Panelists discuss the war’s effect on the Gulf Arab signatories of the Abraham Accords, the Saudi Arabia-Israel relationship, and the future of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy.
ZACHARIA: Welcome to everyone to today’s meeting on the regional effects of the Israel-Hamas war. I am Janine Zacharia, the Carlos Kelly McClatchy lecturer at Stanford University, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion with our three distinguished panelists: Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations; Gregory Gause, professor of international affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M; and Amr Hamzawy, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who is joining us from Cairo today.
To ensure we leave maximum time for this very complex and multifaceted discussion I’m going to let you read their more extensive bios in the packet circulated by the Council.
It’s been a little over nine weeks since Hamas’ massacre of some 1,200 Israelis and the abduction of hundreds of others which, of course, was followed by Israel’s military assault on Gaza which has led to more than 17,000 Palestinians killed, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, the goal of which is to make it so Hamas can no longer rule there or launch attacks on Israel and to rescue as many hostages as possible.
Today we’re focused on the war’s regional effects including on the Gulf signatories of the Abraham Accords, the Saudi-Israel-U.S. dialogue on a potential normalization deal, and how the Biden administration is managing the conflicting pressures amid the crisis.
And so since the discussion—the focus is really on the region, I’d like to start with a question for all three panelists on this sort of—(audio break). Have you guys been able to hear me?
GAUSE: Start the question over there, Janine.
ZACHARIA: Did you hear the first part?
ZACHARIA: Sorry. I don’t know why it suddenly muted.
So the first question was since this is about the regional implications I’d like to start with a question of this outside in strategy of the Abraham Accords, starting with doing deals with Gulf nations and sort of neglecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in a way, for the last few years.
Elliott, do you want to start with that?
ABRAMS: Sure. What can one say except Hamas foiled that strategy? It was a strategy, I’d say, acceptable to most of the Arab governments, obviously, those who were signatories but also most of the ones who aren’t.
And whatever else Hamas did it put the issue back on the agenda in a way that Arab states, whether they like it or not—and many don’t like it—can’t really turn away from—can’t ignore at this point. That could change in a year or two but right now it’s back on the agenda.
ZACHARIA: Greg or Amr, do you want to add to that, about how this may have been part of how we got here or just the strategy in general if you could see it changing now?
Go ahead, Greg.
HAMZAWY: Greg? Greg, go ahead.
GAUSE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. This is a far cry from the 1940s and 1950s when issues between Arabs and Israelis, between Palestinians and Israelis, could shake governments throughout the Arab world and maybe even bring them down.
But I think that one of the enduring elements of this is that people in the Arab world care about the Palestinian issue, maybe not enough to mobilize the way they used to decades ago but it’s something that, you know, you can’t take off the agenda. It’s something that governments have to manage and deal with.
ZACHARIA: Mmm hmm. And, Amr, do you want to add there?
HAMZAWY: Yes. Let me differentiate between different subregions in the Arab world, Janine, because I do not believe that everyone is impacted the same way.
I believe that North Africa—for example, countries such as Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—are not preoccupied with what’s happening between Israel and Palestine and have not been for a long period of time. The same goes—in fact, this is a geographic subregion that we really need to understand is far away from the center of the conflict and does not pay attention.
There is some rhetorical interest which came out of Algeria, for example, in the last weeks but not much has followed in terms of policies on the ground.
The second subregional set of countries which are close to Iran, considered to be allies of Iran in the Arab part of the Middle East, governments or nonstate actors—Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen, or different Shi’a militias in Iraq—which have been trying to impact the conflict in different ways. Restrained sometimes, less restrained other times.
And then we have a third subregion which is the Gulf countries, the countries which signed the Abrahamic Accords—the UAE and Bahrain with Morocco—or countries which have been having trade relations—some relation with Israel throughout the last decades—Oman and Qatar or countries such as Saudi Arabia which have been negotiating a normalization.
These countries, I believe, even their public spaces are less interested in what’s happening in Israel and Palestine. Of course, they can no longer ignore it or sideline it the way it has been the case in the last years but it’s not that they are keen on participating and shaping it politically.
And then we have the core countries impacted from a regional perspective and the core group I would see primary Egypt and Jordan for obvious reason that we can, of course, elaborate on.
ZACHARIA: Yes, I want to come back to Egypt and King Abdullah in a moment.
But, Elliott, let’s start here in the U.S. right now. Just yesterday you saw a bit of a shift, perhaps, in President Biden’s rhetoric—a little bit more critical of Israel, talking about the indiscriminate bombing. That is what he said, I believe, and that basically saying time is running out for you. Talk a little bit about that U.S.-Israel dynamic at the moment.
ABRAMS: You know, I was at the NSC during the 2006 Lebanon War and it’s basically the same thing—that is, the United States trying to say we support you but this can’t go on and on and on, and in those days it was Prime Minister Olmert who said, I need ten days, just ten more days. You’d see him a week later and he’d say, I need ten more days, and Secretary of State Rice finally got tired of that.
In this case the Israelis are pushing back a lot harder because of the events of October 7, and because they have a good argument to make to the president that, look, you say you agree—and he did say this again really quite forcefully yesterday—Hamas has got to be destroyed, and it’s clearly not destroyed now and it’s not going to be destroyed in two weeks.
So this tension will continue and I’d say there’s a related tension which is the question of the two-state solution, which the Israelis are really not willing to talk about right now and I would say that’s a pretty broad opinion.
I’ve just come back from Israel and it’s not a right-wing opinion. It’s a pretty broad opinion that this is not the moment to talk about that. That would kind of reward Hamas for what it did and, anyway, when you look at the condition of Gaza and you look at the condition of the PA in the West Bank how would you create a two-state solution out of that.
It was striking to me, and I just want to read the words that the president used which was we need to do something that provides for the beginning of an option for the two-state solution. That’s the kind of language that I would imagine most governments in the region could agree with and so could probably the Israelis because it’s so vague—that the president may have been sort of pushing toward a verbalization that everybody could buy into.
ZACHARIA: Elliott or Greg or Amr, I mean, this is not a military tactics discussion per se but is there another way to achieve the Israeli objectives of getting Hamas out of there, making it so they can do another October 7, besides what they’re doing?
I mean, is there any—Greg or Amr, do you—something else that the Americans should be guiding or other people in the region can be doing, perhaps, to—like, Qatar or, I don’t know, to get them out of there or this is it? This is the only option?
Anybody want to—Amr, go ahead. Or Greg.
HAMZAWY: No. No. I was just—I was just signaling to Greg to go ahead. Please. (Laughter.)
ZACHARIA: Oh, OK. (Laughs.)
GAUSE: Well, I don’t think the goal is realistic. I don’t think the destruction of Hamas as a political force is something that can be accomplished through this military strategy. Obviously, its military wing can be degraded but it’s such a nebulous goal and such an extreme goal that it makes me wonder what the actual endpoint is going to be on this and my assumption is it’s going to be, as Elliott said, has happened in the past when an American president says that’s enough.
ZACHARIA: Mmm hmm. All right. Amr—yeah, go ahead, Amr.
HAMZAWY: Yes. So, Janine, you were asking about what could be done—possibly done to get Hamas out of, I would say, Gaza’s governance.
HAMZAWY: I mean, that is what I can—what I can address. I mean, as you said, I mean, this is not a session on military developments on the ground, and we don’t have enough information to be able to even reflect on that.
So, however, in terms of what could be done to get Hamas out of Gaza’s governance, I envisage at least two key steps which could be put forward as part of the interim phase management when the war comes to an end. And if we define the interim phase loosely as maybe extending between six months to a year, one, key Arab actors—and here I’m referring primarily to Egypt and Qatar, followed by Jordan, three key Arab countries which have been having and sustained relations with all Palestinian factions throughout the last years—need to get different Palestinian groups with a framework that could be related to the Palestinian Liberation Organization or could be related to the PA—to the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah—energized, and so on and so forth. I imagine would speak about that. But they need to sit down and figure out a new vision for Palestine away from what Hamas has been doing out of Gaza throughout the last decades, because what Hamas has been doing has been in a way to amplify the suffering.
But Hamas has never delivered a solution to the suffering of the Gazan population, now over 2 million. Hamas actually have destabilized security not only in Palestine and Israel, but in a regional way as well. So these Arab actors have an interest in pushing forward for a new round of negotiations, which can be labeled Palestinian national reconciliation or Palestinian consensus talks, to come up with a new vision and maybe to energize some actors which have been sidelined in recent years.
The second—and I’ll be brief—a second policy which can be pushed forward is by the international community—indeed, the U.S. would play definitely a decisive role—to enter into talks with the PA, of course, with the idea of energizing the PA or the idea of renewing its legitimacy but accepting that the PA will need time to figure out how to do so because if you tell them, well, go and hold elections right away the lesson of the elections of 2005 still looms big in the background. I mean, these are—were elections which Hamas won in 2005.
So they need time. They can be pushed to energize, to create new legitimacy, but it has to be agreed upon in a clear timeline manner and in relation to our political prospects based on the two-state solution.
ZACHARIA: Elliott, Netanyahu rejects all of that. Netanyahu rejects all of that, right? What did he say yesterday, no Hamasstan, no Fatahstan?
ABRAMS: Yeah. I just want to—the election that Hamas won was 2006, actually.
HAMZAWY: Yes. Yes.
ABRAMS: There is a real problem here. You see the people in the PA talking about bringing Hamas in—bringing Hamas into the PLO. That’s a nonstarter, I think, for Israel and probably for the United States. To say to the Israelis, you know, in the aftermath of October 7 you’ve got to negotiate with these people that are now part of the PA/PLO that’s not going to happen.
I can think, by the way, of one other thing. I mean, theoretically Hamas people could leave Gaza—
ABRAMS: —and people point to the model of the way Arafat left Lebanon. I think that’s realistically not going to happen, and I think that the military goal of the Israelis really is to—in a way, to make sure that Israelis can move back to the border area without any military threat from Hamas and I think that is achievable.
ZACHARIA: OK. You know, Amr, you’re there in Egypt and I feel like amid all of this there’s been very little discussion of Egypt and the fact that Rafah is—they’re not letting people leave through there.
Now, I know they don’t want a crisis like Jordan has with, I think, more Syrian babies being born in Jordan, I understand, than Jordanians, perhaps, right now. Given that someone told me I have to verify this.
But I know they don’t want millions of Palestinians in the Sinai desert there but talk about Egypt’s thinking here. Why are they—you know, why don’t they open, let more people out? Is there more that Egypt can be doing? What does Sisi think here?
HAMZAWY: Right. So thank you, Janine, for the question and here I believe we really need to have sort of not only a government prism but a government and people prism because the position of the government is widely shared by a clear majority of Egyptians, not only in urban centers but in rural areas as well, and I’m here since several days and I’m not only sort of looking at family conversations but I’m looking at social media, I’m looking at conventional media, discussions in Egypt in general.
People are not going to accept—government and people alike are not going to accept any scenario of forced displacements leading Palestinians to leave Gaza through Egypt. This is a nonstarter for different reasons.
One, Egypt has very legitimate national security concerns. Egypt has been fighting against terrorism in Sinai throughout the last years and a very heavy price has been paid. Sinai has a very special place in Egypt’s modern history in the way Egyptian nationalism has evolved in recent decades and this is not an issue that we would gamble on or play with.
This is a clear national security, national sovereignty issue that no one in Egypt will be happy to see undermined. So this is a government and people position. This is not only President Sisi, not only the Egyptian government. This is a popular stance as well.
Secondly, out of Egypt’s historical commitment to the Palestinian cause and its role as a mediator Egypt would not accept mass displacement or forced displacement of big numbers of Palestinians because it would basically mean the end of any prospect of a two-state solution. What kind of a two-state solution would emerge?
And Elliott was right. I mean, we have to look at the condition on the ground. But by pushing more people out, I mean, what kind of environment are we creating? I mean, is this an environment conducive to a two-state solution? Of course not.
Thirdly—and this is not only a tactical consideration, it’s a strategic consideration as well, Janine—Egypt has been fighting terrorism in Sinai for such a long time. Now, if you sort of—and I’m not saying that this is going to happen and from a policy perspective and popular perspective it will not be tolerated—but imagine having the remaining elements of a militarized militant resistance movement operating out of Egypt. What would the impact be on the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which is the oldest in the region? I mean, we signed the peace treaty in 1979.
Now, are people in Israel—political parties, security institutions—willing to see militant operations out of the Egyptian territory reaching Israel? This is playing with fire in the region, not only in Israel and Palestine. This is widening the scope of what’s happening right now. So this is a no-no for government and people alike.
ZACHARIA: OK, but what about the women and children? Doesn’t have to be, you know, the militant but something more—
HAMZAWY: Let me—well, there are different ways of addressing this humanitarian issue, which is, one, to come to an end. I mean, the war has to end, right? I mean, the war has to end. I mean, we can disagree on—as Greg was saying, on how feasible—and Elliott, of course—how feasible objectives that have been put forward by the Israeli government are.
But we are coming increasingly worldwide to a consensus point of view that the war needs to stop. Now, what will happen after the war stopping is, A, addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza in many different ways that will have to be shouldered not only by Egypt or by Arab and regional actors but the international community will have to play a key role and Israel will have to play a role as well because this is a massive humanitarian crisis that is emerging. Winter is approaching, rain is coming, and this is going to be more challenging in the next weeks and months to come.
Secondly, we have to move from humanitarian aid into reconstruction efforts as well. Gaza has become a destroyed place with no economy. What kind of job opportunities are going to emerge for people, I mean, to take them away from militant ideas and militant ideologies and from using arms and committing acts of violence?
This is going to be key as well. And, third, the governance scenarios for Gaza—who is going to do it? What kind of combination? Elliott was saying this is a nonstarter to expect that any Israeli government will negotiate with Palestinians.
But what could happen? I mean, what kind of governance model would we be able to develop for Gaza and how can we—
ZACHARIA: Elliott, I think—Elliott said that Hamas in the—Hamas in the government.
HAMZAWY: No, of course not. No, of course not. I mean, no one—I mean, no one even in the region. I mean, if you pay attention closely to what Egypt and even Jordan and other regional actors are saying no one is expecting Hamas to be part of the governance equation of Gaza post-war. No. I mean, this is sort of agreed upon. But whom to get—whom to negotiate with would be the key question.
ZACHARIA: You know, Greg, we were going to go to the Saudis but I want to—because of what Amr was saying I want to start with the Qataris a moment because before the—we had this temporary pause in fighting the Qataris seemed to be playing a role. They’re getting hostages out. We don’t—you know, broke down. Do you see Qatar as the arsonist or the firefighter?
GAUSE: Well, right now it’s the firefighter. I do think that Qatar has placed itself in this role very strategically over the past couple of decades in terms of being the Gulf country that will speak to Islamist groups, and that’s convenient at some times and it’s troubling at some times.
But I think that when everything settles out from the Gaza war the Qataris will come to Washington and say, it was more useful for you for us to have these contacts than otherwise so don’t push us to cut off our contacts with these groups.
But that was a choice that Qatar made I’d say two decades ago and it was very consciously because the Qatari leadership thought the Islamists were the wave of the future. Now, I’m not sure that that’s right but it has given Qatar—as Qatar always seeks an outsized role for itself whether it be in hosting the World Cup or whether it be in the—in regional geopolitics and this gives Qatar a role that none of the other smaller Gulf states have.
ZACHARIA: Is there any chance they’re going to get—help get any of these remaining hostages out? That is so central for the Israeli public right now. Can they (do it ?)? (Do they have any leverage ?)?
GAUSE: I would say that—I would say that the Qataris are about the only avenue to get those hostages out.
ZACHARIA: Yeah. And now let’s talk about the Saudis for a moment. You know, there was—in the initial moments after October 7 there was this quick, you know, hot take that, oh, this was to scuttle the Israeli-Saudi normalization efforts.
But we know from intel that Hamas was planning this long before that. How do you see that and can you speak more broadly about how this impacts potential Saudi-Israeli normalization?
GAUSE: I think it certainly sets it back but it doesn’t end the possibilities. I think the forces that were driving the Saudis, the Israelis, the Americans in these negotiations haven’t gone away and I think that the key thing to remember is that every Arab agreement with Israel is—historically has basically been an Arab agreement with the United States.
I think that that goes back to Anwar Sadat and it goes through the Abraham Accords. And so the Saudis have a very clear, and they haven’t hidden this, wish list of what they want from the United States and if the price is a recognition of Israel they’re willing to consider that.
I think that what the Gaza war does is it raises the ante, right? The Saudis have said all along that we need something on the Palestinian issue and I think that what they mean is something beyond what the Emiratis got in the Abraham Accords. They need something on the Palestinian issue.
But I do think that the Gaza war has upped the ante of what they would accept as the kind of de minimis on the Palestinian issue. So it has affected those negotiations but I don’t think it’s ended the prospects of those negotiations, which have their own complications outside of the Palestinian question.
But I think that—I don’t think it’s ended the possibility of those negotiations continuing once the crisis is over.
ZACHARIA: And do you think it’s fair to say that Mohammed bin Salman has been fully welcomed back into the arms of Washington now, rehabilitated because of the situation or what’s going on with that?
GAUSE: By everybody but the Washington Post.
ZACHARIA: Elliott, what do you think? Anything to add on that in terms of the Saudis here?
ABRAMS: Yeah. I certainly agree with Greg that the Saudis have signaled—certainly, the foreign minister has—that the normalization goal is still there. One of the reasons it’s there, I think, is that nothing’s changed with respect to Iran—Iran and Yemen, Iran and Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, Iran and Syria.
The Israelis, I found, you know, when you want to talk about Gaza they want to talk about Iran because they see what Hamas did as part of the broader picture, and I think the Saudis and Emiratis really do, too. So the—in a sense, the basic picture of what’s going on in the region for all of them has not changed.
ZACHARIA: And, of course, we’ve got this new action from the Houthis somehow being involved here and firing rockets and, you know, and so let’s just talk about Iran for a moment. I mean, are we—do you see maybe the U.S. sort of going back to Iran, you know, trying to do something on Iran, bringing this coalition together as you were just saying, Elliott, you know, with this as the impetus? Greg or anybody?
ABRAMS: Yeah. I would say that this is a point of disagreement between the U.S. and Israel. That is, the Israelis see Iran as central here, and it’s not just Netanyahu. They opposed the JCPOA in 2015, and they think the United States is, to put it this way, weak on Iran.
They note, for example, that we’re playing defense in Iraq, in Syria, and now against the Houthis. But our responses to the constant attacks have, in their view, been pretty weak. So that—they would like to see a different policy on Iran in Washington and they’re not getting it.
GAUSE: I think the Iranians are playing a very subtle game here. They’re trying to find out where the edge of the envelope is, right? They want to be seen as the one state in the region that stands with the Palestinians in order to mobilize support for themselves and their clients and allies in the Arab world and thus they push Hezbollah, right, on Israel’s northern border but not so much that it would become an enormous confrontation.
I don’t think that the Israeli—I don’t think the Iranians want a direct confrontation with Israel or the United States but they want to be able to take advantage of public discontent in the Arab world, in the larger Muslim world even, by portraying themselves as the only regional actor that really stands with the Palestinians.
I think the Houthis are a special case. I think in many ways the Houthis are more anxious to be Iran’s client than Iran is to be their patron and thus they’re more than willing to fire off what they have, you know, a thousand miles to try to hit Israel.
I think that we should adopt to some extent the Iranian approach, right? The Iranians stand behind the Houthis and Hezbollah and all and that gives them implausible deniability in what happens. But I think that, you know, the Houthis are a target that’s not Iran and when, you know, a nonstate actor engages in attacks on shipping in international waters that’s piracy.
We dealt with the Somali pirates before and it seems to me that—I understand why the Biden administration doesn’t want to go after the Iranian allies. They don’t want this conflict to spread. They want it to be contained in the horrible situation that it is now and not get (more powerful ?).
But I do think that the Houthis need to be disciplined by us on this one and I think that we can send a message to Iran that we’re not as weak as the Israelis think we are.
OK. Amr, go ahead.
HAMZAWY: Yes. Let me disagree on the issue of whether Iran is garnering popular support in the Arab street due to its current position on the Gaza war. I believe it’s coming across. If you look at Jordan, for example, or, I mean, the place where most protest activities in the Arab street has happened in recent weeks I believe the position of Iran, the position of Iran’s clients or proxies, Hezbollah especially, has been perceived as quite weak as they haven’t done much on the containment. The sort of no confrontation, a bit of action game of Iran has been—or the Iranian bluff, if you wish, has been called out by many.
So I’m not sure that it’s really garnering additional popular support at this time. They did so in the previous rounds all the way from 2006 in Lebanon all the way to the last rounds of military confrontation in Gaza.
But this time, because they have really pushed forward a discourse of I wouldn’t say disowning but sort of we pushed forward the rhetoric of we were not responsible, we were not part of the planning, we did not push Hamas to do what it did, they denied any affiliation and that has been registered by the Arab street as well. So I really doubt whether they are going to get political capital out of what’s happening right now.
Second issue, I believe the U.S. is better advised—the administration is better advised to look at how regional actors see the challenges, the threats, which the Houthis, for example, pose because they are not only posing threats to the U.S. or to allies globally. They are posing threats to key Arab countries as well, countries which are invested in maritime security—Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the UAE—I mean, the Red Sea and then the Gulf.
So the U.S. has here an entry point to coordinate with its Arab allies to create a different image in the region not only of a pro-Israel superpower but of a superpower which is reaching out to its Arab allies as well and finding ways of creating new security arrangements.
Finally, I believe, Janine, it really comes down to what this war will let everyone remember is that we really have two scenarios and two models—future scenarios—two models for this region.
One is based on nonstate actors—militant governments—that are not interested in a peace settlement, that are not interested in conflict resolution measures, and a second model which is based on primary governments, conservative governments at times, governments which are more interested in security arrangements and regional stability. And that needs to be portrayed and perceived by U.S. officials and try to be pushed forward by maybe brokering a new truce, helping the Qataris and the Egyptians. By the way, it wasn’t only Qatar. Egypt played a key role as well due to its strong ties to Hamas.
These issues can be pushed by the U.S. administration if it’s interested in reshaping the future of the Middle East away from what Iran and its clients are pushing forward.
ZACHARIA: OK, I think it’s a nice time now to pivot now to your questions in the audience. So I’m going to—I think the CFR operator is going to remind us of the instructions. And I think everybody can begin to raise their hand and then they’ll be called on.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take the first question from Deborah Amos.
ZACHARIA: Go ahead and unmute, Deborah.
Q: Ah. Can you hear me?
ZACHARIA: Yeah, now we—
The question is this. I read yesterday about a hostage exchange all for all that’s floating. I don’t know if it’s a true proposal or not. But anyway, the name of Marwan Barghouti was mentioned as a person who could be released. And I wondered if somebody like Barghouti, who is, you know, known as a leader—he could, you know, run the movement; he’s got enough popularity to do so—would that make a difference if he was released? And would the Israelis do that because of who he is? Would they release him from jail?
ZACHARIA: Elliott, you want to speak to Barghouti, and then Amr or Greg on the overall exchange?
ABRAMS: Yeah, I’m dubious that the Israelis would do that. First of all, behind the scenes, I expect that they would not be pressured to do it by President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Abbas would view Barghouti presumably as a rival, so might not be so delighted by his release.
But more important, you know, once upon a time the Israelis released Yahya Sinwar. And the view in Israel right now, I think, is not to release people with blood on their hands. I just—I think, in the current mood in Israel, releasing that many convicted security prisoners would be more than the (traffic ?) will bear. That’s my guess.
ZACHARIA: But, Greg, have you picked up anything on this all-for-all exchange prospects?
GAUSE: Sorry, I’ve got nothing. Deb’s better hooked in than I am on that one.
ZACHARIA: OK, next question, moderator.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Anne Popkin.
Q: Hi. Thank you guys very much for your comments. They were great.
My question is, with relation to the American administration, et cetera, will what is going on on campuses, and now it’s spreading to congressional actions, have an effect on many of the issues you have been discussing today?
ZACHARIA: Elliott, I know you wanted to talk about the impact on the election—you know, election politics on this; kind of related, and—
ABRAMS: I have no special knowledge here, but, you know, the polls look very bad for the president this week. And you have a lot of particularly younger Democrats who object to his, I think we could call it very strong support, emotional support, for Israel. So, you know, soon it will be 2024, an election year. And I do wonder whether he’s not going to be hearing from more Democrats around the country, elected officials, party officials, that the policy has got to change. Now, whether it will do it is another question. But certainly if you were looking at this, you might say, coldly, amorally, in political terms, that’s what he’s going to be hearing.
ZACHARIA: You know, Anne, this is beyond the purview of this discussion, but given that I’m sitting here at Stanford, I just want to say that—and I have a lot to say about the hearing the other day, but again, beyond the—call me or something. But I think, you know, I think there are administrators, beleaguered administrators, at universities across the country who are really struggling with what to do right now.
And I think one thing that would help is, if you want to do it in a hearing setting or CFR or Brookings or somebody wants to convene, is what—as a discussion about what are the rules on free speech. How does the Leonard Law impact things? You know, what are we tolerating? What are we not tolerating? What does our fundamental standard say at our university? And then conveying that to the students and to staff, right? I mean, I just think right now everything is very ad hoc and reactive. And as a result, you’re seeing sort of the chaos that we’re witnessing across the country.
OK, Dina (sp)—
ZACHARIA: Yeah. Sorry, Greg. Go ahead.
GAUSE: Could I add one more on that—
GAUSE: —as someone who’s also on a campus?
ZACHARIA: Yes, of course.
GAUSE: I think that one of the lessons I take out of this is the University of Chicago has it right. Universities should not be taking institutional positions on political issues, no matter how hot or no matter how overwhelming the right answer might be, right, not that this is one of those cases, but we got into this on cases where people thought there was an overwhelmingly right answer and universities started taking positions. I think the University of Chicago has it right.
I also think that what we’re seeing right now, when you get down to it, is a pretty bald-faced effort by donors to try to control the operations at universities. And that to me, as a long-time professor, is troubling.
ZACHARIA: Yeah. I told Richard Saller, the president of Sanford, when I saw him shortly after this, I said, Richard, I said, you’re not the State Department. You don’t need to have a foreign policy. But that’s a controversial view. And a lot of people would not like that, right? I mean, there is this expectation that who else but the universities to sort of guide us, you know? And, you know, I think they have to make students feel safe. That’s what I think. But anyway, sorry, I digress.
Go ahead, Dina (sp).
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from James Siebens.
Q: Hi. James Siebens. I’m with the Stimson Center.
I wanted to ask you all to talk more about President Biden’s recent comment about Israel’s indiscriminate bombing in Gaza and whether you think that that has any implication for U.S. policy, especially with respect to future arms transfers, because, as you know, the State Department has a policy against transferring arms that are likely to be used in the commission of war crimes.
ZACHARIA: Elliott, do you want to take that?
ABRAMS: Yeah. If the president meant that, it would have the impact that you suggest. I don’t think he meant it. I think he probably chose a word that he didn’t mean. For one thing, it’s wrong. The bombing is not indiscriminate. And many U.S. officials, including his own spokesman Kirby, have said this. The secretary of state has said it. So indiscriminate is not the right word.
What I think the president—what the minister meant to say was that too many civilians were being hurt or killed. But, you know, that comment by the president comes, what, three days after release of further munitions. So I think he—you know, I just think he misspoke. I don’t think he said what he meant to say.
ZACHARIA: But Elliott, there is this tension, right, that we’re picking up within the administration—the State Department official who resigned and wrote his op-ed. You know, and there seems to be some question. It’s not all lockstep this time.
ABRAMS: It isn’t, Janine. But I think it’s lockstep where it matters. That is, that guy at the State Department doesn’t matter. No one elected him, and he doesn’t make policy. And I’d say the same thing about the 40 White House interns who I think the president should have dismissed instantly. Who the hell do they think they are? He’s president. And I don’t see—maybe I’m not privy to it—but the president, the secretary of state, and the national security adviser, which is what counts, they seem to be in agreement.
ZACHARIA: OK. Next question, Dina (sp).
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Judith Bruce.
ZACHARIA: Go ahead and unmute, Judith.
Q: Yeah. Sorry. Yes. Thank you for all of this.
I’d like to have your thoughts on Syria and the implications for what’s going on there. Any effect?
ZACHARIA: OK, we lost—
GAUSE: Amr, you want a swing at that one?
ZACHARIA: Amr, you want to talk about Syria in all this?
HAMZAWY: Sure. Yes. Yes.
I mean, Syria has been one of the most silent actors since the conflict broke out, since October 7. I believe that the government in Syria is preoccupied with the measures it’s implementing, continues to implement on the ground, to extend its control on the territory. The government has no appetite in Syria, in spite of its strategic alliance with Iran and proxy actors such as Hezbollah, to be part of the game of provoking a bit of Israeli responses, but not risking an all-out confrontation. So it has basically stayed away.
What’s interesting to keep in mind as well is the fact that Syria has a Palestinian population, a significant Palestinian population, living in different camps. And there was not much—there hasn’t been much that has been reported from these camps, suggesting that either a tight security control has been imposed on these camps to avoid any protest activities or that they might be close to stances taken by the Palestinian population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem towards feeling and practicing a bit of solidarity but not risking their livelihood in Syria by getting themselves into trouble by firing rockets or whatever. So the Syrian front has been quite stable with regard to Israel.
What is more worrying, from an American point of view, is what the militias are doing and the different—as has been said, the U.S. is playing defense in Syria and Iraq, and attacks on U.S. personnel and U.S. military points has been on the rise. This is an issue which needs to be kept in mind, as well, when the Biden administration moves beyond managing the coming days of the war, the final stretch of the war, and into reimagining the Middle East and its different security arrangements. Syria will have to be included.
ZACHARIA: Amr, I think this is a really interesting point you’re raising, because if we step back for a moment and say what has Hamas actually achieved here, right, because, you know, they—you haven’t seen, like, eruption of support around the—in the Arab streets. You see it on TikTok maybe. You see it maybe on college campuses in some respects. But—and whether that’s because these—the regimes are clamping it down or it’s just not happening, right, I mean, it’s—
HAMZAWY: Yes. You know, Janine, I feel Hamas’ calculus has been mistaken at at least three levels. One of them is exactly what you’re referring to, to expect an eruption of anger, of popular anger across the region, which has not happened. Interest has, of course, been on the rise in the Palestinian cause, but it has been translated primarily in most countries in giving donations, in trying to get humanitarian aid into Gaza Strip, in fact, in getting civil-society organizations from all over the region, not only governments, to send humanitarian aid to Palestine.
So the massive eruption of popular anger and the pressure on governments in the region has not happened. To me it’s a sign of maturity, because, at the end of the day, we are in a troubled region that has been suffering from so many civil wars, so many instabilities, so many warlike situations, for such a long time. So it’s time now to try to stabilize.
The second wrong calculation on Hamas’ side was its expectation on the side of Iran. As far as Iran is concerned, I believe Hamas expected Iran to play a different role. And therefore, the discrediting of Iran as a backer, as a popular—as a savior of the so-called resistance camp, is happening now, unfolding on the ground.
Thirdly, Hamas miscalculated with regard to the U.S. response. I mean, U.S. defense has been key in sort of pushing the specter of the war away from regional widening.
So at these three levels, it’s quite legitimate to say: What did Hamas get? What is it getting?
And I believe there’s a fourth level, which is the loss of political capital among Palestinians in Gaza. And it’s interesting to keep this in mind and see what will happen when the war comes to an end.
All right, moderator, next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jonathan Paris.
My question is this 7 October attack has made Israel very skittish and in more or less a preemptive frame of mind. I’ve always been a big fan of preemption, as Elliott knows, and I see this playing out in two ways, and I want your reaction.
One, with regard to the Radwan Brigade of Hezbollah, will Israel insist on a revision of the status quo and the implementation of 1701, pushing Hezbollah back to the Litani River?
And second, when it comes to the nuclear timeline if Iran should get too close to the target line, will Israel be more likely to preempt now than they were before October 7?
ZACHARIA: Go ahead, Elliott.
ABRAMS: I think the answer is yes. It’s very clear that in the aftermath, October 7-October 8, the IDF and the minister of defense wanted to go north, not into Gaza. And Netanyahu and Gantz said no. But most of the people that I talked to in Israel believed that they would have to—that they couldn’t live with Hezbollah in its current state with the threat that it poses. And that, therefore, over the next year or two or some indeterminate period, there would, in fact, be a Hezbollah-Israel war. Sooner, if Hezbollah wants it sooner, if Iran wants it sooner. But if not, the feeling was Israel would have to turn to this.
In the immediate period, I think Jonathan is right that what the Israelis want, they want to be able to get their population to move back north. And that means moving those special forces, the Radwan Forces, north, whether it’s Litani or it’s five miles north. And that they do talk about. And, you know, that’s 1701. I mean, that is what 1701 says, no forces other than the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL south of the Litani. Whether they’re going to be able to achieve this, you know, that’s a diplomatic question that I hope the United States is discussing with Gulf Arabs and others, because if you want to avoid that conflict or you want to certainly push it off then the way to do that is to get those Hezbollah forces off the border.
ZACHARIA: OK, next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Simone Jaroslaw.
Q: Hi, this is Simone. Strategic Risk Intelligence and at Morgan Stanley.
Had a question about the Houthis, which is that assuming the Houthis continue to harass ships in the Red Sea, what would it take for the U.S. to go beyond defensive measures and instead strike Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen, maybe to wipe out radar and diminish their capabilities? Thanks.
ZACHARIA: Greg, you started to answer this a little bit.
GAUSE: I don’t think it would take anything but a decision. It’s not like—it’s not like there’s some kind of prepositioning of forces or marshaling of—I think we have the forces in the region. And I would assume we know the targets, although I’m no expert on these military things. I would assume we know the targets. I would assume we know where Houthi missiles are being launched from. I assume we know where Houthi helicopters are flying out of. I think it would just be—it would just be taking the decision. I think Amr’s right that you want to do this in conjunction with or at least informing Arab partners who are concerned about the Houthis—the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Emiratis specifically. The Saudis and the Emiratis having been subjected of Houthi attacks. But I don’t think that there’s any obstacles except making the decision to do it.
ZACHARIA: Greg, the U.S. was supplying the Saudis with weapons for years to wage this war against the Houthis. So if they’re worried about a direct attack, the U.S., you know, and then escalating with Iran, why wouldn’t they just have the Saudis do it?
GAUSE: Well, as you said, the Saudis have been trying for years and they haven’t had much luck in degrading Houthi capabilities. And I actually think that the ceasefire between the Houthis and Saudi is worth preserving because that was kind of a hidden humanitarian crisis that, if the ceasefire holds and if some movement towards some kind of political—solution is the wrong word. Some kind of political agreement that would allow a more normal life for Yemenis, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
ZACHARIA: Elliott, did you want to add to that? Go ahead.
ABRAMS: I would just add that you’re not going to get the Saudis to do this to protect Israel. I mean, that’s the wrong moment for them to break the ceasefire and attack the Houthis again. We’re going to have to take the lead on that with some other maritime powers who are there—the British, the French, others. And I certainly agree with Greg. I’m no military expert either, but it seems to me this is not hard to do if the president gives the order.
ZACHARIA: Yeah. OK, Simone, I hope that answered your question.
Next question, moderator.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Daniel Mintz.
Q: Hi. This is a question for Amr.
In the Arab world has the nature of the Hamas attack in terms of the sexual, you know, attacks on women, and the decapitations, and everything—has that had any impact on how it’s been interpreted?
HAMZAWY: Thank you. Thank you, Daniel. Yes. Let me start by saying that following October 7, in terms of popular sentiments right after October 7 and in terms of government positions, we saw Arab governments in the Arab League ministerial meeting, which took place if I’m not mistaken on October 9 or October 10, condemning all forms of violence against civilians on all sides. This was a strong statement which was put forward by all governments, with the only exception of Algeria, which did not sign on the statement. Popular sentiments were quite clear in not condoning any forms of violence against civilians.
Now, with what’s coming out with regard to atrocities committed against Israeli civilians, I believe many in the region are putting forward—and this refers really to social media discussions as well as discussion in conventional media outlets across the region all the way from Morocco to the UAE and Bahrain—people are putting forward massive criticism and distancing themselves from what Hamas stands for. So I see an opportunity. I mean, this is a horrific situation, of course. What happened on October 7 was horrific. The war and its realities are horrific as well. But there is an opportunity for the region to restore some public debate about violence and where we take it from there.
Are we going to be living in a region where violence continues to be perpetuated by governments, by nonstate actors, by militant groups? Or are we going to find a way of condemning and not condoning and combating violence—all forms of violence against civilians, and not only verbally, but in terms of policy actions as well? I believe key Arab governments can take the lead and key Arab civil societies can take the lead as well. So I’m monitoring what’s happening. But back to your question, yes, it has been having an impact. I imagine this impact will grow as we move forward.
ZACHARIA: Amr, I just want to—I don’t want to dismiss what you said, but I’ve also seen trends in Arab, like, social media and on Arabic channels of outright denial of some of the atrocities, of interviews with Hamas spokesman saying we don’t kill children, you know, deliberately false information. I’ve seen avatars of people—you know, in the Arab world, changing their avatar to a paraglider, you know, who came across. You know, and so, you know, is it—is there a mix right here?
HAMZAWY: Yes. Yes, definitely. Yes. I mean, there is a mix. And I monitor quite closely the survey results which the Arab Barometer puts out, which will be interesting to keep an eye on because of their credibility. And they do share—they do communicate this mixed picture. I’m not saying it’s a done deal. I’m not saying it’s a won battle. But there is a battle going on. People are not simply siding with Hamas and are not—all of them are not in denial of the atrocities committed on October 7. And the appetite—I believe, regional appetite for violence against civilians is at a low point, which is good and constructive from a political perspective, but it needs to be built up. It needs to be built on domestically. It needs to be built on regionally, internationally by creating the prospect for a peaceful settlement for conflict resolution.
Greg was referring to how good it is to preserve the Yemeni truce. It would be good to create moments of peace and truce elsewhere in the region. This is a troubled region. We still have Syria. We still have Lebanon and the instability we were referring to. And then Israel and Palestine as well. This is not a won battle. This is not a done deal. It’s a mixed picture. It’s a mixed package. But there is some reasons for hope. And it all really comes down to the political prospects we will be generating in the next day.
GAUSE: Janine, I do think that—I do think that, while I take all of Amr’s points, my sense, at least, looking at the Gulf and not the broader Arab world, is the focus on civilian deaths and civilian casualties has focused much more on the Palestinian civilian casualties recently. And I think that that’s something that we just need to keep in mind.
ZACHARIA: Yeah. Well, Israel’s trying to ban Al Jazeera completely over there too. Again, a separate discussion about media in the Arab world.
Next question, moderator.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Naim El-Far.
Q: Good day, everyone. I know it’s not our base case. but what would it actually take for Hezbollah, Iran, other actors to actually intervene? I know it’s not the base case, but there—is there a red line? Is there something that would push them over the edge and have them actually go in? Thank you.
ZACHARIA: Greg, you want to start?
GAUSE: Yeah, I think that we’ve seen—the Iranians, supposedly, sent out some red lines, right, publicly at the beginning. You know, if the Israelis invade Gaza that’s a red line, if the Israelis destroy Gaza infrastructure, that’s a red line. Well, that’s happening, and the Iranians have not escalated their interventions. And so I think that they’re playing this pretty cautiously, perhaps to their detriment in terms of regional public opinion, as Amr says. But I don’t see what more the Israelis can do that would lead the Iranians to say we’ve got to unleash all of our weapons now.
ZACHARIA: I mean, Greg, why is Hezbollah there? They’re deterring Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear program, right? So why would they suddenly join this after Hamas? They’re going to do their thing when they’re instructed to do their thing, right?
GAUSE: Right. I don’t think that Hezbollah or any of these other groups allied with Iran act outside of the Iranian umbrella broadly. Of course, they have some operational autonomy. And I don’t think that the Iranians order the Houthis to do every single attack that they do. But Hezbollah is not going to act outside of Iran’s regional strategy because Hezbollah is very happy to be part of the Iranian regional strategy.
ZACHARIA: We have just three minutes left. Perhaps time for one final question, moderator.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the last question from Richard Hurowitz.
Q: Hi. Thanks for this.
I’m curious if there—if the primary driver in the region is sort of the—you know, Iran, and it—and therefore the Arab states are—it’s in their strong geopolitical interest to have a two-state solution. And assuming Hamas gets sort of, you know, cleaned out, when you look at the Palestinian Authority is there a figure—or, are there figures that would be palatable to both the—you know, the United States, the gulf Arabs, and Saudi, and the Israelis, that would also have the credibility to have a deal? Or does that type of person not exist? Because in the aftermath of October 7, a lot of the rhetoric coming from the PA doesn’t really make them—you know, it reinforces them as being sort of a not-credible, you know, interlocutor for Israel, or for anybody else.
ZACHARIA: Good final question. The next leader of Palestine. Elliot?
ABRAMS: There is no one who has the kind of legitimacy that Arafat had and that actually Abbas had after he won the presidential election in 2005. Barghouti has been mentioned but, of course, he’s a prisoner. If he came out and started playing politics, who knows how long that legitimacy would last? So I don’t think there’s any individual that one could focus on and say: This person could be a great leader.
GAUSE: Yeah, I also don’t think that right now, given the trends in Israeli politics, we would see an Israeli government, either led by Netanyahu or somebody else, basically say that they’re willing to go back to an Oslo process, they’re willing to go back to negotiations toward a two-state solution. It’s very depressing, but I think that that’s where the political trends are going.
ZACHARIA: Amr, in the final minute, do you know the secret Palestinian leader that we’re unaware of?
HAMZAWY: An institutional renewal is a secret—in fact, not secretive any longer. It is the best response the Palestinian Authority can put forward. It’s interested in regaining some of its lost credibility. And it did not lose it only because of its position, vis-à-vis what’s happening in Gaza. But it lost her because of lack of Palestinian reconciliation, because of lack of effectiveness and the West Bank and Jerusalem in many different ways, governance issues, corruption issues, and you name it. So what they need is not a new hero. What they need is a new institutional framework. And here, once again, the U.S., the international community can play a key role.
ZACHARIA: Very much doable. I remember being with Salam Fayyad and he showed me what the new currency was going to look like, you know, some twelve years ago. Well, thank you all for joining us. And unfortunately, we’re out of time. And I need to wrap our Council event today on Middle East regional stability. Thank you all.