Meeting

Conflict in the Middle East—The Israel-Hamas War

Thursday, October 26, 2023
REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Speakers

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars, Council on Foreign Relations; @stevenacook

Executive Director, Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy; Human Rights Lawyer (speaking virtually) 

Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; @Farah_Pandith (speaking virtually)

James R. Schlesinger Distinguished Professor, Miller Center, University of Virginia; Former Senior National Security Official for Presidents Clinton and Obama; CFR Member (speaking virtually)

Presider

Entrepreneur; Journalist; Founder, Good Trouble Productions; Former CFR Term Member

Panelists discuss how the recent attacks by Hamas and ongoing conflict between the group and Israel continue to affect security in the Middle East and influence regional dynamics, as well as the future of U.S. policy towards the region. 

This discussion has been added to the agenda for the Twenty-Eighth Annual Term Member Conference.

NINAN: Hi, everyone. Good afternoon. Thank you so much for joining us, and welcome to today’s CFR 2023 Term Member Conference opening plenary, “Conflict in the Middle East.” We’re looking at Israel and the Hamas war. I want to thank all of you again for joining us. And in addition to our term members, we’re also happy to welcome our CFR life members, and our corporate members. And we’ve got many people joining us, including some of our panelists, remotely, virtually. So thank you all. 

My name is Reena Ninan. I’m a journalist and founder of Good Trouble Productions. And I am excited to help host this conversation. I’m also a former CFR term member. And I’m looking forward to this. 

I want to sort of kick it off with where we’re at right now. I know all of you are interested in this—in this ongoing situation, where I have, as the latest, 1,400 Israelis killed, 222 hostages taken into Gaza according to the IDF, Israeli military; 7,000 Palestinians killed according to the Hamas-run health ministry. That number can’t be independently verified. The war now is in its twentieth day, and we know it to be the deadliest of the five wars that Israel and Hamas has fought. 

I want to kick it off first and introduce our wonderful panel. 

Here with me in studio is Steve Cook. (Laughs.) Steve Cook, who is a senior fellow here for Middle East and Africa studies, and the director of the International Affairs fellowship for tenured international relations scholars. 

Also joining us remotely is Mai El-Sadany, an executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. And she’s also a human rights lawyer. 

Farah Pandith, adjunct senior fellow for CFR and also a CFR member. 

And Mara Rudman. She’s a distinguished professor, Miller Center, University of Virginia, and also a former senior national security official for Presidents Clinton and Obama. She’s also a CFR member, and joining us remotely. 

Mara, I want to go ahead and start with you, if you don’t mind. Today, the Israeli military said that they had briefly sent tanks overnight into Gaza. This is what they called preparation for the next phase of this. Where are we headed? 

RUDMAN: We are headed into a—difficult as the time has been over the last couple of weeks, an even more difficult period ahead. I think we saw in how President Biden handled the discussion at the top of his session with the Australian prime minister yesterday that for the United States it’s a matter of trying to reassure Israel that we’re with them in terms of the commitment to defend themselves and to root out the terror that has been the Hamas military leadership and, at the same time, operate within the rules of war, the laws of war, which involves very careful and extraordinarily difficult, as the president said, navigation to try to, to the fullest extent possible, minimize the harm to the many innocents that are in Gaza. Also increasing the amounts of humanitarian aid going forward and trying to get as many people out as possible. As many civilians out, particularly foreign nationals. 

And then at the same time we’re doing that, be working towards how we handle the day after. Who and what is going to govern Gaza. And how can this be—and I’m going to use the word “opportunity” carefully—but how can this be utilized, where we are now, to prove the point that many have been saying for some time, which is that not resolving the Palestinian issue and question for Israel is an existential threat. And so that we really need to rejuvenate, rebuild the process that will get to a stable and secure and capable Palestinian state, side by side with an Israeli state. 

NINAN: Farah, I want to get to you next, because you have extensive experience in both Bush administrations talking—looking at extremism. You wrote a book about it. Did the White House read the Arab streets correctly? 

PANDITH: That’s a loaded question for you to ask me as we began this. I want to say that I think that the United States, its understanding of the Middle East has been—has been a very specific way of assessing, according to, you know, the way we look at the world, right? We’re not looking at civil society the way we could. And I think that’s been a very big weakness in how we thought about what’s coming, what’s around the corner. 

So, for example, you know, we have really great assessment of what can happen politically with our heads of state, for example, in that part of the world, or what could happen militarily. But we haven’t really understood what could happen emotionally. And I think that’s extremely important because you can go back to 9/11 and look at the responses from Muslims in that and Arabs in that part of the world and globally and say that there was a recalculation for the United States government to understand that something that happened in one part of the world could have an impact on another. And so you see that parallel today too. We are—we are—I mean, we shouldn’t be, but we are surprised by the change in sentiment, the rage that’s happening around the world that we’ve seen come out of Arab and Muslim populations, as diverse as Hyderabad and Malaysia and in the region of the Middle East. 

So when you ask that question, I’d say in some capacities, the U.S. government is really strong in understanding what we think. But the biggest weakness is the cultural intelligence piece. And that, in fact, is going to be extremely important because when we look at, not just today but what’s around the corner, it’s three generations that we’re focused on. One is millennials. One is Gen Z. And one is Gen Alpha. And we need to understand that what happened twenty days ago is going to dramatically affect the way they think about the United States and the way they think about Western allies, and the way they think about the progress of the issues of Mara was describing. 

NINAN: I want to also turn, Mai, to you, and ask you—my current count is as of this morning there are about seventy-four trucks, I think is the latest assessment, carrying humanitarian supplies that have made it in. I believe there was a Pentagon briefing today that said about twelve trucks in the past twenty-four hours, far shorter the hundred a day that usually makes it through, Mai. When you’re looking at the international humanitarian law, the framework that’s set up to kind of understanding what’s happening, what do the laws of war say? And what’s really relevant? Because I feel like it’s being used on both sides differently. 

El-SADANY: I think it’s important to just state off the bat that, unfortunately, throughout this conflict we’ve seen the laws of war abused and violated regularly, and they have been violated by Hamas in the kidnapping of of hostages, but they have also been violated by Israel since October 7, and they continue to be violated as we speak. There are many laws of war, but they are clear. Do not deliberately and indiscriminately attack civilians. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. And this places an immense onus on Israel. And it has not taken this seriously. Do not take hostages. As I’ve said before, that was clearly violated on the day of October 7.  

Do not punish civilians for the actions of individuals. We’re seeing this normalization of collective punishment that because Palestinians are living in Gaza, they are subject to collective punishment and they should be the ones worrying about where they’re staying or where they’re being bombed, when this is really an onus on the state. International law is clear on this regard. There is no such rule that says that civilians have to avoid entire areas or become displaced from their homes. This is a responsibility on the state. Do not deny or withhold humanitarian assistance. As you just said, we saw severe delays to humanitarian assistance. The count is in the seventies but, as you said, Gaza needs on an emergency level a hundred trucks a day. And in a normal period of time it was receiving 450 trucks a day. And so we are far from that, in addition to the steps that Israel has taken to continue blockading the people of Palestine from food, water, fuel, and internet. And we have seen the various ramifications of these as well. 

It’s also important to note that violations of laws by one side do not justify violations by another. Just because one party has violated international law first does not give justification to the other party to do the same. And unfortunately, we’ve seen this argument instrumentalized throughout this conflict and throughout the conversations that have been followed. 

All of these laws—and there are many more—have been violated in the current context. And I think what’s worse, frankly—and I hope we have this conversation—is that a number of global powers either misunderstand or are instrumentalizing their understanding of international law themselves. 

NINAN: All right. Thank you. 

Steve, I want to turn to you. I’m really fascinated by, well, the number, which was updated today, 222—the number of hostages that Israel believes is inside the Gaza Strip. Looking at the relationship between Turkey and Qatar—Qatar largely, right, dealing—leading—taking the lead on negotiations—what can you tell us from Qatar’s standpoint? Do they have the leverage and the power? We’ve been talking for weeks now potential larger hostage release. What’s your sense of what’s playing out between those two countries? 

COOK: Yeah. Thank you very much for the—for the question. 

First, before I answer, I just want to welcome everybody to New York. This panel is not about the best of circumstances, but it’s really nice to see everybody here and we should all take a deep breath as we—as we discuss these very, very difficult issues. 

It’s also wonderful to be on this panel with my friends Mara, Farah, and Mai. I can’t think of three better experts to shed light on different aspects of this conflict than these three very talented, talented people. 

Look, the Qataris do have a certain amount of leverage or they have a relationship with Hamas. They’ve been criticized for this, for hosting a Hamas office in Doha. But keep in mind that with Israeli assent there is a senior Qatari diplomat who is in—who is in—who’s stationed in Gaza, and part of this is to maintain a dialogue, and the Qataris in part host Hamas and other Islamist groups in Doha so that the United States and others, including Israel, can communicate with groups that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to communicate with. It has been—it has been very good news that the Qataris have been able to release now four hostages, two Americans and two elderly Israelis so far. One has to wonder what’s taking so long to release babies and children from that, which is extraordinary and very sad to think about—to think about that it’s taking that long. But they are working at it, and that is why we have not—one of the reasons why we have not seen an Israeli—a major Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip just yet. As time has gone on—as time goes on, there may be a moment where the Israelis lose patience with Qatai diplomacy. 

I should point out that it is this relationship with Hamas that sort of shields—and the ability of the Qataris to do these kinds of things that helps to shield the Qataris from criticism, at least from successive administrations if not the Congress—although if you had your news alerts on today, the Biden administration and the Qataris have agreed to review the relationship with Hamas going forward. Yet, it is a very difficult position for the United States because the Qataris can be useful in this area. 

So— 

NINAN: What does that mean, they’re going to review their situation? 

COOK: It’s very unclear what they—what they’re going to do. Like I said, I think successive administrations have found it useful to be able to communicate with Hamas in Doha about critical issues. And the Qataris sort of get away with, you know, their sponsorship of Hamas because they provide this service and a variety of other services. In some ways, Doha giveth and Doha taketh away in a variety of things. 

Now, the other factor here is Turkey. The Turks also have something to say on this issue. I think at the moment, though, the Turks are somewhat smarting at the fact that the Qataris are getting all of the attention and the Qataris are working on this. But the Turks have this sort of weird yen for Hamas. The Justice and Development Party, which is an Islamist Party but is not part of the Muslim Brotherhood—you may read that over and over and over again; it’s not. It’s its own thing. It’s its own Turkish Islamist—it emerged out of a Turkish Islamist tradition called miligoruz (ph) that doesn’t really have anything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood. And in fact, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood always thought of Turkish Islamists as too liberal and too nationalist. So it's only recently where you’ve seen the Turks kind of working with this constellation of Muslim Brotherhood organizations and parties around the Middle East. 

But the Turks have—in this kind of strange yen for Hamas, they see themselves in Hamas. You may have seen President Erdoğan’s statement about Hamas being a liberation movement. Tomorrow there will be an enormous rally in Turkey, a pro-Hamas rally in Turkey, which doesn’t serve Turkey very well in places that matter, particularly in Washington. Turkey has a whole host of asks from the United States. 

I should also say that, you know, the hypocrisy of Turkey on this issue in particular is rather stunning. Those of you who remember, before this happened, in late September some faction of the PKK tried to—drove a truck up to the entrance of a Ministry of Interior building in Ankara and killed a couple of guys, and these terrorists were killed in the process. The Turks then took the opportunity to engage in a massive military operation in Syria to go after the Syrian Democratic Forces. The core component of the Syrian Democratic Forces is this group the YPG, which the United States works with to fight the Islamic State. But to the Turks, the YPG is part of the PKK, this group that has been fighting Turkey on and off since 1984. 

So, you know, it is this strange situation. And I think the Turks are doing this for domestic political purposes, for regional purposes. But when it comes back to wanting things like F-16s and different kinds of goodies from the United States, it’s going to be very, very difficult for the Turks to overcome this moment in which they are actually quite different from a number of Washington’s Arab partners who have actually criticized Hamas, where the Turks have been very, very forward in what they have to say about Hamas as a national liberation movement. 

NINAN: Mara, your extensive experience in the Middle East, I want to turn to you. President Biden had said very early on saying about the mistakes that—I have that exact quote here somewhere—the mistakes that the U.S. had made in the leadup to the Iraq War, being so impassioned that that aggression led to mistakes. It seems like the White House has been able to slow Israel’s roll into Gaza right now, but where do you believe—Netanyahu continues to stay that they are preparing and they are prepared and ready, but it seems like Israel’s got two goals. One, to completely destroy Hamas. And the other one is to get those hostages back. They seem like two polar-opposite goals. What’s your sense about what’s coming? 

RUDMAN: So I think polar opposite is an overstatement, frankly. They’re extraordinarily difficult goals to execute in parallel, and that’s why I’ve described—I believe that this is a knife’s-edge type of operation with very, very difficult calls to be made by Israel’s leadership. 

And what I’m about to say I say with no personal love lost for Prime Minister Netanyahu. I have not been a fan for a long, long period of time. But even with that view, I feel like he is—he is in a very, very tough position right now in doing what he needs to do to defend his country, to show in a really clear way that Israel is capable of routing Hamas’ military leadership. I understand the prime minister’s call was more sweeping than that. I don’t think that’s achievable. And I will say former Prime Minister Barak has come out really clearly and has had considerable experience on the ground there as well with what is possible and not. 

But Israel is going to need to figure out how to accomplish its military aims and maximize its ability, as well, to get hostages released. And I think that is why we are seeing some of the pause we are seeing—pause in terms of ground invasion. Fully appreciate just how difficult the bombings have been. But they are in a tough position, as is everyone else in the region right now. 

NINAN: Mara, are you confident that we’ll see more hostages released? Do you have a sense of that? 

RUDMAN: I don’t have a sense. I certainly hope and pray that we do, and I’ve heard the same rumblings everyone else has about, you know, a next group, a much larger group than the four that have been released thus far. But it seems that they are being held in a number of different places. They are also very likely—Hamas is very likely using what is clearly an extraordinary tunneling network that they have built up over years and years, not holding them together. So it’s a challenge. 

Certainly hope so. But I would also say it seems, again, from the reporting that was done some of those—some of the people brought in as hostages were severely wounded or injured at the times that they were brought in as well, so just the condition of the hostages has got to be a real concern as well as trying to get their release. 

NINAN: Farah, when Hamas took over I started covering them in Jerusalem, and they allowed me to come down some of their smuggling tunnels with them. And if you see today the tunnels that are believed to be where the hostages are, they are far more advanced. They’ve had two decades to really build them. When they let me in, they wanted to show how they were overcoming the economic blockade. And then, in 2010, Israelis allowed more aid in and the Egyptians ended up pouring water into these tunnels because they didn’t want them at their border anymore. These were packed by young boys. They were made out of dirt. When you look at the evolution of Hamas, how do you think that’s going to change the Middle East? 

PANDITH: One of the things that we have understood in everything that has happened since 9/11 is that our wildest expectations are always not wild enough, right? We don’t imagine what could, in fact happen. 

So when you ask this question to me, you know, we kind of go at things thinking in a very logical way, but I think we have to think out of the box. I think we need to ask ourselves—it’s not just the sophistication of the tunnels. It’s not just the way in which they’re going to manipulate this ideology globally. It’s the way that ideology, in my view, is going to—is going to seize communities from all over the world that, in fact, could do something on behalf of Hamas, right? How will that, in fact, guide how they decide to posture themselves, what they decide to do? 

So there’s a physical component to what you’re asking. That I can’t say. I don’t know. But I definitely can say that we have, unfortunately, seen what is possible with the spread and the—and the growth of this kind of ideology. We saw it with AQ turning—we thought we had finished that off, and then ISIS appears. And it’s though—even though ISIS is different than al-Qaida in terms of the ideology, it was similar enough on the sort of ramp in building up that the West is at war with Islam that it built up and it got tens of thousands of foreign fighters coming into the so-called caliphate. So when I think about what Hamas is compared to sort of everything else, I’m asking the question: What is the worst thing that we can possibly think about ideologically, and how can we plan for that? 

So, for example, you know, one thing to be thinking about—and I have no evidence to suggest that this is going to happen—but as I think about predictive, you know, aspects of ideology, there’s one thing that we know about Hamas, and that is their charter says that they want the eradication of Jews and they want the eradication of Israel. That is front and center of what they believe. There are other groups in this world that want that too, and they have ideologies that are completely different from sort of the packaging of Hamas. You can look at neo-Nazis who want the exact same thing. Could you imagine a moment when, you know, there is a common—there is a common foe? Could you imagine Muslims from other parts of the world deciding that what Hamas is trying to do right now is something that they want to do? 

I think what Mai said about rules of law are really important here, because I think that the mantle with which Hamas is going forward even though, you know, those are the two things that they’re doing front and center, they are also doing this on behalf of their claim that they are doing it on behalf of Islam, right? So there’s a—there’s a component—an ideological identity component that is part of this as well. 

So what does that means in terms of what’s going to happen next? We can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen next. What we can know is that it’s not going to stay stable, and that the U.S. and its allies need to think differently about what is possible and how we defend ourselves ideologically, not just physically. 

NINAN: Thank you very much. 

Mai, I want—we talked a little bit about humanitarian law and human rights. I want to ask you, I feel like I’ve just smoked a pack of cigarettes because I’ve been on social media right before coming and it is not a nice place, not a nice place at all. Mai, I want to ask you what you’re seeing sort of social media, but really the social movements. How is it affecting the MENA region? What are you seeing in response to what’s happening? 

EL-SADANY: Sure. And I just want to make a quick comment also since we’re talking about the Biden administration’s language. I think all that’s been said about Hamas is quite fair, but unfortunately we continue to see President Biden himself refer to Palestine and Palestinians. Whether that’s a mistake or whether he is saying it to represent Hamas I think is really alarming and problematic. Just yesterday, when he questioned the numbers, the 7,028—which, by the way, today the health ministry released a list: full names, IDs, ages, and genders. This is more information than I can tell you we collect in the human rights space. Again, I can’t verify that myself, but I think there’s something there. And that really—that is really is something I’d like to leave in our assessment of how we’re thinking about this. 

But going back to what I was saying, I think when he questioned the numbers he said I don’t know if I can believe what Palestinians are saying. He did not say I don’t know if I can believe what Hamas is saying. And I think these words are incredibly damaging and people are listening. 

So I want to talk about what this has all meant for the MENA region. I think—and leading into that, I want to say that, unfortunately, the incidents themselves and then the response of the Global North has fostered a really problematic and destabilizing us-versus-them mentality, which, frankly—I think Farah will agree—we have been working a long, long time to get over post-9/11 and post-Iraq War. We’re seeing this once again. This mentality is fueled in part by the language that policymakers are adopting, and I call on the Biden administration to really rethink the language that they’re choosing. This language creates new fault lines. We saw the story of Blinken asking Qatar to have Al Jazeera lower its temperature. Al Jazeera may very well be providing more airtime to Hamas, which can be problematic, but it’s also one of the only outlets showing harm to Palestinians. And so when Arabs hear that news, they’re thinking: They don’t even want us to tell our stories. And so we really need to be thinking about the human component to all of this, and putting together policy that responds to that and understands it. 

But like I said, there hasn’t been a proper distinguishing between Palestine and Hamas. As a result, Arab or Muslim citizens are asking the questions as to why there’s this double standard. Is it racism? Is it colonial thinking? Is it religious discrimination? And again, all of this, unfortunately, fosters and contributes to a really destabilizing narrative that creates antagonism toward the Global North. It also creates feelings of exclusion, including for diaspora communities from the Arab world that we’re housing and that have been partners for Global North governments for years. And it creates resentment that can easily be fanned by extremists. It creates the sense that Palestinian lives are lesser than; that since Israel is our friend, it can do no wrong. And it contributes to a lack of justice, frankly, which weakens strength in the rule-based order, which then has reverberations around the region. 

I think we can expect, unfortunately, that this is all going to contribute to instability in the region. We know that instability in one part of the region can certainly spread, and we’ve seen that in many cases. I think it’s too early to see immediately, but I think we can expect weakened economies in part because of less tourism and other factors, but also more stress with migration and displacement. 

And it also bolsters something that we haven’t spoken about just yet, and that’s really authoritarian consolidation and control in the MENA region. This is—this and how it’s responded to will weaken democracy and civil society movements. For example, when we propose an intervention, it may make sense to a Western audience from some vantage points to give Egypt debt forgiveness or extensive amounts of resources to take people in from Gaza, but we should also be asking: What does that mean to give so much debt forgiveness to a government that the U.S. literally found was just spying on it, or that’s been committing grave violations against its people, or that’s heading into economic disaster? What does that do to the right of—right to return for Palestinians, which is a real question as well? For years, authoritarian governments— 

NINAN: I want to ask a little bit. 

EL-SADANY: I’m sorry. Can I— 

NINAN: Thank you very much for that perspective and that analysis. 

I also want to ask, on that subject of sort of the Arab streets, Steven, I’m curious about Saudi Arabia. One thing that we haven’t seen are the Emiratis saying we’re done with our peace accord with Israel. No one is backing out from this. And in fact, there was a sense that Saudi Arabia might be the closest they’ve ever been—I know we’ve done this dance many times—to some sort of a peace deal with Israel. What’s your read on Saudi Arabia right now? 

COOK: First, I just want to say that if you were on social media, one, that was a mistake. And, two, if you want to feel better, you should follow my feed—(laughter)—because— 

NINAN: Just your feed. 

COOK: As Mai can attest, I periodically post photos of my five-year-old golden retriever, and she can only make you feel better. So—(laughter)— 

NINAN: You didn’t bring her? You didn’t bring her today? 

COOK: I—yeah, I should have. 

NINAN: You should have brought her. 

COOK: I think it would have been nice to have a therapy dog—(laughter)—walking up and down here. So, yeah, so either stay off or just follow me and you’d be all right. You’d just get analysis and puppy. (Laughter.) 

Look, I think, you know, in thinking about Israel’s Arab partners—and I think the Emiratis are clearly an Arab partner of Israel, and the Emiratis, almost immediately the foreign minister called the Hamas attacks appalling while at the same time calling for the protection of civilians on both sides. And then from there you have, you know, various ranges of nuance and pugnacity, if that’s a word. 

And you know, the Saudis, it’s super interesting, right? The Saudis have told everybody and anybody who will listen to them that they’re the new big dog in the region. As Mai was just alluding to, Egypt is flat on its back. It is broke. It is not a factor in regional discussions. In fact— 

NINAN: Lebanon’s not doing any better, up in the northern front, as well. You know, there’s a lot of people who are struggling in the Middle East right now. 

COOK: Right, across the board. But you know, previously we thought of Egypt as the kind of center of gravity and the regional mover and shaker, and the Saudis have clearly said that they are now that—they now play that role. And there’s—you know, there’s reason to believe that they do play that role, given the fact that the Egyptians are flat on their back, Iraq remains a chaotic and violent place twenty years after the American invasion, Syria is a failed state, Jordan is a small state, the Emiratis are powerful but quite small. And so the Saudis have been saying that they’re the—this is—they’re the ones, the new Saudis. 

But the new Saudis are acting a lot like the old Saudis in this situation. They’ve been somewhat more nuanced in their initial statements, but basically there is motion with no action. They have issued a stream of statements. They convened the Executive Committee of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and issued a statement. There was the statement after Blinken—the meeting with Blinken in which they said, you know, all variations on we are against escalation, we are for the protection of the Palestinian people, we’re against targeting any civilians, and we support justice and a fair, comprehensive peace. How different is that from anything else they’ve done? 

The one real notable thing is when Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former spymaster and onetime ambassador to the U.K., and for a very short period of time the ambassador in Washington, at Rice University last weekend directly criticized Hamas, as well as directly criticizing the Israelis, as well as directly criticizing the West, along the lines that Mai just suggested. It was important, but then what? 

I think the Saudis can be constructive here, but they’re really hammered. They’re in a bind. They’re afraid of the Iranians. That agreement between the Iranians and the Saudis was supposed to deescalate the region according to people—people said. But it wasn’t; it was about deescalating the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And when MBS spoke to President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran, he was sort of taking the Iranians’ temperature. He did criticize him very implicitly in the Saudi readout of that conversation. So they’re afraid of the Iranians. And they’re, quite frankly, hammered by their dependency on the United States. This relationship makes them vulnerable under these circumstances because the United States is so closely associated with Israel. 

And you know, look, if you look at the polling across the region but in Saudi as well, vast reservoir of people are against normalization. Vast reservoir of people are wondering— 

NINAN: In Saudi Arabia. 

COOK: Normalization with Israel broadly speaking. Vast numbers of people are asking these questions: How is it that the United States is allowing the Israelis to essentially pummel the Gaza Strip? And so for MBS to be constructive would mean working more closely with President Biden as well as the Israelis. Now, if he was actually strong, he could probably do that. He could—he could, for example, make a strong statement himself about Hamas. He could offer more relief, including direct relief to the Palestinians. And he could use the good offices that he has developed with the Israelis over the last five years to help shape what they do by telling them that there are very clear red lines and there are very clear consequences for what they’re doing. 

NINAN: Do you see that happening, Steven? Do you see— 

COOK: I’ve picked up nothing, nothing on this. Like I said, the new Saudis are acting a lot like the old Saudis. I don’t want to use metaphors about sticking heads in sand, but you know, I can’t really resist it. It’s very—it’s striking how they have essentially, in a matter of weeks, taken themself out of the game when they for three previous years said we are the game. 

NINAN: All right. Thank you, Steve, for that perspective. By the way, you have an article coming out tomorrow on this very topic. 

COOK: Yes. My regular Foreign Policy column will come out tomorrow. It’ll be— 

NINAN: On Saturday. 

COOK: You don’t have to read it. I just gave it to you. (Laughter.) That’s the benefit of coming to the Term Member Conference. 

NINAN: Read it. (Laughs.) 

COOK: Saves you five minutes. (Laughter.) 

NINAN: Five minutes. Is that all it takes to read your articles? 

COOK: I mean, they’re only 1,200 words. 

NINAN: (Laughs.) All right. I want to open it up to questions from our members in the audience and also virtually here. I want to remind you guys about the pack of cigarettes I felt like I smoked today. I know this is a heated topic. I know everybody in this room and virtually are probably really well-versed on this topic. So if you could just keep it to a short question, not a monologue. I’ve spent two decades in TV news, and so I’m very good at cutting people off. (Laughter.) So don’t be offended when I do that to you if you go on a monologue. 

So who’s our first question? Yes. 

Q: Hi. 

So one thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a difference in the views—in the Arab countries, there’s a big difference in the views of the populace versus the leaders. And one thing I’m curious about is Jordan, where it seems that there are really, you know, hundreds of Palestinians—no, sorry, Jordanians marching towards the border, but obviously, King Hussein has been an ally of the U.S. At the same time, they’re having coup attempts there. I mean, is there any possibility that these events lead to any regime change, whether in Jordan or whether in any of our, you know, other Middle Eastern partners? 

NINAN: That’s a great question because there have been so many moments, Steven, over the course of the past decade where I’ve felt is this—is there going to be—I’ll let Mara take this one, but it’s amazing how the Jordanians, I think, they’ve really weathered a lot over the years. Mara? 

RUDMAN: Thanks. And I think it’s a really interesting question about the entire region, and you have to go country by country. I think it’s one of the things the United States, I will say, historically has not done well. I try not to use terms like Global North or Global South, but look at the politics of every country and within the region and where the differences are. 

So Jordan, I will say, is a country where King Abdullah has been consistent over the last five years in the push for resolving the Palestinian issue, in trying to put his maximum ability and authority behind it. He has immediate political interest in doing that since more than half of his population already is Palestinian, and huge concerns if he ends up with many more Palestinians, and questions about the stability of his rule. And while Jordan is a monarchy, it’s not what we think of as a democracy necessarily, but King Abdullah in Jordan, I would say, is much farther over on the continuum than many other countries in the region. And I would call out his consistency in support—what I consider kind of real and tangible support—in diplomatic circles and otherwise for Palestinian leadership and for resolving the Palestinian question, It is in stark contrast, for example, to the Saudis. 

So part of—you know, Steve outlined a lot of it. I look forward to reading his piece. But I would say that the new Saudis are not acting like the old Saudis; they’re worse. And they’re worse because I actually believe that the former King Abdullah actually was committed, that the Saudi peace initiative meant something. I think there was certainly a huge problem on follow-up and follow-through for sure, but I don’t think that’s where MBS is. I think MBS at this point is silent because he is trying to navigate. He is not as powerful, perhaps, as he thought he was in his country or in the region. But I live the frustration of at least two meetings in direct conversations, not with MBS but with other very senior Saudi officials, asking them, pleading with them during President Trump’s administration to take a stand to support Palestinians, and got a wall of silence. I tried every possible route to that; they were not willing to. So the public output now that you’re hearing is absolutely in response to a concern about their own domestic politics and their stability. 

I have separate views about the role of social media in all this. And where I will agree with Mai—and I got to say, I disagree with a lot that she said, and there’s not time to go into that—but where I will agree is everyone involved needs to pick their words carefully. I think President Biden largely has. He’s certainly a guy who makes slips and we understand that. I understand that. But I think he’s been pretty consistent in how he talks about Hamas and distinguishes from the Palestinians. I have not seen that same kind of consistency in word choice, certainly not on social media, with making a distinction, for example, between Hamas and the many innocent Palestinians who are—who are stuck in the middle of this. 

So I just think on that point—and I’ll say, because we won’t get back to it, on the laws of war there are a variety of interpretations, and I have very different ones than Mai has laid out here. 

COOK: I just quickly want to get to the part of the question about could this result in regime change around the region because I think that’s a—it’s an important point. There is this huge disconnect between leaders, especially those leaders who have come to terms with Israel, and their populations. Again, you know, go to the Arab Barometer polls and they show you these, you know, tiny, minuscule number of people who support normalization. 

But making the analytic leap from that to an uprising or an overthrow is extremely hard since these things are totally unpredictable. We don’t know. We don’t know why there are uprisings that overthrow leaders and there are just protests, right? And any—and believe me, I lived through the Arab uprisings with this. And I commend to you an article written by a guy named Timur Kuran called “Now Out of Never,” which is not a theory of uprising or revolution but it’s a theory of the unpredictability of these things. No one in Egypt knew that the murder of a young dude in Alexandria was going to, six months later, lead to this mass uprising that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Like, that was just an unheard of, unimaginable kind of thing. 

So the intellectually honest answer is we don’t know. What we do know, based on what Arab leaders are saying and what they’re doing, is that they are very concerned about how the situation is affecting their people, many of whom are very online. 

NINAN: And— 

PANDITH: Reena, can I— 

NINAN: You know, I want to just get—Farah, yes, go ahead, really quick. I just want—there’s so many questions in the audience. Yeah. 

PANDITH: I’m sure there are. I just want to make two points about what we’ve been discussing. 

The first is the king of Jordan did something really important in stating the difference between a terrorist organization, Hamas, and the religion of Islam. And I don’t want to let that go because I think it is extremely important that he did it and it’s a lesson that he learned after 9/11 how important it was to do. And that goes to your question about MBS. You’re talking about King Abdullah, who is a seasoned human being, who is an adult as he approaches these issues and understands what can happen; versus MBS, who’s sort of, like, it’s still sort of rodeo time where he’s sort of trying a bunch of different things. So first statement coming out of Saudi Arabia after the horrific attack was outrageous. I mean, they didn’t condemn Hamas at all. Hamas is a terrorist organization and we’ve got to be clear about that. 

The second thing I just want to say to Steven’s point about we can’t decide, we can’t know what’s going to happen. This goes to what I was saying about understanding the sentiment, the emotional sentiment of the populations—and it’s a weakness the United States has—and understanding how people feel. And that’s really, really important for us as we—not just for the short term, but for the longer term as we think about how to—how to build bridges, if you want to use that terminology, or how to put forward diplomatic solutions on a whole host of different things. 

NINAN: All right. Farah, thank you very much for that perspective. 

Next question? Yes, over there in the back. And if you could just state your name and tell us where you’re from— 

Q: Thank you for joining us. Whitney Baxter at Paramount Television. 

A U.S.-focused question. There’s been recent polling that shows how divided Americans are. So consider a question like an Israel-Hamas ceasefire; roughly half of the people on both sides of that. Is there a middle ground here? If not, how do we get the American consensus to a middle-ground position? 

NINAN: Middle ground. Is there a middle ground on this issue? Who wants to take that? (Laughter.) No takers? 

RUDMAN: I’ll take this. 

NINAN: Mara, OK. 

RUDMAN: Steve, you—or I’ll take a stab. 

COOK: Go ahead, Mara. And then I’ll clean up after you. 

RUDMAN: So— 

COOK: No, I mean, like, I’ll not clean up her comments; I’ll clean up, like—(laughter)—like cleanup, that kind of—(laughter). 

RUDMAN: I understood that to be what you were saying. (Laughter.) 

COOK: Thank you very much, because you know me, if you don’t, obviously, think I come at these things with bad faith. OK. (Laughter.) 

RUDMAN: So, first, I think what—I’m always very wary of any polling on anything because so much depends on how the question is asked, to whom the question is asked. So even in terms of a fifty-fifty split, I will say that in my experience on this issue and many others that the vast number of American people are actually in the middle—center, center-right, center-left—but the far extremes dominate because too many people, without aspersions to the folks on this panel, are on social media and thinking that that is where folks are and that’s where opinions are. 

So I do think that paving a route in terms of the U.S. population that is in the center is what people can actually get behind. I think that is what President Biden is doing, not for political reasons but because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. I think the question will be being able to get the support he needs in Congress for this, for Ukraine, and for getting a budget for the year, and that those types of issues will impact the U.S. population and how they come out. But I don’t think this particular issue is one that divides the country in half in the kind of stark terms that the polling that you’re talking about might suggest. 

COOK: Yeah, I think that’s right. I don’t sense a deep and profound polarization in the country and I don’t think the polling would really bear that out on this issue. 

I think for the most part Americans are concerned about college football—(laughter)—health care, and crime, and that for the most part it remains good politics for politicians to be pro-Israel because, for the most part, the American public is kind of pro-Israel. There is polling from last spring which was rather extraordinary; it was the first time since the Gallup poll which showed more Democrats were— 

NINAN: And independents as well. 

COOK: I’m sorry? 

NINAN: Democrats and independents. 

COOK: Democrats and independents—thank you—were more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than Israel’s position. But that’s something that’s going to play itself out over the next ten or fifteen years, especially when you take the kind of voting bloc within the GOP where Israel has been raised to the pantheon of core issues for Republicans. 

So I think that the—I think the politics of Israel actually is changing. I’ve got a book that’s coming out that discusses some of this. 

NINAN: Tell us about that book, Steven. What’s the title? 

COOK: No, no, it nods at this a bit, looks at some of this polling. But I do think that that’s going to be a more long, drawn-out process. And I will say I do think that this episode, and the way in which it’s been framed as Israel’s 9/11—and in many ways it is, and I think the president was right, you know, in saying it’s like fifteen 9/11s when you think about the numbers killed—but also not mentioning the numbers killed in Gaza, which is also like fifteen and twenty 9/11s. But the way that’s been framed is evocative to Americans because we still carry the traumas of 9/11. So I think this is one of those issues, startlingly, that does not have that kind of nasty divide that we’ve grown used to living with in this country. 

NINAN: Right. 

Love to take another question. Where are my ladies? Where are my ladies? Yes. Thank you very much. 

Q: Hi. I’m Samantha Turner with the Stimson Center NATO—strengthening NATO’s ability to protect civilians in conflict. 

So my question is along the lines of communication, as you were talking about. And I’d be interested about the national security apparatus’, like, strategic-competition pivot that we’ve made recently, and perhaps your thoughts about China’s role in response to this conflict, whether it be from a communications standpoint, some of the actions that they’ve taken. So I’d be very curious as to what y’all are reading in terms of their positioning surrounding this conflict and perhaps presenting themselves as a foil to the earlier narratives that the administration put out regarding human rights. 

NINAN: Who would like to take that? Farah, do you want to touch China? 

PANDITH: Well, I just— 

RUDMAN: Sure. Oh, sorry, Farah. Go ahead. 

PANDITH: Sorry. Go. Go. 

RUDMAN: Farah and Mara. No, no, no. Go, Farah. I— 

NINAN: Yeah, they sound the same. 

RUDMAN: Our names sound alike, so. (Laughs.) 

NINAN: You sound like that. 

PANDITH: It’s you. Please. 

RUDMAN: So my quick take but my concern is that for the administration this is an important wakeup call; in other words, that part of a strategic competition with China, seeing China as a pacing competitor, which is the official terminology of the administration, does not mean withdrawing from, not playing a significant role in every other region of the world. It means doing it effectively because you can be sure China and Russia will maximize taking advantage of any seeming vacuum from the United States, a lack of—a lack of intense involvement, which, to my view, to some extent in the last couple years is some of what we’ve seen. I don’t think it was responsible for what happened, but I think China is maximizing their advantage. Russia certainly is—and I got to say particularly in terms of Ukraine with Russia, there couldn’t be a better play for Putin than to have this going on, and to have resources stretched, and to have a Congress that seems uncertain about giving the support that the United States needs to protect the national security of this country. 

So, to me, part of strategic competition with China is being a lot more subtle about a pivot than perhaps administrations, not just this one, have been. And China is showing why, I think, right now. 

PANDITH: Can I just add one piece to the China—the China question? 

NINAN: Please. Please, Farah. Yeah. 

PANDITH: I think there’s a—there’s a component of the online battle place, right? And when we think about what we know about mis- and disinformation over the Ukraine war and other things, we know the roles that both Russia and China are playing. And so I think we need to be really wise and savvy about what’s happening right now and, in fact, what is coming. So that online battlespace is where we should be looking as well, not just how many carriers are coming over to the region, which are extremely, I mean, shocking and concerning. But there’s also a different element of this war that we’ve got to keep our fingers on. 

And we haven’t been masterful in being able to win this space, have we? We know what we’ve seen happen in terms of ideas, in terms of conspiracy theories that have come out, and both Russia and China are really good at stoking sentiment in ways that aren’t helpful to the United States. 

NINAN: Mai, I want to ask you a quick question, though. We haven’t really touched on—because I know it’s so early on—what happens postwar in Gaza. There was—I believe it was Ehud Barak had said something about potentially having an Arab force eventually in there until the PA could possibly take over later. There are a lot of things that are not fully cooked, as you can say, because we don’t know what’s next. What is your sense of what would happen eventually within the Gaza Strip. Who governs it? 

EL-SADANY: I think that’s an incredibly difficult question. And it’s one that Palestinians will have a role in answering, but also per history the U.S., Israel, other actors as well. And so I think this is a—(laughs)—a big kind of conversation. 

I think, frankly, it’s a bit early right now to be thinking about in the midst of this destruction and damage. I think right now the real focus, to be frank, should be on getting to that ceasefire, which, like Steven said, is not something quite controversial; it’s something that Americans support across both sides of the aisle. I think no one wants to see continued destruction, dehumanization, and, honestly, instability in the region. But unfortunately, the direction that we’re going is just that. 

I think there is also some serious questions on the damage. I will disagree here with Mara. I think it’s not just social media; there’s real damage among Arab American and Muslim American populations who feel seriously marginalized by this administration’s actions. I think there needs to be much more listening and much more conversation, much more hearing what it is to them, and just the small changes that can rebuild trust. I don’t think these are big, big policy changes, but I think what we say really matters. What we say is heard. What we say is not just instrumentalized on social media; it’s being discussed in closed rooms. It’s being discussed in conversations where people no longer feel safe in this country. 

And so I would not want anyone on this—in this panel and in this room to walk away thinking that this is something that’s not important or that we’re dismissing or discounting it. These are real fears. We’ve seen anti-Semitism in Tunisia. We’ve seen anti-Semitism in this country. We’ve seen a six-year-old Muslim boy killed as a result of what’s said online, but not just because of what was said online but rather where some of that language began—on our TV channels, and what journalists were saying, and what policymakers were saying. So I think—I think everyone wants—needs to be thinking about how do we get to a ceasefire, how do we honor civilian life, how do we return hostages, and really how do we return some sense of humanity to the people most impacted by this. 

COOK: I actually want to pick up on both of—both of Mai’s points. 

I think it’s right, you know, that—we’re still at the beginning of this conflict and it’s going to unfold in really terrible ways. And so it may be too early to think about it, but my plea to American policymakers—and I’m certain Mara’s going to disagree with me on this—is that we don’t get the band back together and start doing the peace process thing all over again. We have failed at that any number of times because we have approached it in ways that have been—where we haven’t really understood what was going on. And in fact, you know, we have wanted it more than they’ve wanted it. This is a conflict that is—structurally is at a stalemate. We’ve also played the role, in the words of my friend and college Aaron David Miller, Israel’s lawyer during these things. And I think we also need to keep in check our transformational impulses, that now there’s been this big conflict so now we can—we can remake Palestinian society and Israeli society and the entire region and it will be OK. We’ve been down that road, and for all of our investment—and maybe it was not as huge as other investments in the region—but we basically got nothing for it. 

On the other point that Mai talked eloquently about, is that one of—this is—I’ve been at this professionally for twenty years, and this is perhaps the worst I have ever experienced. 

NINAN: I don’t think that’s conveyed to people who haven’t been following this. 

COOK: It is—the reflexive, almost immediate dehumanization of people in this conflict has been the thing that when I drive home at night that I have to blast the music just to try to get these ideas out of my head. That, you know—and I think people—I think people are mendacious and act on bad faith, and then I think people don’t actually realize what they are doing and what they are saying. But the—but it has been overwhelming and nonstop dehumanization of Arabs, of Muslims, of Palestinians, of Jews, of American Jews, of Israelis. It is stunning. And I don’t know what to do about it other than to think that everybody needs to take a step back and understand, you know—I have the—quite fortunate to have lived this very interesting life and have friends across these lines, and everybody I speak to—Palestinian friends, Israeli friends, Egyptian friends, Lebanese friends—the anguish in their voices and the worry in their voices about this. Meanwhile, we have this background noise of dehumanization is so startling, upsetting, and quite frankly just shocking in ways. And I just want to emphasize that. 

And so, folks, pay attention to that. We have to approach these issues with a tremendous amount of sensitivity. This is a conflict that doesn’t just—doesn’t just affect the Middle East; it affects all of us as well. 

NINAN: Yeah. Mai’s point was so well-taken, that language matters. Language really matters. 

RUDMAN: Can I just quickly—you know, Steven, I don’t disagree on the first point. I just don’t want to be characterized as suggesting the band get back together. 

COOK: (Laughs.) No, just it’s— 

RUDMAN: There’s a whole separate panel on all the things the United States did not do effectively. And so, no, it’s not about putting out big plans, but that does not mean that we can walk away from being able to address what happens the day after and have a—have a way forward on it. We should learn from our mistakes in how we move forward. 

COOK: I just want us to have realistic goals, you know, match our resources to realistic goals. That’s my pleading. 

RUDMAN: OK. Steven, that’s what I was doing the whole time I was there. That was not necessarily what other people with whom I was working were doing. So—OK. 

NINAN: So I think we all agree bands from the ’80s and ’90s are great when they get back together. (Laughter.) Middle East bands— 

COOK: I’m there first, but not this band. 

NINAN: All right. 

I think we have time for one more question. Yes, right up here. 

Q: Thank you. So my name is Liz. I’m an attorney based in Washington, D.C. 

And, Farah, you mentioned that something that Americans do not very well is we kind of don’t pay attention to the emotions, and I don’t want to be one of those Americans, and you mentioned the language really matters. But I feel like what has been most disturbing is people saying that a lot of us who are maybe not so—that are not, I guess, directly connected to what’s going on are being silent about it. And I feel like I’ve personally been silent just because I don’t have the language to be able to kind of talk about it in a way that’s meaningful. So kind of stepping back from this academic conversation we’re having, and speaking about it politically, and you know, economic impacts, how do we respond personally to our Arab American friends, our Muslim American friends, our Jewish friends who are really, really struggling in a way that’s productive? Like, what would you like for me to tell you, Mai, and Farah, and Mara? Because I just feel like I have so many colleagues who are really struggling and I don’t have the language to not be one of those Americans, I guess, who are not paying attention to feelings. 

NINAN: Because when you don’t grow up and you’re not exposed to it, whether it’s Judaism or Islam, it’s—you just don’t know what to do. I love that question. 

Mai, I’d love to start with you. And then, Farah, I’d love you to take it after that. 

EL-SADANY: Yeah. I think, one, the fact that you’re asking the question is a great start. So thank you for your humanity and inserting that into this conversation. I think that’s beautiful. 

Two, I think, from my vantage point and what I’ve offered to friends, be they Arab, Muslim, Jew, is just a listening ear. I think letting them know that you’re there, letting them know that you’re here to hear their stories, their lived realities, how this affects them. Whether they have family there or not, a lot of people are deeply affected by this because their loved ones are talking about it because they’ve been there, they’ve spent time there, or because they have coworkers there, or what have you. So I think lending that listening ear and just being willing to hear is a critical first step. 

And I think I just also want to make a quick comment recognizing that not all Palestinians are Muslim also. There are Christian Palestinians. And there was a harrowing attack on—strike on a church that killed a number of folks, including relatives of the representative—former Representative Justin Amash. And so I think it’s also important just to recognize the diversity of the people that we’re speaking about. Religion may play a part in this, but it’s also much more than that. People from across the board are being affected, and I think just showing a willingness to listen and be there and check in is the first and most important thing you can do. 

NINAN: Farah? 

PANDITH: I thought that was beautiful, Mai. Thank you for saying that. 

And, Liz, listen, you asking that question is the first step, as Mai said. I mean, it is so important that you did. 

One of the things that I would really say to you and everybody in that audience that are term members—and I was one, too—you look at these really complex and really difficult things and you think it’s—you know, it’s like boiling the ocean; there’s no way you’re going to be able to get to the end of things. And I want to remind you that every single person makes a difference in the way in which you relate to another human. And so what Mai said about how you listen, what questions you ask, making sure that the language you use does not set up an us versus them in any way, even though you might not mean it, think about what you’re saying. 

And also, extend a hand to sort of learn. If you don’t know something, there’s a way in which you can ask somebody who is not your faith or not—doesn’t have the background you have to help you learn about their perspective. And I think doing that with a compassionate ear and really understanding that you do have agency even by yourself—what I call a nano-intervention—makes a difference in a—in a community. And I would urge you all to think about how you—how you can do that, not just you, Liz, who was—who was very kind to ask that question. 

NINAN: Well, that is a beautiful note to end on. And I’m sorry; so many of you had such great questions. I apologize for not being able to take more of them. 

But I want to thank everyone. I’m so grateful to all of you for the courtesy and generosity, all of you, in asking your questions directly. To my wonderful panelists—Mai, Farah, Mara, and Steven with the golden retriever—(laughs)—and new book out in June, thank you guys so much. 

I want to remind everyone that this was on the record. I guess I should have said that at the beginning, but I think everybody knows. (Laughter.) And this will be posted on the CFR website, CFR.org. So for anybody who is interested, please take a look tomorrow. And happy—you guys repost and share on social media as you feel. And I want to thank everyone at CFR, especially the Events team, for always putting together such a great production. And thank you all. Thank you for joining us. (Applause.) 

COOK: Thank you. (Applause.) 

(END) 

Top Stories on CFR

Iran

Steven Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at CFR, and Ray Takeyh, the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle East studies at CFR, sit down with James M. Lindsay to discuss Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel and the prospects for a broader Middle East war.

Economics

CFR experts preview the upcoming World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) Spring Meetings taking place in Washington, DC, from April 17 through 19.   

Sudan

A year into the civil war in Sudan, more than eight million people have been displaced, exacerbating an already devastating humanitarian crisis.