Media Call: Middle East Peace Plan

Middle East Peace Plan

Trump and Netanyahu announce the peace plan at the White House Tuesday. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images
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Middle East

U.S. Foreign Policy

Donald Trump

CFR experts discuss President Donald J. Trump's Middle East peace plan.


Martin S. Indyk

Lowy Distinguished Fellow in U.S.-Middle East Diplomacy

Philip H. Gordon

Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy


Carla Anne Robbins

Senior Fellow

ROBBINS: Thank you so much and welcome to everyone. We’re very lucky to have with us today Martin Indyk and Phil Gordon to discuss the Trump peace proposal. You all know who they are, but just some very quick highlights from their distinguished careers. Keep in mind that both of them have extensive experience in peace negotiations, on this topic itself.

Ambassador Indyk is a distinguished fellow at the Council. He served as U.S. special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from July 2013 to June 2014, U.S. ambassador to Israel from ’95 to ’97 and again from 2000 to 2001. He also served as a special assistant to President Clinton and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the NSC, and as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

And Phil Gordon is the Mary and David Boies senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Council. He was special assistant to the president, White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa and the Gulf region from 2013 to 2015, working with Martin as well, and before that served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

I’m Carla Robbins. I have three decades in journalism, most recently at the Times and before that the Journal. And I’m an adjunct senior fellow at the Council and run a master’s program CUNY. And Martin is in Israel as we speak, and Phil has just come back. So they both have a lot of experience—recent experience on the ground itself.

So you all have read the aspects of these plans, which 181 pages. President Trump called it the deal of the century and, quote, “overly good to the Palestinians.” Phil, let’s start—can you just highlight what you think are a few of the most important points of the plan?

GORDON: Sure, Carla. Thanks. And thanks, everyone, for joining.

I would actually begin answering that question by saying I think it’s the way the plan was developed and presented that’s even more important than the particulars. Now, the particulars are important, and we’ll talk about them, but the most strike, and important, and consequential aspect of this is that it’s really a U.S.-Israeli plan that has been presented to Palestinians more or less as a fait accompli, that they didn’t have any input on.

As you know, the administration hasn’t talked officially or in a serious way to the Palestinians for more than two years. Now, that’s partly on the Palestinians, who cut off the contact when the U.S. announced the move to of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and then took other steps like cutting assistance to the Palestinians, cutting refugee assistance, and recognizing Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights. But nonetheless, whoever you want to blame for that, the reality is that this didn’t really get significant Palestinian input.

And it was announced by the president of the United States standing alongside the Prime Minister of one of the parties, but not the other. So, you know, already there there’s something about this. And I think that fact, combined with the details of the plan, really means—I don’t really even see this as a peace plan, but more a codification of Israeli positions on key issues. It really aligns itself with positions—I mean, you mentioned Martin and I worked on this very closely in 2014-2015. Martin’s worked on it for a long time. We’re very familiar with the positions of the two sides. And this plan is pretty much going down the list of key issues, that have always been final status issues for the parties to decide, and pretty much writing them up as the Israelis would prefer to write them up.

So on territory, you know, essentially Israel gets to keep pretty much all of the settlements. There’s always been a debate about, you know, how much land Israel would have to give back. You know, most Americans have thought that they wouldn’t go all the way back to the 1967 borders, but in this plan they pretty much keep all of the settlements that they are currently holding. And there’s some token land swaps, but if you look carefully at the land swaps they mostly consist of desert. So the Israelis get the settlements that they’ve built, and the Palestinians get desert.

On security, it basically leaves Israeli in control of the airspace, sea space. The Palestinians are entirely demilitarized, and the Israelis even have the right to go back into areas where they give Palestinians responsibility for security. On refugees, the Palestinians don’t even get a symbolic number returning to Israel. So, again, it aligns with the Israeli position. On Gaza—this is almost like a poison pill in the agreement—on Gaza it basically says that none of this happens unless the Palestinian Authority or some other entity takes over Gaza from the armed militants in Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist groups that are there, and disarms it. So, you know, all of the other reasons for skepticism aside, that’s a pretty big one because nobody knows how that’s going to happen anytime soon.

And on maybe the most sensitive issue of all, Jerusalem, the administration long signaled or touted that this was going to be a balanced plan because it might have a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. And what it ends up having, if all of these other conditions are met, and the plan is agreed, and implemented, and so on, that the Palestinians do sort of get a capital in Jerusalem, but it’s really in the far outskirts of Jerusalem. And Israel would be in charge of and keep everything that’s currently within the security barrier that they’ve built, which is pretty much all of Jerusalem. It’s something it’s hard to see the Palestinians accepting.

So that’s my take on what the most important issues are. In the context of, you know, the facts of the way the plan was presented as all those details. But those details, to me, mean that it’s not really a serious effort to launch negotiations but rather underscoring and, as I say, codifying Israeli positions. And finally, my last point on this, is you don’t have to be too cynical to suspect that it’s not really even designed to get the Palestinians to agree, because I don’t know anybody who seriously thinks they would, but rather a path—aside from all the domestic political issues that we’ll no doubt get into—but a path to ensure Palestinian rejection, which is a greenlight for the Israelis, backed by the Trump administration, to say: Well, we put out a good plan. They won’t talk to us. And therefore, Israel might as well go ahead and do what it needs to do.


ROBBINS: Thank you.

So, Martin, so are there doves being released in—where you are in Jerusalem? And how are the Israelis reacting to it? And are the Americans and the Israelis describing this in exactly the same way?

INDYK: Thanks Carla. Hello, everybody. Shalom from Tel Aviv, actually, not Jerusalem.

The plan, I would say, is very welcome here in Israel by and large. I think a poll today showed, like, 66 percent welcome it, 19 percent oppose it. I’ll come back to the opponents in a moment because they’re politically important. But overall, this is welcomed and endorsed both by Netanyahu, of course, and therefore the Likud, but also the labor—excuse me—Blue and White Party of Benny Gantz has embraced this, as manifested in Gantz’s visit to the White House the day before the plan was announced. And people generally think this is great. They are not bothered by the fact that it’s going to make it impossible for the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table, because they don’t believe the Palestinians will ever come to the negotiating table. They view the Palestinians as—that they’re not a partner. They said no to generous offers. And so it’s time for the Palestinians to understand that time is not on their side, and maybe that’ll make a difference to their attitude.

So only, I think, a few on the left are concerned about the way in which this is unfair and unbalanced when it comes to what’s being offered to the Palestinians. Most welcome it particularly of the position it takes on issues like Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. Settlements are more controversial within Israel, but not controversial enough to—for anybody to oppose the idea that they should become—all of them—should become part of Israel. So overall, it’s welcomed. I was just going back to the hotel to do this call, and the taxi driver called out to me. He said: Indyk! He said: God bless Trump. And I think that kind of sums up the attitude here.

It is, of course, five weeks from an election. Netanyahu was dragging in the polls. Gantz and his Blue and White Party were ahead—had moved ahead by about four seats—something that had not happened in the previous polls before the previous two elections. And I have to say, I talked to a lot of politicians the day that the plan came out, but before it was announced. And on left and right they all assumed that Gantz was going to be the next prime minister, especially when, before the plan came out, Netanyahu was indicted. And that kind of put aside the whole issue of whether he could avoid the indictment through immunity and so on. So there was a general feeling that everything was going Gantz’s way.

The plan, with Netanyahu standing next to Trump, getting this cornucopia of presents from the president, plus the clear statement by the president that Israel could go ahead and annex the territories. He didn’t use those words, but Israeli sovereignty could be extended immediately to the Jordan Valley and the settlements. And that was reinforced by a statement from U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and the envoy—the new envoy, Avi Berkowitz, that they expected that Israel would go ahead and annex straightaway.

That gave Bibi a huge boost, reinforced by the fact that he is at this moment on his way to Moscow, supposedly to brief Putin on the deal of the century, showing to the Israeli public that he can move between these two superpowers. But he will come back from Moscow most probably with this Israeli woman who’d been incarcerated for a minor drug offense. And the headlines this evening were also that Pollard is going to be coming to Israel before the elections.

So Bibi is pulling out all the stops, which a man facing a jail sentence could be expected to do. But it is having an impact. And I saw a poll today that showed that Gantz’s lead in the polls had been reversed. And now the Likud was four seats ahead of Blue and White. So I think that overall the plan has served its purpose, which I’ve been saying for a long time has been—Trump’s purpose has been to help Bibi get reelected, so Bibi can help Trump get reelected. And you saw it yesterday if you watched the rollout of the plan. Netanyahu was sure to say President Trump is the best president Israel has ever had. And that was a message going straight to the Evangelical community.


ROBBINS: So on substance, and this is—you know, still, not to be too cynical. (Laughs.) Yes. Is anyone taking this seriously? I mean, there were at the White House on Tuesday the ambassadors from the UAE, from Bahrain, and Oman were there. The Saudis were not there, although the Saudis have put out a statement since then. Shall we consider it that they’re—that anyone is taking this seriously? The Palestinians must be taking it seriously, if only to express their fury. Or is this going to be sort of it’s all focused on the Israeli election, somewhat on the American election, and we’re going to forget it six months from now?

GORDON: I mean, I think there are different definitions of taking seriously. It depends what you mean. You mentioned the Arab states. And it’s true that a couple of them showed up at the ceremony, and that most of them have put out broad statements. But if you look at the statements carefully, they’re really neither supporting it nor rejecting it. None of these countries want to issue flat-out rejections to Donald Trump. I mean, he’s shown the way he does business, and it would be costly to them to offend the United States and this administration. So they are not exactly denouncing it, in the way the Palestinians are. But they’re also not fully embracing it. Most of them said something along the lines of, you know, we urge the parties to engage in constructive direct talks to resolve these issues.

And I don’t think—I think the administration has put a lot of hope in the Arabs to help deliver the Palestinians. And I suspect they’ll be disappointed, because while the Arabs don’t want to offend the administration, they also—there’s only so far that they can go in twisting Palestinian arms and in being seen in the region, vis-à-vis their own publics and other countries in the region, as taking the Israeli side against the Palestinians. And, you know, especially on the issue of Jerusalem for the Saudis—and, as you noted, the Saudi ambassador wasn’t there—for the Saudis to sort of take Israel’s side, so to speak, and give a political gift to Iran and Turkey, and whoever else might want to denounce them for selling out Muslims on Jerusalem, is just not a risk they can take.

So are they taking it seriously? You know, at least one of the Arab countries said: This is a serious plan. We should look at it seriously. But I don’t think that that means they really expect the Palestinians to agree to it. You know, otherwise, as Martin said, I think the Israelis are taking it seriously but, again, not in the sense of, oh, this is a good basis for likely talks. But rather, this is a good basis to implement what we want to do. So like I said in the initial comment, I don’t know anyone who really believes that it’s serious in the sense of a plan likely to lead to negotiations that would in turn lead to an agreement between the two sides.

And I mentioned, you know, some of the specifics in there. It’s just really difficult to imagine the Palestinians ever agreeing to some of those things. Keep in mind, we mentioned our effort, I guess six years ago now, to do this, even then with what you might argue was extensive efforts to get the Palestinians on board. We weren’t even that close to getting them to engage then, right? President Abbas got a lot of criticism then for refusing even to engage seriously on that plan. And this one takes that plan and pretty much writes it up in a much more pro-Israel direction. So it’s just hard to see why, if they wouldn’t engage on previous plans, including the most recent one, they’ll suddenly come around.

I think the theory of the case of the administration is and was—and this is the only extent to which I think you can actually take it seriously on the substance—the theory of the case was in this case they’ll do it because they’re not going to be given any choice. Trump has shown he’s willing to cut off their assistance, and close the PLO office in Washington, and close the U.S. consulate that dealt with the Palestinians in Jerusalem, and squeeze them so that they have no choice. And to offer, to be fair, the plan has a strong economic component. And the idea is that they will bite the bullet on all of these difficult diplomatic, and geopolitical, and security issues in exchange for more money and a better life. So that’s the—that’s the theory of the case, to the extent it’s serious.

I happen to believe it is also deeply flawed and misunderstands the way things work. You know, Jared Kushner’s a businessman. Donald Trump is a businessman. They seem to have been approaching this solely in that way. You know, here’s a deal. There’s some more money for your side if you agree to the deal. But I think that overlooks issues of nationalism, and dignity, and pride, and politics. And therefore, it’s not surprising that, you know, the Palestinians didn’t show up at their economic conference. And I don’t think there’s any realistic prospect that the offer of money and infrastructure will get them to swallow turning everything else—security, territory, Jerusalem, Gaza, whatever—in Israel’s direction.

ROBBINS: So I just want—for everyone listening in—we’re going to just do one more question together, and then we’re going to throw it open to questions for people who have called in. But, Martin, what does this substantively change on the ground? Does it have any impact on the politics or the balance of power between the PA and Hamas? Do we see Israeli troops deployed in different ways because of annexation? What does this actually change?

INDYK: Well, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are now united in opposition to the plan. But their rivalry is still just there beneath the surface. I think the Palestinians are in a very hard place now. They know that they’re not getting the support they would have hoped for from the Arab states, as Phil explained. They would have much preferred the Arab states to denounce it. Bear in mind that Trump has legitimized Israeli sovereignty over all of East Jerusalem, except for a sliver that’s on the other side of the barrier and wall that Israel has built through East Jerusalem.

But I don’t know what the exact percentage is, but it’s something like 90 percent of East Jerusalem will come under Israeli sovereignty in this plan—including the old city, including the Muslim and Christian quarters of the old city, and most important of all including the Al-Aqsa Mosque and what the Arabs—Muslims call the Haram esh-Sharif, what Jews call the Temple Mount. But the idea that they would have to concede sovereignty to Israel over those areas, which are generally Arab areas and Muslim areas, is something that I think the Palestinians would expect the Arab world to reject, particularly the Saudis. And yet, the Saudis are coming out and saying, well, you know, we should negotiate the differences here, with a kind of semi-endorsement of Trump’s plan because, as Phil says, they don’t want to alienate Trump.

And so it is with the other as well. The Egyptians, but not the Jordanians. And there, in terms of what changed on the ground, if the annexation of the West Bank goes ahead—and Netanyahu had announced originally yesterday that he was going to take it to the Cabinet on Sunday for a decision on annexation of the Jordan Valley—that seems to be held up at the moment and I’ll come back to that in a second. But if the annexation goes ahead, as I think it will in the next week or so, this will put King Abdullah of Jordan in a very difficult position. He’s already facing difficulties at home. He’s unpopular, the economy is in trouble, people are unhappy. If Jordan is severed from the West Bank by Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley, there’s a potential for real trouble there.

And I say that—I’m basically quoting senior Israeli officials and military officials that I’ve spoken to here in the last couple of days, that this is—could be a real problem for them a well, if the king faces instability as a result of the annexation. So that’s where, you know, there could be an immediate problem on the ground. Will there be a third Intifada, an uprising by the Palestinians? I don’t think so. They haven’t—they didn’t rise up in the West Bank after Trump announced recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And Abu Mazen up to now had kept tight control on his people there, fearing an outbreak of the Intifada. I’m not sure what he will do. He may resign. Or more extreme, he may collapse the Palestinian Authority. I don’t think he’ll do that. There’s too much in it for him and his cronies. But he may take some action now that kind of upsets the table. And he obviously will be going to the Arab League, and there will be an Arab League meeting. And it’ll be interesting to see how the Arabs handle that, caught between Trump and the Palestinians on this issue.

ROBBINS: And so what should we be watching for in the next—in addition to that—in the next—in the next few months? I mean, if Trump is reelected, is this the end of his involvement, if this is the big peace plan? This is—there’s a four-year lag in this process now. The Israelis get to do their annexation. The Palestinians don’t have to respond. Is this now something that Trump promised them and it’s not the backburner, or is there—is there more work to be done here?

INDYK: Well, I think the original concept that Jared Kushner, the architect of the plan, and Jason Greenblatt had was that they would put out this what is in effect a white paper, a discussion paper. It doesn’t have any process connected to it. They’re not—it’s not as if they’re about to go out and talk to both sides about how they’re going to bring them to the negotiating table. The idea was originally that they would sit and be discussed by all sides and see how—what would develop out of that in terms of a process. And I think that Jared Kushner still wants to go down that road. He certainly wants to keep the Arabs involved.

Annexation is something that I think Ambassador Friedman is pushing, together with Netanyahu, in order to help Netanyahu get reelected. And there’s a certain tension there. You saw it yesterday—today in that yesterday Friedman came out and said annexation can go ahead immediately. And Jared Kushner came out and said: Well, the annexation’s not going ahead this week. And I think they’re caught between wanting to have a process and wanting Netanyahu reelected. And annexation is what Netanyahu needs. And if you would allow me to take just a minute to explain this.

The one group of people that have a real problem with this plan in Israel is the right wing. The parties to the right of Israel and the settlers. Why? You would they think they were getting a great deal out of this. No. They are absolutely opposed to a Palestinian state, absolutely opposed to even one inch of Area C, which is under Israeli control—60 percent of the West Bank—they’re opposed to even one inch of that going to the Palestinians. And the Trump plan proposed that 50 percent of Area C, of the equivalent of 30 percent of the West Bank, go to the Palestinians. And within that 30 percent, according to the map, there are about 10,000 settlers who would be stuck in the Palestinian—inside the Palestinian territories. They’re in unauthorized settlements. And so there’s a big question mark about what’s going to happen to them.

So the right-wing is not happy with this plan at all. And they are—in order to keep them behind him and keep his bloc together, Netanyahu has to go ahead with the annexation. But if Jared Kushner wants to keep the Arabs on board, he has to slow down the annexation. And there’s an interesting tension there, which we should watch it play out in the next—in the next few weeks.

GORDON: Carla, maybe I could just add one thing to that on your question about, you know, what next and timetables.

ROBBINS: Yes, please.

GORDON: Is everything Martin describes underscores that there is a window here, it’s not necessarily narrow but it’s finite. If Netanyahu, backed by some Americans including Ambassador Friedman, want to get this done, it’s clear right now for them, this is the prime time to do it. They have an American president who has indicated that he is essentially willing to give them a greenlight for anything they want to do. He’s already done it on, you know, Jerusalem as the capital, and Golan Heights, and settlements, and even annexation, which not too long ago was seen as a hugely controversial thing. And not too long before that, for Americans, would have been completely anathema. Trump has basically said he’s fine with it. It’s in the U.S. plan.

And that’s part of, I think, Bibi’s electoral message to Israelis. And, you know, we began by saying, and Martin said from Israel that this is quite popular in Israel. Not surprisingly, because it takes the Israeli position on all the contentious issues with the Palestinians. From Netanyahu’s point of view, and that’s part of his electoral argument, let’s do this now. If you elect Bibi Netanyahu now while Trump is in office, then he can go ahead with implementing all of these measures and create more fait accompli, because they’re also aware—I mean, there’s the Netanyahu piece on that side. And supporters of such things are dubious that the Blue and White coalition and Benny Gantz would take the same approach, even though for political and electoral reasons Gantz has to be careful not to look like he’s not also enthusiastic about things like annexing the Jordan Valley. But I think Israelis doubt that he would really be as aggressive as Netanyahu.

And then on the American side, the Israelis are well-aware that Democrats have different views on these things now than the Trump administration. And all of the leading Democratic candidates for president have been clear about their opposition to annexation, and about their questioning about this plan. They have different views on some specific issues, but broadly speaking—and not just the candidates for president. A number of Democratic senators have criticized the plan and its contents. So I think in that sense there’s a sort of timetable or a ticking clock that people are keeping their eyes on, which is part, as I say, of Netanyahu’s case to elect him now and take advantage of this window before—this historic window, before it disappears.

ROBBINS: So let’s throw it open for questions now. Thank you both very much.

And, Operator, do we have our first question?

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We’re currently holding for the questions.

OK. Our first question comes from Terence Smith of PBS NewsHour.

Q: Hi. I very much appreciate this conversation, and think it puts a lot of it into perspective. In the preparation of this plan, Phil or Martin, do you know the degree of coordination and active participation between Netanyahu and Kushner and company? What—I mean, it certainly seems to have his fingerprints—Bibi’s fingerprints all over it. I just wonder if, as a matter of fact, that existed.

INDYK: Certainly, in reading through the plan, the language—some of the language in the plan, as I know from my negotiations with Netanyahu, is his language, and there are a lot of—there are a lot of fingerprints there. I think he was closely involved the drafting of it.

One interesting one, the clear indicator, is that they have in there the possibility that Arab villages in the Galilee, in Israel proper, containing Israeli citizens, Israeli Arab citizens, that they could go to the Palestinian state as part of the swaps. There’s only one man that’s pushed that idea in Israel, and that is in fact Lieberman, who is a thorn in Netanyahu’s side at the moment and really the man responsible for the fact that he’s now been indicted. And that was thrown in there, I believe, by Netanyahu to get Liberman’s support for this plan, and lo and behold Lieberman came out today in support of it.

So I think that it’s all very carefully presented in a way that shows how Netanyahu has had great influence over this. I think the mechanism was through Ron Dermer, his ambassador in Washington, but also Bibi himself when Kushner was in Israel I think was involved in that.

GORDON: Yeah, and keep in mind, of course, that David Friedman, our ambassador, was, you know, a key player in drafting this plan, who, you know, has been in Israel the whole time. So even aside from Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt’s many trips, there was someone on the ground, I think, you know, more or less constantly in touch with Netanyahu.

Q: All right. Well, I always assumed that the original—that the plan itself would have read better in the original Hebrew. (Laughter.)

ROBBINS: Thanks, Terry. Next—

GORDON: There’s even a—there’s a line in one of Netanyahu’s own books that he’s used elsewhere that the Palestinians should have all the powers to run their lives and none of the powers to threaten Israel’s life, and that almost in identical terms shows up in the plan itself.

Q: Yeah, almost word for word.


Q: Thank you.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell, The Mitchell Report.

Q: Thank you both for doing this.

My question is a—it’s somewhere between simple and naïve, but it’s—there’s a part of this that feels a little bit like an Edward Hoffer painting to me because you have—you have ostensibly an agreement that involves three entities—the United States, Israel, and Palestinians—and, of course, there’s no Palestinian involvement at all. So from a practical standpoint—this follows somewhat on the question—Carla’s last question, but perhaps going a little bit beyond that—what actually—in a situation with which we are faced, what things can actually begin to change or happen in the next ninety days or 190 days? I mean, you know, we’re not going to sign a(n) agreement on the—on the deck of an aircraft carrier. We’re not going to—so what actually happens next? What can happen next?

INDYK: Annexation. And why is annexation important? You could say it doesn’t change anything on the ground, but it changes everything on the ground in the sense that annexation becomes extremely difficult if not impossible to reverse, especially since it’s recognized by the United States. Even though a Democratic president might seek to reverse the American position, it will not be easy to do so. Certainly, it would be very difficult for any Israeli government to reverse it. And once there’s annexation of the Jordan Valley and all of the settlements the chances for a viable two-state solution go out the window, notwithstanding the fact that Trump is endorsing a two-state solution in this plan. But in fact, on the ground, with greenlighting annexation, that will put an end to the possibility of ever getting the Palestinians to agree to a deal with Israel. And so we would then be well on the way towards a one-state solution, where Israel essentially controls all of—all of the territory in the West Bank and all of the Palestinians there as well.

ROBBINS: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Peter Rausch (ph), Booz Allen Hamilton.

Q: Hello, guys. Am I off mute?

GORDON: You’re good, yeah.

ROBBINS: You are.

Q: Hi. Hey, good afternoon. I really enjoyed the talk.

Martin touched on the situation in Jordan. I was hoping you guys could elaborate a little bit on it, given the population unrest over there and King Abdullah’s reported unpopularity. So the short-term gains that might be, like you said, from annexation, what could Israel be thinking about right now or the plan be thinking about right now for any way to, you know—or keep stable a previously stabilized situation that’s been kind of a—you know, very, very necessary for Israel’s peace and security over the years? Can you guys elaborate a little bit more on the Jordanian situation?

GORDON: You know, I think Martin already described it. I guess the only thing I would add, I mean, Jordan is feeling huge pressure—economic pressure. The politics of Israel are spilling over in terms of the fact that they have diplomatic relations and economic relations, and yet the Jordanians just have to sit back and watch these developments, of which annexation would be a major step forward. There’s a gas agreement whereby Israel sends gas to Jordan that is increasingly unpopular, and there have been protests in the streets in Jordan and in the parliament objecting to relying on Israel for gas. So it’s just—this would be just one more thing for the Jordanians to swallow at a time that they’re already under great pressure.

There are some in Israel—so in that sense, and as I think Martin said, a lot of the Israeli security establishment itself is worried about the impact of these measures on stability in Jordan. But there are other views in Israel that I don’t know if it’s fair to say welcome this, but do have a longer-term view that Jordan is the Palestinian state. And Martin talked about, you know, right-wing opposition to this plan even though many, including the way I described it, see it as very strongly pro-Israel. There are people in the settler movement who oppose it because they have a different vision. It’s not a vision of a minimalist demilitarized broken-up Palestinian state, but it’s one in which—in which Israel controls all of the West Bank, to which they believe they have every right. And in that scenario, if you get instability in Jordan or the fall of the monarchy, that becomes the Palestinian state. That’s where Palestinian refugees should return. That’s where the millions of Palestinians on the West Bank should end up. So for I would say still most Israelis and for the United States, the impact of these measures on instability in Jordan is something to worry about, but it is worth flagging that for some Israelis it fits into the longer-term solution.

INDYK: Just to add one more point on this, the king is really between a rock and a hard place. He gets, I think, a billion dollars a year from the United States in assistance, much of it for helping absorbing the refugees that have come in from Syria. And he cannot afford—economically, he cannot afford to lose that money. But given the way that Trump behaves, particularly with assistance as we can see in the Ukraine case and in the Palestinian case, he is fearful that if he alienates Trump over this peace issue he’ll lose the money, and he can’t afford to lose it.

On the other hand, he cannot afford to go along with annexation, go along with anything that’s against the Palestinians. He has to be seen to be fully supportive of them. And so, therefore, he’s got to somehow find a way to walk between the raindrops, and it’s going to be very difficult for him if Israel goes ahead with the annexation as they seem set to do.

GORDON: I mean, of all of the Arab states Jordan has been the most overtly critical, and I think the king is hoping he can thread that needle, and that the administration will understand that he has to be more critical and he can’t go as far as some of the others in sort of accepting the plan as a basis.

Q: I hope he can thread that needle. Thank you.


ROBBINS: So I have a—can I ask a question—quick question of both of you? So there is a certain sort of facts-on-the-ground aspect of this. If President Trump is not reelected and a Democratic president comes in, can anyone roll this back from the next administration, or is this the new baseline?

GORDON: I mean, I think it depends on what you mean by “this.” The candidates—you know, on some things that have already been done, like moving the embassy to Jerusalem, I think only Senator Sanders has said that he would move it back. The others have said, you know, some version of I didn’t support the way it was done, and it shouldn’t have been done unilaterally, and there are consequences of that, but we’re not going to, you know, try to turn the clock back and move it back; rather, we’re going to work extra hard so that there’s a Palestinian state and a Palestinian capital too. So that one I wouldn’t imagine any Democrat would reverse.

That said, on things that haven’t been done yet like annexation, the Democratic candidates have been really clearly opposed. And while Martin is right that, you know, if they establish those facts on the ground it wouldn’t necessarily be easy to do, but I would put that in the category of something that could well be revisited. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time that one U.S. administration had taken a position on issues that a subsequent one questioned or reversed. Indeed, you know, Trump touts all the time how he’s doing things differently from his predecessors. There’s the famous George Bush letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004 that the Obama administration said didn’t bind them. And I would imagine that, given the strength of Democratic opposition to annexation and the feeling among, you know, the Democratic base, that that would be in the category of things that the—that a new administration wouldn’t accept even if the previous one allowed it.

And that’s a little bit different—you know, you’re right, facts on the ground like settlements are really hard, or moving an embassy, are particularly hard physically to remove. But annexation is a question of, you know, recognizing in a legal sense who’s in charge. And I think that would be less difficult to reverse, for a new administration to say that it is not our position that this is Israeli territory but rather it is territory to be negotiated, as has been the U.S. position for quite a long time.

ROBBINS: Thanks.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Ethan Bronner, Bloomberg.

Q: (Off mic)—everyone.

I wanted to ask you guys two quick things. One is, what can the Palestinians do about this? I mean, in theory they could stop their cooperation with the Israeli security forces or something. They could kind of promote some kind of intifada. Martin suggested that seemed unlikely. But anyway, what could they do and what do you expect them to do?

And my second question is a little bit what Phil Gordon was saying, this whole thing about the Democrats wouldn’t like it. I’m sure they wouldn’t. But on the other hand, the urgency of the Palestinian question has fallen away dramatically in the last ten years. And I’m wondering whether you think, given the situation with Iran and the Saudis and everything else, that—in fact, that the Democrats, were they to win in November, would make a priority about dealing with this if there is no violence and it’s just sort of lingering along. Thank you.

ROBBINS: Thank you, Ethan.

INDYK: So I think the range of things that the Palestinians can do will start with an Arab League summit. Whether it’s foreign ministers or heads of state I’m not sure, but they’ll—they’re going to convene an Arab League summit very soon, and they will try to lock in the Arab states to a position opposing the plan. You know, as we’ve already discussed, the Arab—a lot of the Arab states are going to be reluctant to do that. So it’ll be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out. They, too, are caught between their need to be seen in front of their publics as supporting the Palestinian cause and their need to avoid alienating Donald Trump.

The issue that I believe Abu Mazen will focus on in that effort to lock in the Arabs in support of his rejection will be Jerusalem. That is always the hot-button issue. And because this plan, as I said before, gives sovereignty over all of the Arab areas that matter in Jerusalem, especially the Ḥaram al-Šarīf/Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest mosque in Islam, you know, is going to be the way that, I think, the Palestinians will try to gin up the support from the Arabs. And the Saudis in particular, King Salman is very sensitive about the Jerusalem issue. So I would expect that that will be one way.

Abu Mazen has threatened a lot—many times to collapse the Palestinian Authority and to give Israel back responsibility over the 40 percent of the West Bank that he now controls. And when he gets into a corner and very frustrated, that’s often the way that he reacts, threatening to do it. But he’s never done it up to now. This might just put him over the edge to do that and leave the Israelis responsible not just for the territory that they now control, but the whole of the West Bank, to try to underscore the challenge for Israel in controlling the Palestinians.

Intifada, as I said, I think it’s unlikely, but it’s possible.

And the fourth thing, I think, is his resignation. He’s old, he’s not well, and he might just throw in the towel. And then you’ve got no leadership in the Palestinian camp. There will be a struggle for power amongst various personalities. There will be a hiatus, obviously, as a result of that, and big question mark about who’s controlling the Palestinian territory. I wouldn’t be surprised if takes that option now, just saying he’s fed up, he’s gone out, and let somebody else take responsibility.

GORDON: I would just add on that, or actually just make a distinction between the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian population, especially the younger population. I agree with Martin that, you know, Abbas has more often threatened to do things like end security cooperation or resign than he’s actually done them because, you know, he has a lot to lose himself. You know, for all the problems they have, he’s still the president and gets all the trappings that go with that. And ending security cooperation, you know, that would have a consequence for Israel, but it would have a consequence for him and the Palestinians too.

On resigning, he has often said, look, you know, I’m eighty-something years old; I don’t need anything. I can go to my home. I don’t need this. But he never pulls the plug because that’s giving up power.

But I think it’s just as important to think about what other Palestinians—you know, Abbas is not particularly popular. He doesn’t have a lot of support. Younger Palestinians, I think they’re—you know, to answer your question about what will the Palestinians do, I think they’ve already moved on from all of this and really just take—they don’t take this peace plan seriously. They don’t expect their leaders to agree with it. They don’t want them to agree with it. But their attitude is, OK, fine, if we’re going to be one state—because that’s where we’re headed—then give us our civil rights within that states. And our—you know, given demographics, there will be at least as many, and soon more, Arabs/Palestinians on this territory than Jews. I think it is already the case that in the areas that Israel controls there are more Arabs and Palestinians, and I think the younger Palestinians now don’t expect any of this to work, and their future will be just to push for their rights within that space. And that’s what—you know, that’s what troubles so many critics of this plan or supporters of a two-state solution, is that when you get to that and Israel just has this, you know, dilemma of having to deny them their rights, and then it’s not a democratic country if it wants to remain a Jewish country.

And you know—

Q: Which, of course, is the reason—sorry, quick—

GORDON: Yes, go ahead. Go ahead.

Q: The other question is the reason that Netanyahu would want to have—pretend that there’s this other state out there, he no longer rules over them.

GORDON: Right, that’s what he is asking them to accept. You know, that’s what doesn’t work here. You’re exactly right. He would like to—you know, it’s sort of having your cake and eat it too. The Israelis can control all the security. They get Jerusalem. They get the territory they need, which essentially would include all of their settlements, you know, even outposts that have been built that most people consider illegally. And then they get to sort of buy off the Palestinians through the economic plan or some diplomatic agreement that has the Palestinians just to agree to these minimal elements for them in the plan, and then, you know, it’s—it is having your cake and eat it too. The problem with that is the Palestinians just don’t seem to be onboard for that, and they’re not going to accept that deal.

I mean, the administration keeps insisting Palestinians’ lives would be better. Essentially, they’re really saying—I mean, so I’ve said before this isn’t a peace plan; it’s sort of a victory plan. It’s basically Israel saying, look, there’s been this conflict for many decades—obviously, even longer than that, but in this recent phase many decades—and we won. And what we’re asking you to do now is codify that, consolidate it in an agreement that basically recognizes that we won. And you know, you can see that argument, and that’s how a lot of conflicts are settled—one side wins. But even under those circumstances, I think it’s unlikely for all the reasons I said before—honor, dignity, nationalism—that the Palestinians will accept what’s being offered to them. And instead, they will—some of them will seek to fight it violently if the PA does collapse. And you know, I think Hamas would be strongly positioned. But others will just—and as I say, that’s my sense of the younger Palestinian generation. Their view is just that, OK, fine, it’s going to be one state, but we want rights within that state, and if—and we’re not going to let you get out of the dilemma of being undemocratic, right?

If we sign on to this deal, then you get to have everything. You get to be a Jewish state. You’re in charge of security. And you’re not violating anybody’s rights because we agreed to it. And I think that younger Palestinians tend to say, no, we’re not going to do that. If you want to rule over us and deny us rights, you’re going to have to—you’re going to have to own that.

Q: And the Democrats, real quickly? Sorry.

GORDON: Well, that actually spills over to the Democrats because it raises that very question, which is one reason I think the Democrats are so strongly opposed to these things.

I guess your specific question was, you know, what would a Democrat actually do? And I think you’re right; this will not be—with everything else on—you know, assuming a Democrat were to win, with everything else on his or her plate, this would not be an area, I would think, that they would find promising to spend a whole bunch of political capital at the start. I don’t know if Martin thinks, but I doubt you would see, you know, a high-level Middle East peace envoy. You know, I think President Obama named George Mitchell on the, you know, second day or something like that. I don’t think you would see that. But I do think you would see—as I said before, I don’t think they would just go along with what came before. I think they would be clear on not lending American support for things like annexation.

Now, some of them have said—and this is where it gets really interesting politically—some of the candidates have actually said that they would start conditioning American security assistance on Israeli policies. I think Senators Sanders and Warren have both said that. Others haven’t gone that far, at least yet, but you know, we haven’t seen where Israeli policies are going to go. And you know, the makeup and attitudes of the Democratic Party on this are also changing to the point where the Democratic politics of it look different from what they have for a long time.

So in that sense I don’t think you could exclude that a Democratic president would take a new look at this relationship. And that’s what I think the Democrats are trying to signal to Israel, that go down this road and you could be threatening not only Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state but the thing that has benefitted you so strongly over the years, which is strong bipartisan support for Israel.

ROBBINS: So we have time for maybe one more question and a sum up.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Rachel Oswald, CQ Roll Call.

Q: Hi. Thank you for doing this, and apologies if this has already been addressed.

But given that the Netanyahu government is largely an interim government, what do you think are the possibilities of successful legal challenges being raised by the left to any attempt between now and elections in March and the formation of a new coalition government to formally annex parts of the West Bank? Thank you.

INDYK: I’m glad you brought that up because I should have mentioned it earlier. The attorney general, who just yesterday got through indicting Netanyahu formally by sending the indictment to the courts, spoke last night at the conference that I’m attending, And he said on the record that as attorney general he doesn’t see that a caretaker government, which is what the Netanyahu government is at the moment—it’s in between these elections—a caretaker government with a majority in the Knesset—which doesn’t have a majority in the Knesset—doesn’t have the legal right to take actions that have such profound consequences for the shape of Israel, such as annexing the settlements and the Jordan Valley. And so he’s made it clear in public that he is going to issue a judgment that the government can’t do this.

If it goes ahead anyway, then it will inevitably go to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court will have to decide. And it probably will decide in favor of the attorney general, because there’s no precedent for a caretaker government taking a step of such profound consequence. So it’s possible that this whole thing could come to a halt as a result of legal action. But you know, we just have to see how that plays itself out.

Part of Netanyahu’s calculation here is that it will get majority support in the Knesset, that Gantz will be forced to support it as well—he’s gone to the Jordan Valley just recently and said that it should be annexed—and that he could actually put this into legislation and have a majority of the Knesset pass it, and then it would be harder for the Supreme Court to block that decision—not impossible, but much harder to do so. So you know, it’s going to be intensely fought over. But in the end I think that Netanyahu is determined to try to push this, partly to cover up the cracks in his own coalition that this plan will cause—because of the opposition of the right wing—and partly because it’s popular within Israel and a good way to boost his chances for reelection.

ROBBINS: I’m sorry, the questioners, can you please mute your phones? I appreciate the typing. (Laughs.) Been there, done that.

So, Phil, do you and Martin just each a minute for a summary?

GORDON: Well, there was a lot of good questions and I appreciated the conversation.

I guess I would just go back to where we started, which for me would be to underscore that the way to look at and think about this plan, which is not really put out there to bring about negotiations to the two parties leading a two-state solution. It was launched by the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister on a day when the Israeli prime minister was being indicted and the U.S. president was undergoing a trial following impeachment for their mutual political benefits, with the further benefit—if that’s the right word for it—that it was almost certain to lead to a Palestinian rejection, which would then pave the way for Israel to implement what’s in the plan, which is a sort of codification of Israel’s desiderata.

So I think it’s important to think about it in the right way. It’s really just a description of what Israel is going to do with more legitimacy and U.S. blessing. And for that reason I think it’s potentially dangerous because, as noted, I think it does put in question the future of Israel as a democratic state and a Jewish state, and it puts in question bipartisan U.S. support for Israel because it’s just harder for Americans and American Democrats to support Israel when it’s expanding settlements and annexing parts of the West Bank and denying Palestinian rights. So there are sort of short-term political expedient issues that led to this plan, but I think the long-term consequences of it are potentially quite dangerous.

ROBBINS: Martin, I want to ask you to sum up, but I want to ask one other question in addition to that—and thank you, Phil—which is, given the fact that the Arab states—you said the Jordanians, but no one seems to really want to get on Trump’s bad side either. So is he a more effective international leader than we’ve been giving him credit for, given the response to this?

INDYK: (Laughs.)

ROBBINS: I mean, it looks like a very, very bad plan in the long run, but bullying seems to be quite effective, doesn’t it?

INDYK: Well, there’s always this—going back to Nixon, this idea that a crazy man in the White House can get other countries to behave much more carefully towards the United States than a president who, you know, respects the norms of international behavior. And Trump is certainly taking advantage of that. And he’s intimidated a lot of world leaders, particularly in this part of the world. And this is where, I think, the context becomes important. They are particularly dependent on him at the moment for one reason or another, mostly because of their fear of Iran. And they fear that he’s basically pulling out of the region and can’t be relied on, so the last thing they want to do—they don’t have a better protector than the United States, and he’s so unpredictable in his behavior that they have to try to find a way to keep on his good side.

And you know, so I think it doesn’t make him a better leader. It just—given the times and the context, he is able to intimidate them. That doesn’t mean he’s able to get them to do what he wants—that is to say, to deliver the Palestinians to the table. That is the plan. That was always the Kushner plan, is to get the Saudis in particular to press Abu Mazen to agree to all of this. And they will not do that. They won’t alienate Trump, but they’re not going to deliver the Palestinians. So you can make a judgment about whether that’s effective or not.

GORDON: Yeah, Martin, can I just—can I just jump in to reinforce? Your Nixon madman theory, of course, was designed to get the North Vietnamese to cave, you know, by showing we’re crazy and we’ll do anything, and it didn’t work. And so that—

INDYK: Right.

GORDON: You know, that may be analogous to threatening the Palestinians and showing we’re prepared to really hit you hard. The original madman theory didn’t work there, and this one probably won’t either.

INDYK: No, it certainly isn’t going to move the Palestinians.

ROBBINS: So with that optimistic summary—

INDYK: Well—(laughs)—

ROBBINS: —thank you both. (Laughter.)

INDYK: Thank you.

ROBBINS: Martin Indyk and Phil Gordon, thank you so much. And thank you all for very good questions. And we look forward to talking to you again soon.

GORDON: Yeah, thanks everyone. Thanks, Carla.

INDYK: Thank you.


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