Transition 2021 Series: The Abraham Accords and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Thursday, April 1, 2021
Ammar Awad/Reuters

Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Former U.S. Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations (20132014); Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel (19951997; 20002001); @Martin_Indyk

Fellow, Wilson Center; Former Director, Center for Middle East Public Policy, RAND Corporation; CFR Member

Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies; Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel (20112017)


International Correspondent, NPR; CFR Member

Middle East Program, Transition 2021 Series, and Transition 2021

Panelists discuss how the Biden administration will approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and if the Abraham Accords can help to resolve it. 

The Transition 2021 series examines the major foreign policy issues confronting the Biden administration. 

AMOS: I'd like to welcome everybody to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting. This one is on the Abraham Accords and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The meeting is part of CFR's Transition 2021 series, and it's examining the major issues confronting the Biden-Harris administration in foreign policy. I'm Deborah Amos. I'm an international correspondent for National Public Radio, and I'll be presiding over this discussion. We have three hundred people who signed up for this virtual meeting, so we'll do our best to get to all of your questions. Put them up on the Q&A, and we will speak in about thirty minutes. I'd like now to introduce our panelists: Martin Indyk, distinguished fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, former U.S. envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; Dalia Dassa Kaye, fellow, Wilson Center, former director, Center for Middle East Public Policy; and Daniel Shapiro, distinguished visiting fellow, Institute for National Security Studies, former U.S. ambassador to Israel. Welcome to all of you. I'd like to start here. We now have a new administration. I want all of you to speak to how you think the Biden administration understands the Abraham Accords negotiated by the past administration. These are two sets of administrations that see the Middle East in different ways. Let me start with you, Martin. How do you think the Biden administration sees the Abraham Accords?

INDYK: Thanks, Deborah. And good morning, everybody. I think that it's clear that the Biden administration welcomes the Abraham Accords. The process of normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors is something that started in the Clinton administration with the signing of the—well, actually it goes all the way back to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in the Carter administration. Normalization has been a bipartisan issue for many decades now in the United States because the United States feels that it's normal for Israel to have the recognition of its neighbors just like every other state in the world, but it's been denied that. So in principle, the Biden administration is all for it. The question is twofold. Number one, how to build on the progress that the Trump administration made with the breakthrough with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco and in that regard what means to use?

I say that because I think that within the Biden administration there is concern that the process of normalization pursued by Jared Kushner, on behalf of President Trump, is one in which the United States paid for the normalization for the most part—F-35s to the UAE as one example—but also a whole lot of steps taken to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara and other things for Sudan. On the other side, Prime Minister Netanyahu got up and said, "We Israelis didn't have to pay anything. It was peace for peace." And so I think that they're concerned to avoid that kind of approach. And secondly, I think because the Biden administration, unlike the Trump administration, is committed to the two-state solution. They'd like to see a way in which the Abraham Accords might be used to advance the efforts to promote a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The UAE, by insisting on taking annexation off the table in exchange for normalization, did boost that process. I think the crown jewels for the Abraham Accords would be to bring Saudi Arabia into the normalization process, but in that process to try to find a way to boost the effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well.

AMOS: Ambassador, two things. I want to ask you how the Biden administration sees the Abraham Accords. That's not your job, but how does Israel navigate now? The Saudis have been clear. We just had an announcement from Adel al-Jubeir that the Saudis are not coming along. The Biden administration yesterday was asked do they think that the West Bank is occupied—yes. Are the settlements illegal—mushy answer. What do you make of where the Biden administration wants to go on the Abraham Accords?

SHAPIRO: Well, first of all, thanks for having me and good to be with good colleagues and welcome, everybody. Certainly as Martin indicated, Biden, all the way back in the campaign in the middle of, you know, the hard-fought election campaign, gave unstinting praise to the breakthrough. He didn't mince words about it at all even though it was a Trump administration accomplishment. It may have been the only foreign policy accomplishment he accepted. It wasn't only on the basis, as Martin said, of what's right that Israel deserves recognition from its neighbors, but also that it's better for U.S. interests.

It's better for U.S. interests when our partners collaborate with each other as partners. There had already been a lot of quiet security cooperation between Israel and these Arab states, but now that can be done with much of it in the open—joint exercises or intelligence exchanges. There can be economic and technology initiatives, trade and cultural exchanges, all kinds of things that are now possible that were not possible or just at the surface before. It's helpful for Iran and another U.S. adversaries in the region to see this emerging regional dynamic. It creates fewer opportunities for Iran to sow division among its regional rivals. And it's helpful for the U.S. to be able to position its regional security role in the Middle East as more of a supportive role of collaborating partners rather than always having to be the overall leader of that effort. That's actually beneficial for the broader shift of American attention and resources toward the Indo-Pacific without abandoning the Middle East as a partner rather than always having to be the leader of a collaborating group of countries.

So there are a lot of wins for the U.S. interest I think that the Biden administration recognizes and that's why they were clear in the campaign and since that they want to find ways to keep that momentum going. Then candidate Biden said he wanted to encourage other nations to keep pace. It's not necessarily the number one priority in the early days. We obviously can see other priorities—China, Russia, NATO, climate, COVID—are dominating. It's going to be done with a different structure. There isn't going to be a figure like Jared Kushner in this administration sitting down the hall from the president and on regular WhatsApp's with Middle Eastern leaders to cut these deals. Key officials will need to be appointed to work on it. I believe that they really do see U.S. interest served by continuing this process. And as I'm sure we'll get into more detail, there is a real opportunity to generate progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

That too isn't the top priority. It's something that Secretary Blinken said in his confirmation hearing. It does not represent a near-term opportunity for a major breakthrough to final status talks, but there are opportunities and ways the U.S. and partners can contribute to keeping a two-state solution alive and viable. That remains the U.S. strategic objective. And indeed that is consistent with what Arab states continue to say is their objective. The Arab Peace Initiative, while its sequence was upended by the UAE saying we're going to normalize even before there is a two-state agreement, the Arab Peace Initiative was never a perfect blueprint, but its basic commitment to two states is consistent with the U.S. objective. I think it's still guides the Arab states approaches. So finding a way to draw that positive momentum and energy that's in normalization and also propel forward at least an effort to keep two states alive and viable is something, I think, the Biden administration will give attention to.

AMOS: Dalia, you have just published a big study in RAND about rethinking how peace in this region can come about. Can you talk a little bit about rebalancing, how you look at it, and where the money should go?

KAYE: Yes, well, thanks so much. It's an honor to be on a panel as a non-former ambassador to Israel. Thank you for welcoming me to this club. Thanks for the shout-out to our RAND report. Yes, what we're really arguing, and I will link it to this issue with the Abraham Accords, is for a rebalance between the highly militarized approach to this region and moving toward more economic development, which is, in fact, getting to your question on the Biden administration was the stated intention, at least to some of his senior advisors, to kind of make that shift and understanding that we're at a different moment in the region now, that big challenges are coming from governance crisis domestically and governments are not serving their people. So this kind of shift of focus and we basically say, "Let's take a hard look of where we're investing."

You know, how is it that forty years after Camp David we are still devoting 81 percent of our military assistance to three countries in the region? Why is the equivalent of what Egypt gets in a single year of military assistance the same amount we give the entire region economically? So this is the kind of thing that I think we need to think about. As the Biden administration comes in, and it's still early, of course, I agree with my colleagues that, you know, they have other priorities. But I would say that they are going to be focused on, and they've already shown a focus on, what they consider the real conflicts of this region. So it's not surprising that Yemen was high on the agenda, focusing on a hold on arm sales to both the Saudis, the F-35 element of this Abraham Accord, and certainly welcoming the positive economic cooperation and all those positive elements that Dan just outlined so well should be welcomed and leveraged.

But I think there'll be more scrutiny of some of the militarized aspects of these accords that were not as highlighted. And I think we're likely to see, you know, a little bit more scrutiny on what the Trump administration did with the Palestinians. So I think that's where we may see some course correction as well. The Abraham Accords were about regional peace, that's all good and well, but doesn't really deal with the Palestinian question. And you already see the administration moving back toward economic assistance toward the Palestinians. So I think we're going to see more in that direction.

AMOS: Let me ask a larger question and that's something about bandwidth. I look a lot at immigration and all the people I talked to before the election said, "This administration has got so many big and terrible issues on their plate, COVID being the biggest one, that bandwidth for other problems will not be as wide as it has been in the past." I wanted to ask about that where you thought Israel and Palestine fits in COVID, which is the biggest challenge. Originally Iran is the biggest of the questions. Where do you think Israel and Palestine fit? The Abraham Accords kind of keeps things, you know, puttering along and that's great. Does this administration have enough people and enough attention to deal with the Israel-Palestine peace process? Martin, let me start with you.

INDYK: The short answer is no. It doesn't at the moment have the bandwidth for that. It doesn't have the people in place. There's no assistant secretary even nominated for the Near East Bureau. While there is a special envoy for Yemen, there is no special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And that, I think, really demonstrates the priority that's been given to it. It's essentially being handled by the people responsible at the bureau level in the State Department and the National Security Council. There's no senior person that has this portfolio. I think that's reflective of the way in which it's not just that there are lots of other priorities, as Dan has explained, but it's also that President Biden was there as vice president when Dan and I, as a special envoy, and John Kerry, as secretary of state, tried to move the Israelis and Palestinians to a resolution of their conflict in the last final status negotiations that I think we're likely to see for a long time.

That was back in 2014. Vice President Biden saw just how stuck it was. In fact, I believe that we were further apart at the end of nine months of final status negotiations in 2014 than we had been at the beginning. And so it's not surprising that he has, you know, a feeling that while this is an important issue, as long as Abu Mazen—the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas—and Bibi Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, are around, there's really no point in trying now to get the parties back into a final status negotiation because it would just be a recipe for failure.

AMOS: Ambassador, let me ask you then are the Abraham Accords enough? Our correspondent for NPR in Jerusalem talks about them as the "travel accords." You know, this is the first time that young Israelis can get a cheap flight to China and they're just delighted that, you know, and the ultra-Orthodox can go to Dubai and have big celebrations, which makes me laugh just thinking about it. So I wondered if it is enough, and if there's a way to, you know, move yourselves a little further up the chain of what interests the U.S.?

SHAPIRO: So they're not enough, of course, to reach a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Martin is correct. With the same leaders in place who have previously negotiated unsuccessfully and totally mistrust each other and all the overhang of those failed negotiations in terms of societal mistrust and other things that have happened from terrorist attacks to settlement expansion, obviously those are not enough. But again, if the Biden administration is setting as its near-term objective on Israeli-Palestinian matters not to resolve the conflict, a tall order indeed, but rather to keep the two-state solution alive and viable so that some future effort to negotiate an outcome of two states with different leaders and under perhaps better circumstances is still possible, then the Abraham Accords have something really, I think, quite meaningful to contribute.

First, the Arab states who are normalizing their relations with Israel really can have a very different kind of dialogue with Israelis about their expectations. They can make clear that they do remain committed to a two-state solution. They can reinforce U.S. messaging about those things that Israel should try to avoid doing—settlement expansion, demolitions of houses, talk of annexation. It can be very hard for Israelis to ignore that when a very popular and friendly UAE ambassador, who will be the toast of the town in Tel Aviv, I assure you, raises those issues in a friendly way. At the same time, those Arab states who are normalizing with Israel can, especially those if they have resources, can continue to provide support or upgrade their support to Palestinian economic development and institution building. But they can also put some positive pressure on Palestinians for issues like incitement or payments to terrorists in prison or just to developing a more realistic approach to some of the final status issues that have bedeviled previous talks. So that's one way that they can contribute.

Second, if you've been watching the Zoom screens between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain over the last three or four months almost every night, there are exchanges—of course it's COVID, so it's still mostly being done virtually—of young people doing religious and cultural dialogues. Of course there's banks and universities and hospitals and other institutions finding partnerships, VC, technology partnerships developing between Israel and particularly the UAE. There's no reason why Palestinians couldn't be invited into some of those partnerships. There are real opportunities to draw Palestinians in the breakdown of some barriers, some suspicion that break down the taboo of normalization among Palestinians toward Israel that they can actually see they can benefit from the trend of normalization.

And if it's also structured in the context of the Arab sides' participation, that they also still expect a two-state solution as their goal, it helps break down that taboo about talking about Palestinian sovereignty among Israelis. There's a new U.S. program, the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, that Congress has just established and funded. That's $50 million a year for five years to scale people-to-people exchanges between Israelis and Palestinians. Why shouldn't the Emiratis, Bahrainis, and Moroccans be at that table as well so that it's not just Israelis and Palestinians but part of a regional dynamic? There's a separate element of that that supports Palestinian private sector development with U.S. and Israeli partners, but why shouldn't there be Arab Gulf partners so the Palestinian economy is not just growing but linked to this broader regional dynamic?

And finally, as Martin indicated earlier, what I've just mentioned is just with the existing normalizing states. There's a whole list of candidates of Arab states who haven't yet normalized with Israel but may want to do that, and the Biden administration undoubtedly will encourage them to do that. While the UAE did set the mark that there is some connection between normalization and the Palestinian issue when they took annexation off the table, a condition for their normalization, it's very likely the Saudis, in particular, but perhaps other Arab states, will also come to Israel with certain asks of a recommitment to a two-state outcome, of a settlement freeze, or limitation of some sort of international gathering. That doesn't necessarily have to be a U.S. position.

The U.S. position can and probably should remain that it's the right thing to do to normalize relations with Israel regardless of what's happening on the Palestinian issue. But when Israelis are presented with that question, is it worth providing some of those asks to, let's say, the Saudis for the benefit of getting Saudi normalization with Israel and all the game-changing dynamics that that will create? I think many Israelis will be very tempted to take that deal. So there are many ways that the existing normalization agreements and the prospective ones can actually contribute to a positive dynamic on Israeli-Palestinian affairs without setting the bar as high as a final [inaudible].

AMOS: Dalia, you have written in your report that the Middle East has changed a lot in the last four years. Just listening to them, you know, talking about Zooms, I wonder how much of this is a generational question. You know, I think if you asked King Salman in Saudi Arabia, he would say, "Absolutely not. We just can't. My generation, absolutely not." But if you were to ask MBS, his son and the crown prince, he would probably say, "Yes." Young Saudis are like, "Yes, what's the problem? Why can't we talk to them? We both love technology. We both watch the same TV programs." Is this a generational issue and are we looking at a different Middle East and we have to take that into analysis? You're still muted.

KAYE: Yes, I think generational issues are part of it. It really gets to the priority question that you started with, which is, you know, young people and, you know, older generations alike, understand that their governments are failing them. That the region is not meeting the level of delivering the goods and services that they are capable of. That the challenges today, as we see from this pandemic, as we see from the looming climate crisis, are not just about external threats, right? They're happening at home. They're transnational. So I think it's just a different kind of set of priorities in this region. Younger people are quicker to adjust to that. I think that's right.

When it comes to Israel, look, when you have a decade of, and we've been talking about very rosy things, but let's face it, we've had a decade of devastating, horrific conflict in this region—the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, horrific conflict, of course, in Libya. There are other more urgent matters. And so I think the focus in the region is, you know, yes, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is important. It needs to be solved. It obviously is not the only conflict, and the region will not be stable by only addressing this issue even as important as it is. So I think the train has kind of left the station.

I think, you know, the Saudis, of course, are the big question. That will be the biggest normalization agreement. But, you know, my assessment is even if you have MBS heading to Jerusalem and you get the big deal, right, you get the big normalization deal, what is that going to change? It will be a big change for Israel, of course, but from a U.S. interest perspective in terms of really dealing with the conflicts, no Arab state is really at war with Israel today. Syria is kind of busy. It's the only state enemy. The real conflicts in this region are about Iran, about non-state military actors. So Israel's acceptance into the region is important, it's welcomed, and it's happening. People want to move on. And so I think the issue is, and this is where I take a less rosy, I think, view than Dan, although I like his optimism, is that it's not clear that even a normalization agreement with the Saudis will fundamentally change the conflict dynamics when it comes to the Israelis and Palestinians.

You could have some cosmetic moves. You have suspension of annexation. Maybe with the Saudis you'll get a little bit more. You'll get a settlement freeze. Maybe you'll get a recommitment to a two-state solution. Nothing wrong with that. It's certainly welcome. But I think it's time—I know Dan said that's too high of a threshold to solve this conflict—but it's time to deal with the hard issues of this conflict. The bottom line is until the Israelis and Palestinians figure out how to share one piece of land, you have two people on one piece of land, Israel as the stronger party and its controlling another people, that is the bottom line. And until we come to terms with that and Israelis come to terms with that no amount of normalization is going to solve this issue.

AMOS: Thank you, Dalia. Before we started this conversation, Martin rolled a bowling ball into the discussion by mentioning that there would be Palestinian elections, which I hadn't sort of taken on board. And so I'm going to come back to that because I found that fascinating. But tell me why you think that that is going to be something to watch?

INDYK: Well, as I said in answering the last question, I think President Biden's view is that as long as the current leadership in Israel and the Palestinian territory is around, nothing much can be done. There is an election process in Israel at the moment and elections, supposedly, to take place on May 22 for the Palestinian Legislative Council. After that presidential elections in the Palestinian territories for the head of the Palestinian Authority are supposed to take place in July. And so there's potential there for a change of leadership on both sides that actually might create a more plastic moment, where Dalia's argument about the need to actually address the conflict might look a little more promising. Unfortunately, as with much of what's happening in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, it looks like it's going to stay stuck. We'll have to see how the maneuverings to form a government in Israel work themselves out, but the smart money at the moment is on a fifth election. That might well be the reality that we face in the next few months.

On the Palestinian side, people may remember that in 2006 the Bush administration pushed for elections that Hamas won. And the Biden administration is, I think, correctly concerned about a scenario like that again. There was a deal that has been broken between Hamas and Fatah—Fatah is the ruling party in the West Bank—that Hamas would only run sixty candidates for a proportional election for 132 seats, and that would thereby restrict the number of seats that Hamas would get. Well, Hamas has reneged on that. They've put in a state of 132 candidates. At the same time Fatah is split. There's a competing list headed by the nephew of Yasser Arafat, Nasser Al-Qudwa, and Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic and tremendously popular Palestinian leader who is in Israeli jail and not likely to be released. This means that the Fatah fold is going to be split just like it was in 2006, and Hamas has a good chance of winning and thereby challenging Abu Mazen's control of the West Bank. It’s not something that the Biden administration is going to want to have happen on its watch. But what to do? It's committed to democracy versus autocracy. It is the defining challenge of our era. I think that Abu Mazen is going to want to pull the plug on the election, so this is a dilemma that's going to be visiting Washington very soon.

AMOS: Ambassador, is it worth the risk though? I mean, the potential of having new leadership is alluring.

SHAPIRO: It's a very difficult dilemma. After the experience of 2006, when Hamas, a foreign terrorist organization designated under U.S. law, won those elections because of the dysfunction at part because of disfunction on the Fatah side and the dissatisfaction many Palestinians felt with Fatah whether or not there was adherence to Hamas's ideology. It made it very difficult for the U.S. to be a partner to Palestinian leaders. It ultimately then was followed by Hamas's takeover of Gaza. Many of the implications of that are still being felt much to the detriment of the Israelis and Palestinians. So it's a real dilemma. Obviously, the commitment to democracy is fundamental.

One hears that in every statement by Biden administration leaders that the rights of Palestinians to choose their leaders should be no less than those of any other people if it can be held fairly and freely. Obviously, that's desirable. What we have to worry about are outcomes that would actually restrict our ability to be a partner and be helpful to Palestinians. I don't know exactly how that dilemma will be resolved, but it's going to be a very important one. It may be that Palestinian leaders for their own reasons will decide that the moment is not right. And, you know, I'm not sure the United States is going to be in a position to impose an election that the parties themselves or the Palestinian leaders themselves say, you know, this isn't our moment to do it. But it is a significant dilemma.

AMOS: Dalia?

KAYE: Yes, no, I agree. There's nothing but hard choices coming from this region and this is one of them. I would just say I think what this very interesting development on the Palestinian front is showing is that there's frustration with the status quo. It gets back to your younger generation issue. Marwan Barghouti is going to likely be extremely popular with younger Palestinians who feel that the Palestinian Authority has failed them. There is, you know, a lot of corruption, a lot of inertia in the system, a lot of frustrations. The Palestinians, you know, they're basically in permanent lockdown, and they want a change. So I think that this is kind of where things are headed. What we have is on the Israeli side is some comfort. There's a preference, of course, for the two-state solution but some comfort with the status quo, and, you know, Israelis are still living well. So you have this disconnect between the two sides, and that's what makes me rather pessimistic. Although I hope Martin is right that some of these leadership changes on both sides could shake up things and maybe lead us in a different direction and that would be, I think, extremely welcome.

AMOS: So I'd like to broaden our discussion and invite members to join with us. We already have some questions coming in. A reminder, this is on the record. Kayla will remind us how to join the question queue, and she will then tell us who the questioner is and what's the question. You will not see them, but you'll hear them. Kayla?

STAFF: We'll take our first question from Douglas Paul.

Q: Thank you very much for the insightful comments. I have two questions, both closely linked. One is having to do with the COVID inoculations for the Palestinians. Israel has done a great job in inoculating its population, but it's my understanding that the Palestinians pretty much remain without any inoculations in Gaza or the West Bank. And linked to that the Trump administration stopped not only funding the Palestinians through USAID and ASHA but any of the non-for-profit hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza, which helped look after Palestinians. And the question is, is there a hope that that funding will be recommenced? Thank you.

AMOS: I think that's to you, Dan.

SHAPIRO: Sure. So, you're correct that Israel has had a very successful domestic vaccine rollout with the vast majority of its population being vaccinated. So the question has been raised about Israel assisting Palestinians with their vaccination program. They're sort of a legal argument and a moral argument and a practical argument. The legal argument, you can find credible lawyers on both sides of, what some who say under the Oslo Accords that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for public health and for vaccinations when called for their own people, perhaps in cooperation with Israel, but that this is their responsibility to acquire through donors and the like.

Others will say the Fourth Geneva Convention still conveys responsibility on Israel as an occupying power and that they are responsible to provide those vaccinations. Again, I'm not a lawyer, but there are smart lawyers who are making both arguments. There's the moral argument, of course, that Palestinians, who are simply without the resources that Israel has and are in need of these vaccinations, need them. Israel has taken some steps. It had provided some small numbers for Palestine health-care workers and then vaccinated a larger number, about 110,000 Palestinians who work in Israel or in Israeli settlements. That is about it. The Palestinians have then tried to acquire other sources of vaccines from Russia, from the COVAX program but are still well short of what they need. And so there's a discussion in Israel about what is Israel's obligation there.

And then there's the practical question, which is, I think, one hears from Israeli public health authorities, which is that it is manifestly in Israel's interest to see that Palestinians are vaccinated at the same rate as Israelis. These two populations are simply too intertwined for it to be in anybody's interest or the interest of public health to not have broad vaccinations. If you at least talk to the Israeli health authorities now that the Israeli vaccination program is at a pretty advanced stage, they would like to provide more assistance to the Palestinian side. Whether that's going to meet muster with the political decision makers, especially during this prolonged period of government instability and post-election government formation is not clear. But there's a very, very strong argument for it.

Just this past week, the Biden administration has begun to resume assistance programs to the Palestinians that the Trump administration had cancelled, the ones that are permitted under U.S. law. Some are outlawed by the Taylor Force Act, those that go through the Palestinian Authority's accounts because of payments made to Palestinian terrorists. But those that go to private, charitable organizations or go directly to the Palestinian people are more than permissible, yet the Trump administration cancelled them anyway. So the Biden administration announced a $15 million COVID relief contribution plus notified Congress of an additional $75 million of assistance that includes assistance to the East Jerusalem hospital network. So some of these efforts are underway, and it's again manifestly in everybody's interest that Palestinians receive vaccinations. So I hope the combination of the Israeli practical thinking and good sense and contributions from the U.S. and others will get us there, but we're definitely not there yet in terms of the Palestinian need.

AMOS: Dalia or Martin?

INDYK: I think that Dan has answered it.

AMOS: Kayla, should we go to another question, please?

STAFF: Sure, we'll take our next question from Sarah Leah Whitson.

Q: Hi, there. Thanks. Good to hear from all of you. I was going to ask you each some questions, but since I am a lawyer let me just clarify the point regarding legal responsibility for COVID vaccinations. First of all, no political agreement can waive the rights of an occupied population and Israel, as the occupying power, remains legally responsible for the health of the population. Second, of course, even Israel recognizes that despite Oslo, it has continued to provide for some of the population in the occupied territories and that is the Israeli settlers there. So clearly, Oslo is not something that it has relied upon to administer health even in the parts of the territories that are in its control. So just a clarification on that. But as for the questions I had, first of all, just on U.S. policy, and this really is as much a question for Martin, who has written on this, as well as for the rest of the panelists. I haven't really heard an articulation, although Dalia raised it as a question, as to why the United States is continuing to provide Israel with arms.

And if it's not a priority, if the interests that may have existed at what point with respect to a relationship with Israel or Israel security are not as they were—Israel takes care of its own security, it's not actually a threat and so forth—why is this aid still continuing? And where is an examination or should there be an examination of our contribution to the harm of Israel's continued occupation, land theft, killings of civilians, and so forth? And I think that ties into the Abraham Accords in that effectively the United States is the one that has paid the bribes to make this normalization possible. So the United States is now selling weapons to UAE, which the UAE very much wanted. The United States has paid off with aid the amount that Sudan is effectively paying for, not to mention potentially threatening the democratic transition in the country. And the United States has actually floated recognizing Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara as their annexation, I should say, as legitimate annexation.

So for all of these things, the Arab states are getting something they want but it's the United States that's paying the bill and I wonder why? Particularly for someone like Martin, who's advocated that, you know, we should shift from the Middle East, it's not a priority as it should be and so forth, why not the USAID component of that? As for the leverage question, Ambassador Shapiro, you know, the notion that the Gulf states are going to have leverage on Israel to hold settlement expansion and so forth when thirty years of billions of dollars of U.S. weapons and begging and pleading for Israeli settlement expansion to stop hasn't succeeded and settlements have continued. Actually, since the normalization, Israel has continued to expand settlements.

Why do you think the UAE is going to be successful where the world superpower has failed in persuading Israel to stop? Do you think perhaps another reading of this could be that the Abraham Accords have actually enforced acquiescence of some Arab states to, you know, an apartheid solution basically with the fiction of pursuing two states—that never happens, that never proceeds—in exchange for the U.S. weaponry and U.S. support. And then finally—

AMOS: Let me say, yes, please, because we won't have enough time to answer all of those things. Let's start with Martin and then Daniel and Dalia.

INDYK: Thank you. I think that, ironically, as the United States focuses its attention on other regions of the world, particularly in Asia with the rise of China, that the military security assistance component of our aid becomes more important, not less important, although I know Sarah Leah might not want to hear it or agree with it. But the fact of the matter is that the region itself is one that is still in turmoil. Israel is engaged in kinetic action against Iran, and vice versa, as we're speaking. It's still a highly unstable region where if we are going to pull out militarily and focus our attention elsewhere, it will create a vacuum, which we have to be concerned about in terms of how it's going to be filled. Russia, Turkey, Iran, and China are all kind of looking for ways in which they can take advantage of this.

And in that environment, the Abraham Accords actually provide an expression of the common interest between Israel and many of the Sunni Arab states of the region in working together to stabilize the region against these kinds of tensions that are already there and will arise as a result of the vacuum we are going to be leaving with. So therefore, I think, the United States has an interest in finding reliable partners in the region that we can work with and support that can help to fill the vacuum where we shift from an American-dominated Middle Eastern order to an American-supported Middle Eastern order. And Israel has a critical role to play there as they're militarily the most capable ally of the United States in the region. And, therefore, the military assistance is something that I think contributes to that basic idea of developing a Sunni-Israeli axis to counter the other powers that are engaged in efforts that destabilize the region.

AMOS: And Dan, the question to you was does this, you know, go on into infinity and that we're always hoping for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement and we never get there?

SHAPIRO: Well, look, all of us who are veterans of unsuccessful attempts to negotiate sometimes feel like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill and, you know, there's nothing preordained about a resolution of the conflict. First of all, I agree with Martin's very strongly strategic explanation of why a U.S.-Israeli and U.S.-Israeli-Sunni Arab axis remains very much in our interest. I see in no way that is undermined. In fact, I think that is strengthened by an attempt to continue to try to keep Israeli-Palestinian peace alive and possible. It's hard for all the reasons we've stated. Certainly, there's, you know, both sides, obviously, in any conflict to contribute to its perpetuation. You know, I was asked, well, you know, will the UAE Ambassador or will other Arab states that normalize with Israel just pay lip service to trying to affect Israeli behavior that contributes to perpetuation of the conflict?

I've already mentioned ways I think they can address both Israeli and Palestinian actions that are unhelpful and that the United States has tried to discourage and shift toward more constructive behaviors. And the answer is, well, you know, we'll see. These are decisions. These are choices that these governments can make. There's nothing preordained about it. Having spent a significant amount of time among Israelis and I think, considering their enthusiasm about these new agreements and their attentiveness to those relationships to the degree that those other countries decide that they will use that influence, it's not a determinative source of leverage but it is a contributor to a different dialogue and to Israelis weighing their choices and their decisions just as I hope it will be for Palestinians as well. So I consider it to be a factor, not some sort of keystone that's going to solve the conflict. I consider it to be something that if used properly, it can actually make a very positive difference.

AMOS: Dalia, can I ask you this, which we haven't addressed yet, I mean, the U.S. is on the way out. Is China on the way in? They've been in with both feet in the last two weeks. Big Iran deal. You know, the Saudis are making closer ties than we've seen. How does that play into Israel and Palestine?

KAYE: Yes, look, I agree with Martin completely on the notion of the era of American dominance is over. China is in the region, but I don't think this is a particularly new development. The hedging of regional states has started really seriously after the 2003 Gulf War, and it has continued since. China, particularly in the last decade, has increased its relationships not just with Iran. In fact, Iran is just a small piece of its broader regional strategy. So I don't think we should be so alarmist about China's about to take over the Middle East. China has got its own limits. It's got its own issues to have to balance between the Saudis, the Israelis, the Iranians.

It has very close relations with the Israelis. It links, I think, to the peace process questions and that we may see a more active or at least the Chinese showing more interest in reducing conflict in this region, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Maybe they're going to be interested in joining multilateral forums. We've had the Quartet in the past. Maybe we'll see the Chinese wanting to step into that. I'm, you know, of the view, and in our report we talked about this, that we don't have to be zero-sum with China when it comes to the Middle East. There's lots of areas we need to be worried about, but there may be areas of overlap.

I do just want to respond, though, to this axis issue that Martin raised. I would be very happy, I think, if we could get rid of the term "axis" from our strategic thinking in this region—Axis of Evil, Sunni axis, Sunni-Israel axis. I think all of these things sound good, but in practice they're not feasible. There is no one Sunni world. There is a very divided Sunni world right now. Yes, there's more alignment among Sunni Arab states, some Sunni Arab states, with Israel when it comes to Iran. But they have other concerns as well. They have concerns about Turkey. They have concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood. There are internal fissures within that world. Egypt doesn't fit perfectly when it comes to the Emirati stance on a variety of areas or the Saudi stance. So I think we need to be very careful about a so-called Sunni-Israel axis replacing the United States in the region.

I think this gets to the question of what kind of support we should be giving this region. I completely agree. I like Martin's framing of an American-supported region. What kind of support? Are F-35s and Reaper drones the kind of military assistance these countries need to deal with asymmetric threats of Iran, to deal with their domestic governance crises that are causing these conflicts? You know, I think these are questions we have to ask. We need to be continuing certain types of military assistance, but we need to be much smarter and scrutinize what those packages look like. And we need to be much more seriously invested in economic development. That's exactly what the Chinese do, and we could be much more competitive in that arena with China. If we get out of this we'd have to keep pouring, you know, billions of dollars in weaponry into this region that are only actually escalating regional conflict, not deescalating. So that would be, you know, my vision of where I would hope we start moving with this new strategic environment, which is definitely not one where the U.S. can continue dominating.

AMOS: Kayla, can we have another question?

STAFF: We'll take our next question from Jeremy Ben-Ami.

AMOS: Jeremy, you are muted.

Q: Yes, there we go. Hi, it's good to see everybody. I wanted to focus on the U.S. side of the equation for the moment and ask you guys a little bit about the first seventy days of the Biden administration. Many of us put together a long list of steps that were taken by the Trump administration over the course of four years that moved us further away from two states, whether closing down the consulate in Jerusalem or changing the designation of territory from being occupied and revoking the legal opinion regarding the legality of settlements. I can sort of go on and on and on. We're seventy days into the administration and understanding there's a period of time, a grace period, let's say, that one gives a new administration to get its feet under it, it has been a little messy over the last few weeks as the administration has struggled to address those questions. Do you think that the time has come for a clearer statement of policy from the Biden administration regarding a whole series of these issues that would simply just put these matters to rest regarding settlements and legality and the consulate and funding and labeling and all the rest of it?

AMOS: I think that was directed to you, Martin.

INDYK: Good idea. Do it at the J Street Conference, I suspect. But I just think that it's too early to expect the administration to come out with that. You know, it's got so many other things on its plate. These are not simple issues. That will require interagency discussion. And I think that it's not reasonable to expect the administration—it doesn't have even its senior policy people in place. It doesn't have an ambassador to Israel, for example. It doesn't have an assistant secretary of state or an assistant secretary of defense for that matter. So I think an overall policy statement about U.S. strategy towards the Middle East is a good idea. We'll call it the "Ben-Ami proposal." I just think it's going to take some time before it's going to be possible to do that.

AMOS: Dalia or Dan, anything to add?

KAYE: Dan, do you?

SHAPIRO: Go ahead, Dalia.

KAYE: Okay. Well, I think, you know, Martin's right, personnel is a huge barrier. But I think there's some low-hanging fruit that's possible. You know, a big strategy in this issue, you know, politically, it's not clear what the upside is given the domestic context right now and the difficulty of really getting serious progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front for all the reasons that were already outlined here. But, you know, the course correction on aid to the Palestinians, which, as Dan talked about, is already happening, I think, is a very concrete one and better than lots of rhetoric. It's actually doing real things to rebalance our position on this conflict a little bit. I think the reopening of the consulate in Jerusalem would send a very strong message. I know it's difficult. It will require Israeli approval.

But, you know, if there's a will, there's a way as they say. So I do think we do need to restore that conflict because that would show the U.S. is interested in directly engaging the Palestinian leadership and people on their own right, not as a subsidiary of the Israeli embassy, which is, you know, the way it's working now. That needs to be corrected. So I think there are concrete things, putting aside strategic statements that may be difficult, there are concrete things the administration could do to really show they're moving in a different direction. Settlements, you know, restating the settlements are an obstacle to peace. We need to, you know, I think those kinds of statements will be important, but the concrete moves will be the most critical.

AMOS: Dan, I could put you on the spot and ask you if you think that the Israelis will be happy with the opening of a consulate or we could go on to a new question.

SHAPIRO: Well, just briefly. First of all, I think Dalia answered your question. You know, I think it actually is happening, but it's happening sort of slower and piecemeal rather than in one, you know, comprehensive statement. It's for the reasons that both Martin and Dalia stated. I'll add one more, which is the Israeli election. A campaign was already underway when President Biden took office. It was not necessarily a smart idea to inject those decisions into the closing phases of that campaign when indeed their decisions, I think, were pretty well laid out in the campaign and the transition and they will be happening.

They will be happening over, you know, weeks and months in this first year, but dropping them before the election or even in this early phase of government formation might not make the most sense. I mean, it's true that the consulate is a very important symbolic and also operational one in terms of harmonizing the U.S. diplomatic posture with the strategic objective of two states. And Israel may not be thrilled about the reestablishment of a U.S. consulate. They'll certainly have views on where it would be and what its authorities and so forth, but there are many European governments that maintain consulates to deal with the Palestinian Authority separate from their embassies to Israel. The U.S. Embassy isn't moving from Jerusalem, so it wouldn't undercut that decision. Ultimately, I think, it will be possible for that consulate to be reestablished. Israel, again, may not be thrilled about it, but I don't think they're going to block it.

AMOS: Let's try one more question.

STAFF: We'll take our next question from Matt Spence. A reminder to please announce your affiliation.

Q: Hi. Dalia, Dan and Martin, thanks for this great discussion. I'm from Guggenheim Partners. My question is a little maybe more in the weeds so, you know, for my sense the qualitative military edge part of the conversation was always a pretty important part of our discussions with the Israelis and the Emiratis and the Saudis and others. What's your view on what this will do to the future of QME? I mean, do you see us getting to a stage that Congress would ever remove it entirely and we could get to a place where that would actually not be a factor in some of our defense posture and discussions with the parties in the region?

INDYK: I find that hard to conceive, certainly in the lifetime of the Biden administration. There's still strong bipartisan support in the Congress for Israel's security. It's much less bipartisan when it comes to questions related to the Palestinians and the disposition of territories that Israel still occupies. But when it comes to Israel security, I think this support is still very strong there and to undermine or change and modify the basic principle of Israel having a qualitative military edge over any possible combination of adversaries in the region is something that, I think, is going to be abiding. That said, you know, thinking what Dalia raised and Sarah Leah Whitson did also is that there is room for considering whether Israel, with its incredible high-tech economy that is booming or was booming before the pandemic and will boom again, whether the amount of assistance that is provided as opposed to the technological assistance, whether that amount of money is still really needed for Israel.

And, you know, when Bibi Netanyahu, I remember, I was ambassador at the time, first came to Washington in his first term, he raised the idea that Israel should no longer get economic assistance from the United States. That was pared back over time and quite dramatically. And I think there should be room, even as we remain committed to Israel's qualitative military edge, to assess whether we need to be paying for so much of it in the way that we do now. The same thing can apply to Egypt as well given that its own role in U.S. strategy in the region has declined quite dramatically and whether we can’t reduce the amount of support that we're giving in that area and put it into the economic development arena that Dalia was talking about.

AMOS: Alas, alas. I'm glad you all are shaking your heads yes because we are out of time. If there's one thing I know about the Council on Foreign Relations, you look up at the clock and when it's done, it's done. So I want to thank all of you. This has been a really, really great chat. Thank you to Martin Indyk, Dalia Dassa Kaye and Daniel Shapiro. Please note that we have a video and transcript of today's meeting. It will be posted on the Council on Foreign Relations site. Thanks all of you for being with us and I thank the panel.


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