West Bank and Jordan and have talked about needing to maintain those troops indefinitely or for decades. And the Palestinians were, at most, willing to say they could stay for a few years and then they have to get out. So major gaps in security.
Refugees—which, Bob, is one of the issues you mentioned—has been in the news recently. There’s also a major gap between the two sides. The Palestinians have always insisted on the concept of a right of return for people who were expelled from Palestine when Israel was established. For the Israelis, that’s a nonstarter, they can’t allow Palestinians to come back and change the demographic nature of Israel. And I think most Palestinians know that all of the Palestinian refugees couldn’t go back to Israel, but they insist on something, and there remains a big gap there.
And then finally, there’s the question of Jerusalem, maybe the most difficult and sensitive of all. The city was divided when Israel was initially established. In 1967, Israel takes over the eastern part, majority Palestinian part, of the city and has since said Jerusalem must remain an undivided city and be Israel’s capital. Palestinians insist that Jerusalem be their capital, too, let alone the question of how to deal with the holy sites.
And then finally, let me also mention the issue of mutual recognition. What would be the relationship between a Palestinian state and an Israeli state? The Israelis have made a precondition of peace—recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, something the Palestinians say is not necessary and would prejudice the Palestinians.
So I walk through all of those issues just to underscore that that is the fundamental problem here. These have always been super difficult issues. The parties have never been able to agree on them. There are various peace plans that have existed for some time that would try to square the circle, but the gap between the parties has always been too big. It was too big when we tried it in 2013/2014, and I’m afraid to say it remains very significant.
So that’s just what I wanted to say by way of background.
Now, to your question about the current situation and what might have happened in the recent weeks and months to either facilitate or complicate this issue, I’m afraid that most of the developments on that front have actually made it more complicated.
The Trump administration, of course, came in touting the president’s abilities as a dealmaker. President Trump talked about his desire to negotiate the ultimate deal between Israelis and Palestinians. He appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as his main negotiator, brought in a wider peace team headed in Washington by his former attorney Jason Greenblatt, and they spent pretty much the first year of the administration fleshing out a possible plan on all of the issues that I just described, consulting widely both with Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the region to try to set the basis for peace and come up with a plan. And it is widely reported that such a plan exists, but they have yet to come to the point where they felt comfortable and confident putting it forward. And I think that developments over the past several weeks and months make it even less likely that that plan will either be put forward or would have any prospects for success if they did put it forward.
And I mentioned a couple already, but let me just underscore them again. The first was the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That was announced in December of last year by President Trump. He had made a campaign commitment to do that, but, like previous presidents, for some time chose not to act on it because he realized it would be provocative and might undercut prospects for peace. But in December, he announced he would do it; in May, he actually did it, and the U.S. organized a ceremony with the Israelis in Jerusalem. And in response to that, the Palestinians have refused to engage in negotiations and refuse to see the United States as an honest broker and broke off all talks, to set in motion sort of mutual recriminations between the two sides.
The Trump administration says that by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, they have, quote/unquote, “taken the issue off the table” and made it more likely that you could reach an agreement since they’ve, quote/unquote, you know, “resolved” that issue. But I think, honestly, it doesn’t take it off the table because the Palestinians don’t recognize it. It was basically a unilateral U.S. move to take one side’s position on a most sensitive issue, and it’s not surprising the Palestinians haven’t responded favorably.
Then in addition and partly in response to the Palestinian refusal to talk to the United States, the U.S. has taken other moves that I think complicate the picture—cut funding for the U.N. agency that provides food, education, housing and health care for millions of Palestinian refugees both on the West Bank and in neighboring countries. The United States just cut some $300 million in assistance and is seeking to redefine many of them as not official U.N. refugees, saying that maybe the refugees were the ones who initially were kicked out of their homes, but now you’re several generations later, they shouldn’t be seen as refugees.
Just this week, the administration followed that with further cuts to direct assistance to Palestinians, including for food and hospitals and humanitarian support, another $25 million, which President Trump said it was because the Palestinians are not showing sufficient appreciation or respect.
And then just the other day, two days ago, in a speech here in Washington, National Security Adviser John Bolton said the United States was closing the Palestinian representative office in Washington as a further measure in sort of retaliation against the Palestinians for their position. That’s mostly symbolic because, frankly, as I think the thrust of remarks so far have been, there’s not really much of a peace process anyway, but it undercuts the relationship further.
The administration argues that these tough measures vis-à-vis the Palestinians will force them back to the table and show them that there’s no free lunch, and if they want to deal, they’re going to have to come back and negotiate. But my assessment is that the net effect of this is that it will just make negotiations even less likely.
So that’s my basic frame that I wanted to put out there as to why these issues are so hard and why I think recent steps by the United States have made the situation, unfortunately, even less promising.
MCMAHON: Well, thanks, Phil. That really does comprehensively frame things. And I said this was going to be a conversation, but you one after the other were responding to things I was going to ask you about, so I will shortly move to open this up to questions.
I did want to follow up on one thing, which is just the notion that—I think it’s been raised by both Trump administration supporters as well as even those who are critical of his steps—acknowledging that, as you did early on, that there are so many core issues that have just seemed to not have moved that much, certainly since the Oslo accords which is now this week marking twenty-five years, and that, you know, at the very least, that a new approach, you know—the Trump administration supporters would say a new approach is needed to get things moving.
Now, the new approach happens to go after core principles that seemingly are going to further antagonize the situation or not. What do you say about the whole notion of the fact that there just had been such stasis on these issues that there is—there is a need for some sort of new movement to get things rolling, maybe to bring people back to the table with maybe a new sense of urgency?
GORDON: Look, it’s fair enough to ask the question about the need for a new approach. And anyone who has looked into this issue, you know, in recent decades has to acknowledge that the old approach hasn’t worked. So it is certainly fair to come at it and acknowledge that and ask if there is something other than—if what you would call the old approach is efforts to bring the parties together around a two-state solution that would negotiate compromises on the—on the five core issues that I raised, and that obviously hasn’t worked. And as I said, the gaps between the parties remain large.
But the reason people keep coming back to that approach is that nobody has come up with an alternative approach that satisfies the sides and resolves the conflict. And that’s why you keep coming back to it, is, you know, what are the alternatives? And the alternatives are not very attractive either for either side, and one of them is a one-state solution, right? If you can’t negotiate a two-state solution because the issues are too difficult, then maybe there should be just one state.
But when you contemplate that, it’s hard to figure out how that works. You would quickly get a demographic problem because if you incorporate the West Bank and Gaza, you’ve got—it’s seven million Palestinians in what Israelis want to see as a Jewish state, and either that becomes a democratic state in which you’d get an Arab-Palestinian majority—and it’s hard to see Jewish Israelis accepting that—or it becomes a nondemocratic state where a significant number or even a majority of the population doesn’t get full democratic rights. So that alternative to the two-state solution doesn’t seem great.
And, you know, other options the Trump administration explored early on trying to start by dealing with the Arab states, what they called the outside-in solution, instead of negotiating directly with the Palestinians, work with Arab states and try to change the context and get them onboard and then get the Palestinians to accept that. But it turns out that Arab states are not likely to get out ahead of the Palestinians on issues the Palestinians care about.
And so one of the dynamics that we’ve seen as the administration has tried to shop its ideas around to those Arab states, they have been, you know, reluctant, unwilling to get onboard for that because they don’t want to get out ahead of their populations and, especially on a sensitive issue like Jerusalem, allow their adversaries in, for example, Iran or Hamas or Turkey to criticize them for doing that.
So the point is there’s nothing really new under the sun when it comes to Middle East peacemaking. The reason most people interested in this issue keep coming back to finding compromises on those hardcore issues is that they haven’t been able to come up with an alternative.
And the last thing I’ll say, Bob, is that if the idea of the administration is that the alternative is more in the way you go about it, like, rather than trying to reach out to and satisfy Palestinian needs, you know, cut them off, cut off their economic assistance, pressure them, take Israel’s side on core issues like Jerusalem, and then they’ll be forced to come back to the table and agree to a compromise that they haven’t agreed to before. I mean, one detects a little bit of that notion in the administration’s approach—the, quote/unquote, “new approach.” There, obviously it remains to be seen, but I’m highly skeptical that that is going to be the result of the new approach if that’s what it consists of.
MCMAHON: All right. Well, we’ve got about forty minutes to walk through the various strains of issues here that you’ve laid out, Phil.
I want to open it up now to those on the call.
Operator, can you tell us if you have a question on the line, please?
OPERATOR: Of course. At this time, we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
MCMAHON: And while people are getting ready to signal, I’ll slip in one more question, Phil, which is you mentioned, you know, in the absence of a two-state solution, what do you have? You know, there was an interesting aside in the recent Economist mentioning the fact that basically saying the Palestinian Authority is, in effect, the security subcontractor keeping the West Bank quiet and that they are receiving foreign donations in the billions to keep—to keep it afloat. But if there’s no two-state solution, said one European diplomat to The Economist, then there’s no justification for us to pump money into the Palestinian Authority. So it’s again that notion, I think, of pressure coming on the Palestinians from a lot of different sides.
GORDON: Yeah. And even aside from the interest in facilitating a two-state solution—so that, you know, that’s one argument for assistance to the Palestinians that you’re trying to set the basis for a two-state solution. But even in the absence of that, the argument for assistance to the Palestinians is to maintain security for Israelis and Palestinians alike, which is why a lot of Israelis’ insist on maintaining security cooperation with and assistance—and assistance to Palestinians. So there’s the humanitarian assistance, which you can argue for on humanitarian grounds just because it’s the right thing to do in helping people, but also on security grounds, because if people really become desperate and lose hope, then you run the risk of violence and other uprisings.
And then there’s the security assistance, which, again, even outside of any aspirations for a two-state solution, is just very useful, including to Israelis today, because without Palestinian cooperation, then you have the question of, you know, how does Israel maintain security over millions of Palestinians without the cooperation of those Palestinians? So again, this is not just a Palestinian case, but there’s a strong Israeli security case for security cooperation with the Palestinians.
MCMAHON: OK. And we’ll turn to the operator now to see what questions we have lined up.
OPERATOR: Our first question comes from the University of Central Florida.
Q: Hi. My name is David Callahan (sp) from the Global Perspectives Office here at University of Central Florida.
I was just wondering, how much of a roadblock is Israeli domestic politics in this? Because Likud tends to be very inflexible regarding the issues you mentioned, such as, like, borders and settlements. Would perhaps Labor be more flexible with that, or are the issues still kind of Palestinian and U.S. focused?
GORDON: Thanks, David. That’s a good question. And I didn’t get to that when I talked about the gaps between the two sides. But indeed, that is another one.
Aside from the inherent difficulty in bridging these gaps, which are quite considerable, the political situation on both sides is not very conducive to peace right now. The one you touched on, the Israeli side, is the current Israeli government, for the first time, I think, in many years, the majority of the cabinet doesn’t even support the conflict of a two-state solution, you know, let alone be willing to take the measures or make the compromises that might be necessary to get there. But it’s the most right-wing cabinet you’ve had in Israel for a long time.
Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has officially come out in favor of a two-state solution, most importantly in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, but it was always somewhat ambiguous. And there’s been a lot of skepticism that he would really be willing to take the measures necessary. But at least officially, he has said that his goal would be an Israeli state and a Palestinian state living side by side so long as Israel’s security is guaranteed and Israel is recognized as the Jewish state and so on.
But as you say, the Likud Party as a whole doesn’t even support, for the most part, a two-state solution. And it is hard to see the current Israeli government making an offer anywhere close to what would be necessary to get the Palestinians onboard. So, yes, there is a big Israeli domestic political constraint.
Now, again, this is not just the government. Israelis voted for that government. And having seen many Israeli peace offers rejected by Palestinians in the past, there are a lot of Israelis who themselves are too skeptical of a two-state solution and don’t think they have a Palestinian partner and, until there’s a change on the Palestinian side, are not willing to support a government that will pursue a two-state solution on that basis.
So for that to change, I think it probably would be necessary to have a different Israeli government. The Labor Party has, in the past, been more willing to make compromises and make the case for a two-state solution than Likud. So probably you would need a different Israeli government to make this possible, but you’d probably also need a different government on the Palestinian side and that’s equally a problem, one because the Israelis don’t see the current Palestinian leadership as a partner for peace and until they do, they’re not going to accept the risks to do a peace agreement with them. And frankly, the current Palestinian leadership is probably neither willing nor able to do such a deal.
President Abbas is now, I think, eighty-three years old. I’d point out he’s in about the thirteenth year of his five-year term, which is to say the institutions aren’t functioning properly. He is deeply unpopular. Some polling just came out on the Palestinian side showing that he lacks legitimacy and support. So even if somehow miraculously he was willing to go to the table and cut a deal with Netanyahu—and now you’re really sort of in the realm of fantasy—he probably couldn’t sell it back home.
So the answer to your question is yes, you probably need different Israeli domestic politics to get this done, but you also probably need different Palestinian politics as well.
MCMAHON: Thanks for that question.
Operator, can we have another one, please?
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Washington and Lee University.
Please be aware your line is now live, if you can unmute your phone.
Our next question is from Prairie View A&M University.
Q: Good afternoon. Kayla (sp) from LaSalle’s Political Science Department.
With so much disdain surrounding and so much dispute around the Trump administration’s decision, why does it seem that America has to have a foreign policy to intervene with this? Why can’t another political power such as Norway come up with a solution?
GORDON: So if people didn’t hear the question, it’s, why does it have to be the U.S. to intervene in such situations, why can’t, you know, someone else like Norway take the lead?
I mean, first of all, there are a lot of people now saying the U.S. as the leader on this issue has failed, the U.S. as an honest broker has shown that it can’t play that role, and it’s time to move on to others and others are potentially involved. Russia sometimes wants a role, the European Union has always had a big interest and cares a lot about this issue and wants to play a role.
So far—and maybe we’re entering new territory now, and I think the caller mentioned something about, you know, skepticism about the Trump administration, both in the region and around the world—maybe we’re entering a new era in which it doesn’t have to be the U.S. and somebody else can take the lead and maybe even get something done.
The reality has been, so far for years and decades, that the United States is still the most important actor primus inter pares. It provides $3 billion a year to Israel in terms of military and security assistance, has deep cultural and political commitments to Israel. It has also, however, been able to engage on the Palestinian side and has sought at least to play an honest-broker role to bring the two parties together because of its interests in peace. It has very strong and important relationships with neighboring Arab states, so it has influence on them. It has massive amounts of economic leverage it can use. It is still the most powerful military power in the region and has traditions of, you know, diplomacy and negotiation and leadership, it’s a U.N. Security Council member, has a veto.
So until now, the U.S. has always been primus inter pares and the most important actor. I think it still is. But yes, we do seem to be entering a new era whereby others are now questioning the U.S. role. I think the developments over the past year where the U.S. is clearly taking sides in the conflict to a degree that it never did before and one side, the Palestinians, are no longer willing to speak to the U.S. about it, which is new and hasn’t been the case for decades, will lead others to play a greater role, try to take more of a leadership role, but in the end, probably will, you know, have no better luck. And it’s hard to see how this gets done without the United States.
And another factor, of course, is that Americans seem to be getting increasingly fed up with this role and questioning why they should be providing assistance and running risks and be involved in the Middle East. And indeed, President Trump himself has been one of the lead skeptics and many of his supporters about U.S. involvement in the Middle East and thinks we spend too much money and political capital.
So if the U.S. really does start turning inward and getting out of the business of global leadership, then others will increasingly fill the vacuum, whether that’s Europeans or Russians or Chinese or, you know, you mentioned Norway and Norway is a key player and drives a lot of economic assistance and has lots of diplomats, but probably will never have the geopolitical heft to be able to do what, so far at least, only the United States has really been in a position to even try to do.
MCMAHON: All right. Thanks for that good question.
Operator, do you have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Our next question now comes from Washington and Lee University.
Q: Hi. My name is Julia Badovic (ph) from Washington and Lee University.
And you said that you were skeptical of the new approach taken by the Trump administration. But do you think that actions taken by that administration could serve as a catalyst for escalated violence and terrorism in the region?
GORDON: That is certainly a risk. And, you know, one reason that previous administrations, Republican and Democrat, have sought to resolve the issue and play an honest-broker role is their fear of the consequences of failing to do so.
And there is a risk, if especially Palestinians lose hope in any prospect of peace and feel like the United States and others are turning against them, that there is a risk of turning back the violence, which was something that they had turned to in the past on numerous occasions, to resist what they see as foreign occupation and the denial of any satisfactory future. And so far, in recent years at least, that’s been a sort of dog that hasn’t barked in their region. There have been a few incidents and I wouldn’t minimize any of them, been serious, you know, killings and stabbings and car rammings in Jerusalem and people killed, but the violence has been relatively limited, at least compared to previous conflicts or intifadas and when you have, you know, very significant terrorism.
So I think, you know, so far, it’s been relatively calm. Like I mentioned, both sides are more focused on their domestic politics and waiting to see how that plays out. But, you know, all you need to do is look to the explosive situation in Gaza to imagine how it could explode further and spread across the West Bank. In Gaza, you’ve seen where there’s also no hope and Hamas has taken over because the Palestinian Authority wasn’t able to deliver, you have these marches towards the border of people demanding right to what they consider back in their homeland—which is for Israelis Israel—and Israelis, you know, stopping them at the barrier, the fence. And there are many people in Gaza responding with either rockets or lighting kites on fire and sending them over the barrier to start fires in Israel or digging tunnels and pursuing kidnappings and terrorism. And a number of Palestinians have been killed in this context, in the—in the context of those protests.
So you can easily see how some incident—these things usually flare up when there’s an incident, a kidnapping, a killing, somebody gets shot. And the risk of that sort of incident combined with lack of hope for the future is exactly the sort of thing that could lead to more terrorism or violence. So it’s why those of us who care about this issue keep coming back to the need for negotiations or some hope for the people on the ground, because without it, you do run the risk of violent escalation. And that’s in the shorter term.
In the longer term, as I already said, the risk is that if a basis for a two-state solution isn’t found, it just raises profound questions about what the alterative to that is. And I think that, and some of the recent polling suggests this, especially younger Palestinians are giving up hope on a two-state solution and turning not necessarily towards violence, although many of them are. And again, check out these recent polls that were just released yesterday or today, among Palestinians where I think thirty, thirty-nine percent maybe even support an armed struggle as the solution to their problems, which is something to be very concerned about.
But many are turning to just the prospect of demographic change and a one-state solution, and the Israelis are saying, fine, if we’re not going to have our own state, then we’ll take over the whole—the whole area and eventually use our numbers to have one state that will dominate. And that raises questions. If you want to see Israel remain a secure and democratic and Jewish state, it’s hard to see how that happens if there’s not a Palestinian—not a homeland for Palestinians, but one state.
So, yes, frankly, and that’s the concern about, I think, the most recent Trump administration approach is that it does—it does risk leading to that hopelessness that raises those two short and long-term risks I’ve just described.
MCMAHON: Phil, just to add quickly to that, it’s also been suggested that by the U.S. now cutting off aid to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency that there could be a vacuum filled by Islamic militant groups, especially in the Gaza Strip.
GORDON: Exactly. And, you know, that has never been an ideal, you know, situation where you have these descendants of refugees living in camps in, you know, in the West Bank or in Jordan or other neighboring states and they’re just maintained on international assistance. That’s a far from ideal solution while waiting for a peace deal to, you know, give them some more permanence, but it beats not having that assistance, because then you have, you know, hundreds of thousands or millions of people who no longer have homes or health care or any prospects and medical care.
And, you know, I think it’s this latest decision, which almost seems out of peak, to cut not only the assistance to U.N. refugees, but directly to Palestinians, including more hospitals in East Jerusalem where they’re getting vital medical care because of what, you know, President Trump says is not treating us with respect and out of this vague hope that if we just get tough they’ll come back to the table and reach a compromise. That’s just—that’s just not realistic. And the result of that is not only, I think, you know, increased suffering for the Palestinian refugees and other Palestinians, but increased risk for Israelis, which is in nobody’s interest.
MCMAHON: OK, thank you.
Operator, is there another question, please?
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Nicole Bibbins Sedaca with Georgetown University.
MCMAHON: Please go ahead.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Ben Boukai with Georgetown University.
Q: Hi. This is Ben-Ari Boukai. I’m at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown.
You spoke a bit about the decline in hope on both sides’ populations. I was wondering, what are some tangible steps that can be taken, perhaps not a solution, but leading towards one in the long term, which brings back hope to both sides’ populations? Thank you.
GORDON: Well, that’s a good question that takes us back to the beginning. I mean, real prospects for—Israelis want not only to preserve their state, but to live in a Jewish homeland with peace and security. And Palestinians want autonomy, sovereignty, prosperity and security. And most of us who have looked at this issue think that the best and indeed only way to satisfy those interests of the two sides would be in a negotiated settlement that resolves the core issues and provides each side with a state that meets those conditions.
And as difficult as the core issues are that I described at the beginning—and they’re really hard and nobody should pretend otherwise—most people who have looked at this usually end up in a similar place on those core issues. And there, you know, there have been countless proposals, even including, you know, I dare say, what we tried to do in the Obama administration in putting forward a framework, that would leave neither side perfectly content, but would largely satisfy the basic needs of both sides.
Now, are there compromises that would have to be made? Of course. And are there risks involved? No one could guarantee that it would work. But nobody has come up with a better alternative. And the problem now is it’s not even clear that good-faith, genuine efforts on both sides could resolve those issues because they’re so hard, but there doesn’t even seem to be those good-faith efforts, and that’s what’s really led to the hopelessness and, I think, despair on both sides.
So the specific answer to your question of, you know, what would it take, it would take leadership in the United States, in Israel and among Palestinians that seem genuinely committed to getting this done, as hard as it is. There have been times in the past where I think that hope existed, you know, even going back to Oslo—and Bob mentioned the twenty-fifth anniversary—and, you know, the great hope that many had at that time that there was that commitment on both sides. And the parties have been close at different times before where there was reason to believe that such compromises would be made. I don’t think that’s the case now.
So people have to do some real soul-searching on, you know—among all three parties that I have mentioned. If they don’t want the outcome of all this to be hopelessness and some of the risks, short and long-term risks that I already described, they need to find a way of demonstrating a genuine commitment to at least try to resolve these issues that are hard, but I think still not unresolvable.
MCMAHON: Thank you.
Operator, next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Nicole Bibbins Sedaca with Georgetown University.
Q: This is Alex Peter from the master’s of science in foreign service course at Georgetown University.
Can you hear me?
MCMAHON: Yes, we can.
Q: Perfect. What is your opinion on the changing state of relations between Middle Eastern states and Israel in light of their perceived existential threat of Iran and the subsequent impacts that that will have on regional support to the Palestinians?
GORDON: I think the change in relations between Israel and most states is real and significant. And you’re right to flag Iran in this context.
There is no doubt—I mean, people talk about a new strategic realignment in the region and that is certainly taking place. Right now—and that’s why, to be honest, the issue that we’re talking about, as important as it is, has somewhat receded in the sort of regional landscape and diplomacy partly because there are so many other urgent and pressing issues—like Syria and Iran and Yemen and Egypt—have sort of overshadowed this issue.
But because of that changing regional dynamic and the importance of some other issues, there is no doubt that many of Israel’s Arab neighbors have a common interest with Israel in containing Iran and standing up to Iran. And if you look at Saudi Arabia, some of the other Gulf states, their strategic priority is far more focused on containing Iran in the region than it is on the Palestinian issue. And that has led to a real change in their relations with Israel and the way they think about Israel. So as a—as a first point, I just—I think that’s important to acknowledge.
But as an important second point, which is more directly related to the issue that we’re discussing on this call today, I don’t think anyone should think that it’s enough to transform the Palestinian issue or lead to a full and public alliance between the Arab states and Israel, especially where the Palestinian issue is concerned.
There is a—there’s a structural difference between the interests of the two sides, so by that I mean Israel and some of its Arab neighbors. Israel has every interest in making that cooperation and solidarity with Arab states as public as possible because they want to show that it’s—that they’re accepted in the region and they have allies and partners and they all agree on containing Iran, and that would legitimize Israel and get the Arabs on their side. So Israel wants to cooperate with them publicly and visibly. The Arab states, however, want to keep that cooperation as invisible as possible because their publics are still largely hostile to Israel, even if the leaderships see eye-to-eye with Israel on some strategic matters.
And as I briefly mentioned before, you have this competition in the region going on between the, at least, leaderships of the Arab Gulf states on one side and the leaders of countries or movements that support Islamism or political Islam, by which, again, I mean Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, and Qatar. And so that’s where the Palestinian issue comes in. And I think you’re just not going to see countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates want to publicly and visibly be siding with Israel against the Palestinians, which would give that issue to their adversaries in the—in the Muslim world.
So to sum up, yes, there’s a new dynamic between Arab states and Israel. It’s real and it’s important, but it’s also limited. And it’s not going to be the key to solving these issues. And I think the Trump administrational initially held out a lot of hope that the new dynamic would change everything and that you’d get support for a peace plan that was supported not just by the Israeli government, but by key Arab states as well and they would pressure the Palestinians to come to the table and agree with it. That hasn’t happened and it’s unlikely to happen for the reasons I said, which takes us back to square one.
Ultimately, this deal, if it’s going to be done, needs to be done between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and neither the United States nor the Arab states are going to be able to force the Palestinians to accept something that they otherwise wouldn’t accept.
MCMAHON: Thanks for that great question.
Operator, do we have another one, please?
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Spelman College.
MCMAHON: Please go ahead.
Q: Hi. My name is Pegin Horton (ph) from Spelman College. I’m an international studies senior.
My question is, if the United States’ new strategy is to kind of force Palestine to come back to the table after they have cut humanitarian aid and funding while at the same time giving the largest military aid to Israel, what type of implications do you think that has on the people living within the nation? Already we have seen the violence from the great march that you have mentioned and then Israel’s current nation-state bill.
Also, what do you think that the results of positive incentives could have in the region, considering that there is space among Palestinians who are losing faith in both Hamas and Fatah and a U.S. positive incentive among Palestinians could create a better relationship between Palestinians and the United States?
GORDON: Thanks for that. I think if the logic of this, quote/unquote, “new approach,” as you say, to cut off aid and force the Palestinians back to the table, if the logic is to do that, if that’s what people think it will result in, I think they’re wrong. And on the contrary, I think the risk of violence and hopelessness and support for groups like Hamas will actually grow.
I mean, if you just think about it from a Palestinian point of view, for the United States to be saying, well, you know, it’s too bad for these refugees, they were kicked out of their country, they don’t have anywhere to go, but we’re just not going to support them anymore until you accept a peace agreement along the lines that Israel dictates and, in addition, we’re not going to give you direct assistance on purely humanitarian grounds because you, quote/unquote, you know, “haven’t treated us with sufficient respect” and we’re going to—again, the most—arguably, the most sensitive issue of all—just take Israel’s side and expect you to support it, I just don’t think the—you know, just think about this in human terms. Most people don’t react to that by saying, OK, I see your point, we’ll come to the table and agree to things along your lines.
They have, you know, they have the biggest stake of all in this. And I think the more likely outcome unfortunately is that they say fine, if that’s the way you want to treat us, maybe these guys in Hamas are right, maybe violence is the solution and that’s the way we get things done. Maybe terrorism will force the other side to come back to the table because we don’t have the advantage of a major country that can give us military assistance, so we’ll have to desperately turn to whatever means we can find. And, you know, whatever you might think about that reaction, I think you have to acknowledge that there’s a real risk that that is the reaction. And then it raises the question, is that in our interests?
So I do fear that the result of this latest cutoff to Palestinians to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency and in direct assistance is counterproductive. I think it’s wrong on the humanitarian level, but I also think it’s wrong on a strategic level and it’s going to backfire. It’s not going to bring the Palestinians back to the table, but it will make them even more hopeless about a two-state solution and more inclined to look for support from Hamas or Iran, which is not exactly, I think, in the United States’ interest.
And this is a reminder that you’re listening to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. We’re speaking with Phil Gordon of CFR about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
We have time, I think we can fit in another question.
So, operator, please let us know who the next question is from.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Indiana University.
Q: Hi. I’m Nathan Ryder (ph), international studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.
So my question is, Palestine is arguably not united. The West Bank is governed by Palestinian Authority while Hamas has arguable control in Gaza. Palestinian Authority advocates for peace with Israel; Gaza advocates for Israel’s destruction. What would need to happen to unite these two provisional governments? If this can’t be mitigated, should a three-state solution be advocated for?
GORDON: This is really—it’s another intelligent and difficult question, difficult because I think most analysts agree that you need more Palestinian unity in order to have a partner and reach an agreement, but nobody has been able to come up with a recipe for achieving that Palestinian unity.
On the question of Gaza, it’s been U.S. policy for some time to try to reestablish a Palestinian Authority ruling Gaza, so at least you’d at least nominally have a unified Palestinian government committed to two states and recognition of Israel. But the people of Gaza instead turned to Hamas because they were so desperate they felt their interests could only be protected through violence. And the Palestinian Authority has been both too weak and unwilling to take the risk of trying to reestablish its authority. So the goal, there’s no question that the goal should be bringing the Palestinians together, but we have not been successful in achieving that goal.
You ask, in the absence of that, does a three-state solution make sense? And again, you know, I think we should be open to anything. You know, given the full track record of things we’ve tried in the past, we should have an open mind about anything. And if Palestinians in the West Bank were willing to cut a deal without Gaza, then at least as a stepping stone that shouldn’t be ruled out. But clearly, I think, there’s not going to be a, you know, a partial solution on the Palestinian side. It’s hard to see how that works with a comprehensive peace deal with the West Bank while Gaza remains in Hamas’ hands and unresolved.
I mean, right now there’s a lot of thinking about the other direction, starting with a deal on Gaza, and there are some serious talks going on now about how to deal with the situation in Gaza. But I think, ultimately, this is hard enough between the two sides, the Palestinian side and the Israeli side. If you inject three different parties, because you—it becomes even more complicated, and then you’d have Hamas and those in Gaza trying to undermine that peace with the Palestinians. And unfortunately, violence might well be successful.
So it’s a fair question. It’s a hard question. But I think it’s not the solution to sort of give up on Palestinian unity and try to negotiate different arrangements with different Palestinian representatives.
MCMAHON: And we’re going to wrap up on that cautionary note.
I want to first thank Phil very much for helping us navigate this complicated terrain, to say the least.
And thanks to all of you around the country for your excellent questions and comments.
Our next call in this series will take place on Wednesday, September 19 at 12 p.m. with Madeleine Albright, chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group and professor in practice in diplomacy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She’s also, obviously, the former U.S. secretary of state. And she will be leading a conversation on the rise of authoritarian nationalism.
In the meantime, I encourage you to follow CFR Campus on Twitter @CFR_Campus for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events.
Thanks again for joining us today. We look forward to your continued participation this fall. And that concludes this call.