Meeting

War in Gaza Update: The Rafah Incursion and Negotiations Over Hostage Release and Ceasefire

Wednesday, May 8, 2024
Hatem Khaled/Reuters
Speakers

Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Presider

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Panelists discuss Israel's operation in Rafah and the ongoing ceasefire negotiations between Israel, Hamas, regional, and global stakeholders.

ROBBINS: Welcome, everybody, to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Virtual Media Briefing on the War in Gaza. I’m Carla Anne Robbins. I’m a senior fellow here at the Council, and I’m also co-host of the Council’s The World Next Week podcast.  

We’re very lucky today to be joined by two Council experts. They’re very well known to everyone, so I’m just going to give a very brief introduction. Steven Cook is Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies. He’s an expert on Arab and Turkish politics and U.S. Middle East policy. And he’s a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine. He really writes a fantastic column. I recommend it to everyone. And his next book—that’s not out yet, right, Steve? 

COOK: June 3. 

ROBBINS: OK. The End of Ambition, America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East.  

And Elliott Abrams, who will ever be a Central America expert to me—(laughs)—is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council. He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration, where he oversaw U.S. policy in the Middle East, and as special representative for Iran and Venezuela in the Trump administration. And his most recent book is Realism and Democracy in American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring

So Elliott, Steven, and I will have a discussion for about twenty minutes, and then we’ll open things up for your questions.  

So we have a split screen right now. Looking at the Israeli incursion into Rafah. We have the ceasefire talks with the Hamas. And we have the Biden administration suddenly pressuring Israel on withholding weapons deliveries. Steven, can we start with you by talking about the ceasefire talks? White House spokesman John Kirby said yesterday that the talks are at a very delicate state. But he also said there should be no reason why the two sides can’t overcome remaining gaps. How close are they, do you think? And how does Rafah affect the negotiations? 

COOK: It’s hard to believe that they are as close as the administration has been saying. The people who have—they have been whispering to over the last six weeks have been saying that we’re very close to a ceasefire deal and a hostage deal. But it’s clear that Hamas believes that the hostages, at least those that remain alive, are its last bargaining chip. And as a result, are demanding something that the Israelis can’t—give in their own politics, their own war goals—are unable to do, which is to suspend their military operations indefinitely. We’ve tried all kinds of different language formulations for this, but no one has agreed, and no one can agree.  

So while I’m sure there is something there that CIA Director Bill Burns has to work with, it strikes me that, given the diametrically opposed aims of the two parties—Hamas only willing to hand over hostages for an end to the conflict, which essentially means that they win, is something that the Israelis can’t do. And Hamas can’t hand over hostages while the Israelis reserve the right to continue their military operations at some time in the future, presumably sooner rather than later. So I think that, despite what John Kirby has said and others have said, at least from what we know publicly, the touch points—the things to build on in terms of a ceasefire seem not to be there in the way that official spokesmen for the United States, Qatar, Egypt, and even Hamas have suggested. 

ROBBINS: Although what the Americans say is, you know, that they believe that Netanyahu is under a lot of pressure from domestic Israeli politics to get whatever remaining hostages are alive home. And that that puts him in a certain measure of pressure to move forward with the deal. Are they just sort of whistling past something here? 

COOK: I think that there is—it’s undoubtedly the case that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been all kind of—under all kinds of crosscutting political pressures since this began. But while there is a very—it’s very, very important to Israelis, especially the families of hostages, to get the hostages back, there is also a fairly large segment of Israeli society that wants to ensure that what happened on October 7 can never happen again. And that means prosecuting their military operations in Gaza such that Hamas is unable to do it. That is a balance that the Israelis have been trying to maintain. And I think when push comes to shove, they are going to choose to ensure—or, do best that they can, to ensure that Hamas doesn’t do this again. 

There’s a—there is an intersection here. They have said that military pressure is the best way to get the hostages out. Perhaps that’s the case. But through a negotiated solution that demands the Israelis to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and end the conflict before their military goals are met, I think is not likely to be anything that Netanyahu can agree to. Because, in part, of his—the crosscutting political pressures that he confronts. 

ROBBINS: So, Elliott, can we—let’s talk about Rafah, although it’s obviously caught up in the ceasefire negotiations, the hostage deal/ceasefire negotiations. This isn’t the incursion that Netanyahu was talking about. It doesn’t appear to be so far. And after ordering at least a hundred thousand Palestinians to evacuate from eastern parts of the city, conducting airstrikes—the IDF took control to the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Tuesday—the Israelis are insisting that this is so far just a limited operation and not the full assault that Washington was warning against.  

How do you read the Israeli strategy? Do you expect them to stop with this? Or is the larger assault still to come? You wrote in Foreign Affairs last month that Rafah is the key to both winning in Gaza and deterring Iran. Do you think that this is just the first step and they’re just trying to calm the Americans down? Or is—or is this really they’re just sort of testing right now? Or what’s the game?  

ABRAMS: I think they’re doing two things here. Their view, as Steven said, is that the only way to get the hostages out is to put significant military pressure on Hamas, on Sinwar. And they’re beginning to put more of that pressure on. They’re also responding to that attack a few days ago by Hamas at Kerem Shalom, at that crossing. So this is a response to that. And it is, let’s say, laying the foundation for going in on the ground. And it is a message to Sinwar, I think, that, yes, we’re all listening to Joe Biden. But let me tell you something we’re going to go in. We’re going to get you.  

So they think that the only thing that’ll actually make Hamas agree to a reasonable deal, from the Israeli point of view, is the thought that in three days, or eight days, or eighteen days, the IDF could be in Rafah. And that would be the end of Hamas. I think there’s a very broad consensus, at least in the security establishment in Israel, that they need to go into Rafah, unless there is a deal. The deal that Sinwar offered last few days is not acceptable to the Israelis. And I think that is what has led now to the beginning of what could be a large incursion, I think what will be, a large incursion into Rafah unless there is a deal. 

ROBBINS: So the State Department spokesman said that, with a great deal of—you’re hearing from Washington, of course, you know, a great deal of frustration. I don’t know if they’re—more frustration than I think we’ve heard up until now, that they haven’t heard a plan for protecting civilians in Rafah. And, Steve, do the Israelis have a plan to protect civilians? I mean, certainly they’ve opened—reopen one of the crossings. But, you know, Rafah was a pretty important crossing for getting things in. I mean, both the Israelis say for getting weapons in, but also—I mean, is there a plan for protecting civilians here? Or is this just going to make the misery there infinitely more miserable? 

COOK: Well, there’s no question about that if there is a large military operation that unfolds that there will be a lot of misery, and a lot of bloodshed, and difficult times ahead. The Israelis insist that they have a plan and that they’ve begun to implement it by calling for the evacuation of civilians in eastern Gaza to an area close to the Mediterranean that has been a safe area. We know that there is really no place in Gaza that is genuinely safe. And people are getting killed no matter what. These are unfortunate things that happen during wartime. So there is no foolproof plan. There’s also—the administration has made it very, very clear over and over again that they don’t support a Rafah operation. Yet, the Israelis seem intent on having a Rafah operation.  

It would seem to me that it would be politically expedient for the administration to say: We haven’t seen a good plan. We haven’t seen a good plan. Even as the Israeli is prepare to undertake one, because they know—they know it’s coming, and they can’t stop it. So, look, no doubt that a Rafah operation is difficult. It’s complex. This is an area of Gaza that normally has 275,000 to 300,000 inhabitants. It now has 1.2 million inhabitants. It is extremely—it’s extremely difficult. And you know, the Israelis say that they are going to take care, but they have—there have been lots of casualties. And they do have a goal of rooting out those Hamas battalions. There’s no foolproof way that they are going to be able to protect civilians. 

ABRAMS: I just want to add one more thing to that, Carla, which is Rafah is, of course, on the Egyptian border. In 2005, when the Israelis got out, Sharon had to make the decision—it was a hard decision—whether to try to keep troops along that border to prevent smuggling. And in the end he decided not to. And the Israelis are now, in a sense, revisiting that decision. And one of the things they’re doing by putting the troops in Rafah is they’re taking, if you will, the Gaza side of the Egypt-Gaza border, so that whatever happens in the next couple of months they will know that they’re in charge of preventing smuggling themselves in the long run. 

ROBBINS: One of the big complaints from the Biden administration is that, for all the commitments about getting humanitarian aid in, that there—the aid isn’t going in. Not at the levels that—you know, that they keep pledging that’s going to happen. Certainly, this is making the situation infinitely more miserable. Can we—Elliott and then on to Steven—can we talk about the state of U.S.-Israel relations right now? We’ve learned in the last few days that the Biden administration, which has been trying simultaneously to help midwife a ceasefire agreement. It’s also for the first time held up weapon shipments to Israel. Lloyd Austin confirmed that today, was quite clear that it is directly linked to what’s going on in Rafah. The Times reported it paused deliveries of 3,500 bombs. The Journal a few days earlier reported that the administration was delaying the sale of JDAMs, these guidance kits to turn dumb bombs into smarter bombs. Is this a significant break, or something temporary? And what is the administration asking for, do you think, Elliott? 

ABRAMS: You know, I think what they’re asking for is for Israel not to go into Rafah in a significant way. And barring a deal, barring a hostage deal, I think the Israelis are going to go into Rafah. And it is going to cause a great deal of tension.  

Personally, I think one of the things the administration is forgetting is that there’s a very big audience here. The audience is not just Netanyahu. The audience is also Ukrainians and Taiwanese and Saudis and Emiratis and Russians. And they’re seeing the Americans, when a friend, partner, ally is at war, withholding ammunition. It makes people think about the slow way in which we gave ammunition to Ukraine. And I think the administration has not really focused enough, in my opinion, on the deleterious impact of doing that on a whole panoply of relationships that we have. 

Now how angry people are, or are not, I think is difficult to judge because, as Steve said, both Netanyahu and Biden are thinking about politics and about elections. And both are addressing different parts of their own constituencies. So whether in private with, let’s say, Blinken, or Sullivan, or Burns, or Austin, there really are hard feelings, I think it’s very hard to tell. 

ROBBINS: You know, I am the moderator, but I’m going to—(laughs)—I’m going to challenge this for one moment. I don’t see the comparison with Ukraine. I mean, Ukraine was the result of fecklessness on the Hill and politics. I mean, conditioning aid rather than giving a blank check if you find that an ally is doing something that you particularly find noxious, really in the humanitarian realm as well, I mean, we don’t—we’re not required to give a blank check to our allies. And I don’t—I don’t see that Ukraine thing as particularly analogous. 

Steven, do you see this—do you see this as analogous? And do you believes this—(inaudible)—a break with the— 

COOK: Let me give Elliott a chance to respond because I know he wants to respond do you, and then I have some thoughts on this as well. 

ABRAMS: You’re obviously right about the part of this that is Congress. But it was not Congress, it was the president who decided to withhold certain weapons completely and then, six months later, to say, well, OK. 

ROBBINS: OK. 

ABRAMS: It is the president who’s saying we’re not going to give you anything that could hit Russia. And now you have some of the Europeans, the British, saying, well, maybe we will. So I do think there was—a lot of this was decision-making on the part of the United States about what we wanted an ally to do while it is at war. That’s the analogy. 

ROBBINS: No, I—OK. The self-deterrence part of it, OK. 

Steven, please. 

COOK: I think it’s clear that there’s a lot of tension between the administration, if not the president, and Netanyahu—that we keep getting reports of it, and so on and so forth. I think—I think there’s an important thing to understand, that the relationship at an institutional level continues to work whatever hard feelings there may be. And you see the frustration among senior officials and at lower levels where people are very unhappy with the policy, and the tension over the humanitarian issue is abundantly, abundantly clear. Part of this is I think the administration is trying to have, you know, two things at the same time: One, give the Israelis as much support as they feel is necessary; while, at the same time, being pressured politically to do something on the—on the humanitarian front from constituencies in the United States. Not that this isn’t the right thing to do, but the president didn’t get concerned about this until well down the road, while this was already—this was already unfolding. 

I think two quick things. Perhaps, Carla, you’re right; Elliott’s Ukraine analogy isn’t the best. But if you are Saudi, if you’re Emirati, and you’re looking at this situation, and you say—you must be saying: Oh my God. If they can do this to the Israelis of all people—given the way in which, you know, the leaders in these countries look at the U.S.-Israel relationship—in the middle of a fight that the Israelis consider to be an existential one, we can only imagine what they could do to us in the middle—in the middle of a fight. And in fact, they have a narrative that the United States has been enormously feckless, whether it’s the JCPOA, whether it’s 2019 when Iran attacked Saudi Arabia and the United States didn’t do anything about it, the Houthis dropping missiles on Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the United States not doing anything about it. This does—this does have an impact on them when they look at it, and which is one of the reasons why the Saudis very much say, OK, we will—we will get in—we will get in line with you, but we want it in writing. That’s what part of this defense—this demand for a defense pact actually is, so this kind of thing doesn’t happen to them should they get into a fight, as hard as that might be to imagine. 

There’s another point that I want to make. There’s another point that I want to make that I think it’s a hard point and it’s difficult to contemplate. But in particular, the holding up of the JDAMs may result in more civilian casualties. The Israelis are not going to stop their operations because the administration has put a hold on these things. So if you—without these kits that lessen the likelihood that more civilians in the way will get killed, more people are going to get killed. It’s somewhat shortsighted to prove a political point that’s not going to have the impact on the ground that it is. It’s going to satisfy the administration, Democratic senators, members of the House, people who have been protesting, et cetera, momentarily, but it’s not going to do much to save lives of Palestinians. And I think that that—and not to say that these precision-guided kits will save everybody, but there is something to be said here. It’s a difficult thing to contemplate. But I think in trying to make this political point, the administration is being somewhat shortsighted. 

ROBBINS: So we have more than a hundred people on and I’m sure they have a lot of questions, so please raise your hand and when you get called on please identify who you are, which would be great. So, questions? We have one, Aamer Madhani. Could you identify yourself, please, and ask your question? 

Q: Hello. It’s Aamer from the Associated Press. Thanks for doing the call. And I apologize; I missed the first couple of minutes. You might have touched on this. 

But what happens to the Biden-Bibi relationship if Israel moves forward with this major incursion in Rafah? 

And I guess more broadly, the two leaders, as I think you’ve already touched on a little bit, there’s really divergent political pressures. Is this relationship now at a point of rupture, or is this just another sort of wave in what’s been an up-and-down relationship for years now? Thanks. 

ABRAMS: I’d say it won’t rupture. These things happen. I remember President George W. Bush, for example, really didn’t get along with French President Jacques Chirac. They could barely speak. So business was done at the national security advisor level, secretary of state level. There were always workarounds if the heads of government are—really don’t—(laughs)—really don’t get along. We may get to that. But of course, this may be a sort of problem that solves itself in that one or both of them may be gone from office in six months—well, nine months. 

COOK: You know, I don’t know. I don’t know either of them. I’ve met each of them once exactly. And so who knows what the quality of the relationship is? I think only people who are close to both understand that. 

I do think, though, in getting at something that Elliott is suggesting, is that the U.S.-Israel relationship has become so institutionalized that you can—that it can work at other levels despite the fact that two leaders can’t stand to be in the same room with each other. We saw that with George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir, we saw that with Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, and we may get there with President Biden. But the relationship is deep at the institutional level, so there are still ways to conduct business. 

All that being said, I think the politics of the U.S.-Israel relationship in in the United States is changing. And I think that you see that in sharp relief in kind of open discussions within the Democratic Party about conditioning aid to Israel, cutting off aid to Israel, sanctioning people in Israel. There was a poll last spring that struck me as the first time that more Democrats than—identified with the Palestinian cause than with the Israelis. Of course, you have—on the Republican side you don’t really have those changes, but I think that there has been—and this conflict has really brought it into sharp relief—that there is a changing dynamic, at least with one of the political parties, on the question of the overall relationship, despite the fact that in Congress you still have lopsided votes in favor of support for Israel on a—on a variety of issues. But there is certainly a greater willingness to air these kinds of concerns in ways and talk about policies or look for policies that, for lack of a more diplomatic word, that are punitive towards the Israelis. 

ROBBINS: Ellen—and I apologize; is it Ioanes? I’m probably mispronouncing your name. Can you correctly pronounce your last name and tell us your affiliation? 

Q: Yeah. It’s Ioanes, but I’ll kind of take anything. I know that there are a lot of vowels in there. (Laughs.) I’m with Vox with a V, not Fox with an F. 

And—(laughs)— 

COOK: I bet that’s more important than the way people pronounce your last name. (Laughter.) 

Q: Yeah. Yeah, I do—I have to clarify both, so I already have my script set. (Laughs.) 

But so we do have a report coming from the administration in the next couple days, maybe today, about whether the—Israel has violated international law in terms of its airstrikes and access to aid. But does that really have any effect on what, you know, U.S. policy is toward Israel going forward? You know, how binding do you all perceive that to be? 

ABRAMS: I think we are at a kind of turning point here in a—in a significant way in the U.S.-Israel relationship in that the formula for decades has been Israel has to be able to defend itself by itself. And the Israelis have talked about that, and you know, whenever we do a joint statement going back decades they insist on putting in defend itself by itself. But what we saw in the Iranian attack is that Israel wasn’t defending itself by itself. When we talk about Israel possibly in a war with Hezbollah, same thing. And even now, as we discuss merely the provision of JDAMs or different sizes of bombs, we’re talking about Israel not being able to defend itself by itself. That’s a big change, I think, in the relationship, and it’s going to have to be worked out over the next years and the next presidency. And I think it makes these decisions on withholding arms, ammunition, weapons much more significant than they would have been a few years ago because the context now is one in which Israel’s security is more clearly dependent on the U.S. than it has ever been before. 

ROBBINS: Can you talk about that a little bit more? Because I mean, we used to talk about, well, the Israelis couldn’t sustain—you know, launch or sustain a campaign against Iran without American support. They didn’t have the legs for it, you know. They couldn’t—they couldn’t do—the didn’t probably have heavy—you know, heavy weapons to go after the deeply-buried sites. Are you saying that even in a campaign against Hamas or Hezbollah the Israelis can’t do it themselves if the Americans were to suspend weapons deliveries? 

ABRAMS: At a certain point—well, we all can think of 1973 and the resupply by Nixon. I think the resupply question in any extended combat—and this is the most extended combat Israel’s ever been in. I mean, most of the—the Lebanon war, for example, the last Lebanon war, 2006, was thirty-four days, and people thought that was long. 

The Israelis are reacting to this in part by doing something that we’re also doing, which is they’re going to build up their capacity to produce their own weapons, their own artillery shells, their own bombs, just as NATO and we are doing. But some things they need tomorrow morning, and there are some things that they’ll never produce like F-35s. So I think it’s clearer now than it has been at least since 1973 that the arms relationship with the United States is critical to their security. And if there were a war with Hezbollah you’d see that, I think, very quickly. 

COOK: Let me just strike a somewhat different tone on this question and then go back to Ellen’s original question. 

First, a couple things should be clear. We wouldn’t be in this situation had there not been a leadership failure in the months leading up to October 7. You know, we know that there were analysts who understood what was going to happen. So I think the Israelis have all of the necessary things to defend themselves. 

Elliott’s making a very good point, is that the IDF is now engaged in a doctrine-busting—doctrine-busting conflict. The Israelis have always sought to fight short, devastating conflicts on their enemies’ territories. Going on eight months of conflict, the IDF just isn’t built for that. 

And what I would say is it’s not so much that the United States—it’s not so much that we’ve said that—and Elliott, of course, was a policymaker, but there were certain things that were said. But over the course of—period of time it became clear that the policy was to help Israel secure itself. So that the—so we would help. We would provide them the means—help provide them the means to defend—to defend themselves. And I think that what’s happening is consistent with that policy over a period of time. 

But I agree with Elliott that the idea of withholding aid—I mean, there were—there were moments during the siege of Beirut where President Reagan did certain things, but this seems to be—and going back to Ellen’s original question—this national security memo, which—I don’t truly understand the rationale for it. I mean, we do have, allegedly, these safeguards with regard to how countries to which we sell weaponry use them. We’ve never actually—with any country actually used those authorities or withheld aid unless there’s some situation that I’m unaware of that was an extreme circumstance. So I think that this was an effort on the part of some members of Congress to highlight this issue, accentuate this issue, put pressure on the administration on this issue. 

I will say, though, that the impact of it is likely to be not great. Again, I think conditioning aid—the Israelis will scour the Earth for the last bullet to shoot at Yahya Sinwar if necessary, or they will produce it themselves. And you can expect now the Israelis to revisit their defense industrial base and becoming more self-sufficient. This happened with Turkey after the—after 1974, when they invaded Cyprus and we laid on a blockade. It has been a long-term goal of the Turks, particularly under the current government, to develop a defense industrial base where they don’t have to be reliant on the United States, the Germans, and others; they can build their own drones, their own munitions, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Expect that to happen in Israel as well now. And then we will have really no control, no influence over what they’re doing. 

ROBBINS: Although one might argue we haven’t had much influence anyway. 

But with that thought, Trudy— 

COOK: Well, we may have chosen not to have that influence, which isn’t the same thing. 

ROBBINS: Trudy Rubin. Hi, Trudy. 

Q: Hi to all. 

The Israel-Gaza war has taken a lot of the air out of focus on Ukraine. Even though Congress finally passed the supplemental six months late, Ukraine’s in a critical situation now and the U.S. is sending stuff to Israel—(laughs)—that Ukraine desperately needs. In the meantime, Israel has Patriot systems in mothballs but there doesn’t seem to be any way to transfer them directly or indirectly to Ukraine. So my question is, which do you think is the more critical conflict for U.S. security? And if the U.S. doesn’t muster a greater sense of urgency, especially before the November elections, to enable the Ukrainians to use long-range missiles and air defenses, and put Putin off balance this year not in 2025, as Jake Sullivan says, Ukraine could be in a terrible situation, which would have a much bigger effect on our security interests globally if Putin wins than whether or not we condition a few weapons to Israel. So I’m curious from both of you, which is the more important war for America’s security interests? And should there be more focus right now on Ukraine rather than Bill Burns and Tony Blinken spending all of their life and few remaining non-gray hairs running around the Middle East? 

ROBBINS: OK. Just let me—Trudy Rubin writes the Worldview column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, just for context here. (Laughs.) 

COOK: Elliott, you want to take that first or do you want me to go? 

ABRAMS: Well— 

ROBBINS: Lewis (sp) will play Solomon here. (Laughs.) 

ABRAMS: I guess I’d say two things. 

One, in the short run—this year, next year—the collapse of Ukraine under—let’s say under Russian domination would have greater implications for Europe and for the United States. In the long run, however, the collapse of the American position in the Middle East would also have a significant impact. What is happening, I think, in Gaza is part of an Iranian effort in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon to dominate the region and to surround Israel. So it is also of considerable significance. 

But I don’t—I don’t see, Trudy, that we need to choose. I mean, it's one thing to choose between a war with Russia and a war with China. We’re not in a war with either of them. We’re just helping people who are friends and partners of ours, and resupplying them. And I don’t think we’re going to find ourselves unable to do both at the same time. 

COOK: I think I’d answer two different ways, Trudy. 

First, I’d say that, you know, October/November I would say to you certainly Ukraine; that this is—what’s happening in the Middle East is a—is a conflict, it’s a—it’s a bigger—but it is a conflict that is familiar to us, whereas we’re talking about the first land war in Europe since the end of World War II. The entire—a core interest—global interest of the United States is a Europe that is free, whole, and prosperous, whatever that—whatever that saying is. 

But Elliott points to something that is, I think, very, very important, that there is now a nexus of Iranian—the exercise of Iranian power combined with the Russians. There’s a closer relationship between Russia and Iran, and cooperation. Those same drones that were shot at Israel were shot—are the ones that are being used in Ukraine. Let’s also remember the fact that China is deeply invested in the Islamic Republic, primarily because it extracts resources from it. But it is important. 

So this is—so these are our core interests in—free flow of energy resources out of the Middle East, helping to ensure Israeli security and European security, are all engaged in these two conflicts. Now, you raise an important point. Why do Israelis have Patriots in storage when the—when the Ukrainians really need them? If I were a(n) Israeli national security decision-maker, I would—given what has just happened with the Iranians a few weeks ago—hoard everything I could. But why do the Cypriots need air defense systems? Why did the Greeks need old Russian S-300 systems, that can easily be integrated into the Ukrainian arsenal, in ways that the Patriots cannot?  

So there is ways that we can help replace what the Cypriots and the Greeks have that they could give to Ukraine. And they are more directly affected by that conflict, given that they are both members of the European Union, than they are by the conflict in—so it’s not—yes. It seems obscene that the Israelis are hoarding these things. But they’re now engaged in a conflict in which the Iranians have demonstrated—they were not successful—but a willingness to attack the Israeli homeland with their sophisticated missile and drone program. 

ROBBINS: Can we talk a little bit about—I didn’t know this, about the Cypriots. I’m fascinated now. But can we talk a little bit about Israeli politics? Sort of the conventional wisdom is that, you know, Bibi will do anything he can to, you know, stay in power and stay out of jail. So how much—how much room does Bibi have to maneuver, either in ceasefire negotiations and in the proportion of his incursion in Rafah, given the right wing of his coalition? Can he make another coalition, particularly given the pressure that he’s feeling from the United States right now? Jump ball. 

ABRAMS: He can’t make a whole new coalition. But he can make some decisions that will alienate the far-right there—Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, because the opposition leader, Lapid, has said, we’ll hold off the government—we’ll support the government for those decisions. For example, a deal—let’s say, a hostage deal. So he’s got—he does have some wiggle room. I think that what is underestimated by a lot of people in the U.S. is the degree of consensus.  

And I think there’s a view that, you know, Bibi falls tomorrow, Benny Gantz becomes prime minister, and the world changes. But the world doesn’t change. You know, he’s—Benny Gantz has spent his entire career in the IDF. And I think we would find him on Gaza in general not so different. It is President Hertzog, the former leader of the Labor Party, who said: Don’t talk to us about the two-state solution right now. So I think there is a pretty broad consensus now that does—that does give Bibi a fair amount of wiggle room. Again, not to create a new coalition. He’s not going to, I think, create a new government. But to hang on for a while more during the war.  

COOK: Let me—let me just say Elliot knows far more about Israeli domestic politics than I do, but just watching what is happening in Washington and what people are saying, I’ve dubbed it the other BDS—the Bibi Derangement Syndrome. To watch members of the Congress on Sunday morning news programs tee off on Netanyahu on this question of, you know, Palestinian state, revitalized Palestinian Authority, a Rafah operation. You know, there is broad consensus.  

Two-thirds of the Israeli public support a Rafah operation. Two thirds of the Israeli public oppose the idea of a two-state solution. Benny Gantz ran to the right of Netanyahu on Gaza. Benny Gantz has questioned why the Israelis are allowing humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. I think that when it comes to Netanyahu, in particular, people forget politics, and that there has been a rally around—if not Netanyahu, a rally around the flag in Israel. And there is a genuine belief that Israel’s military goals are achievable, even if, you know, pundits and members of Congress don’t believe that that is—that that is the case.  

There’s another problem, I think, in Washington is that people in Washington tend to know certain people. And I think that there’s a half of Israel that people don’t know. People don’t know. Bezalel Smotrich. People don’t know Itamar Ben-Gvir, who command, what, 50 percent combined—or some significant number of Israelis. And we don’t know that. Our interlocutors are different. And so, therefore, we don’t understand that part of Israeli society.  

So it leads to these kinds of bad misreads of what’s happening. That it’s all Bibi’s fault, and that Bibi’s only doing these things to stay in power. Now, undoubtedly, it’s the case that Prime Minister Netanyahu would like to remain in power, like all politicians. And, undoubtably, he would like to remain out of jail. And there are certain cynical things that he is doing that is not unheard of for other politicians to do, to remain in office, and remain out of the clutches of a legal system. So I think it’s important to have a more realistic view of what’s happening in Israel than, it’s all Netanyahu’s fault. 

ROBBINS: Arshad Mohammed. Can you identify yourself and ask your question? 

Q: Sorry. Arshad Mohammed, reporter with Reuters. 

We’re all aware of the reports of the administration seeking to come up with a civil nuclear deal with the Saudis, negotiating some possible security guarantee with the Saudis, devising some formulation that would be acceptable to the Saudis and, presumably, to— 

COOK: Hey, Arshad, could you speak more directly into your mic? I’m starting to lose you.  

Q: Hey. I’m so sorry. Can you hear me now?  

COOK: Yeah, now I can hear you much better. Thank you.  

Q: Great. Do you need me to repeat all that? 

COOK: I think just keep going.  

Q: OK. Some formulation on a pathway to a Palestinian state that would be acceptable to the Saudis, and also to an Israeli government. And then Saudi-Israeli normalization. And the fundamental question that I have is: It seems as if the number of dominoes that would have to fall to bring this about is many miles long. Why is the administration trying to do all this if it seems so very unlikely to come to pass? What is the theory behind this? 

COOK: Can I take that, since I was recently in Saudi Arabia? First of all, Arshad, hey, how are you? Two, check out my new Foreign Policy column, which posted today, which is exactly on this issue.  

I think that it is basically unrealistic to believe that they are going to bank shot all of this. I don’t know—based on what I hear from Saudis and what we know about Israeli policy, there is no touch point on a Palestinian state. By the way, an issue that the United States urged on the Saudis. The drafts of texts of this broad agreement were different, and then were changed not long after October 7, and the administration started getting on its footing, and thinking more about day-after scenarios, and resolving the conflict. The Saudis didn’t demand a time-limited, serious pathway to a Palestinian state, which sounds a lot like Oslo.  

So it seems to me that the administration is keeping this alive because this is their signature policy in the region. No longer re-entering JCPOA. The new thing is, we’re going to have this security pact that helps us outmaneuver the Chinese in the region, and expands the Abraham Accords in ways that are, I think, very, very important. But there’s no—there’s no way at this point that the Israelis are going to agree to the time-limited, serious process that leads to a Palestinian state. And at this point, the administration has told the Saudis that’s basically what their requirement is. (Laughs.) 

Now, I’m not saying the Saudis aren’t concerned about the Palestinians. The Saudis do say very much that they support a Palestinian state. But they remain interested in normalization. And so in theory, this could happen. But on the ground, the reality is that it doesn’t seem likely to happen. In addition to the fact that—this is now Washington politics—if even before October 7 it was going to be a heavy lift to get senators—the requisite number of senators to sign off on the defense—the American defense of Saudi Arabia. After October 7, it’s going to be even harder because Israel was supposed to be the sweetener of the deal. And now there’s a fair number of members of Congress who want to penalize the Israelis for the way in which they’ve conducted the war. Fair or not, it doesn’t seem like there’s enough votes. I don’t know who in the White House is counting the votes. 

Q: So why pursue it? I mean, there’s no point in having a signature policy. Why—you know, why pursue this if it’s odds are so slim? Elliott, do you have a view? 

ABRAMS: I would just say— 

ROBBINS: We have to wrap up. Elliott, really quick. 

ABRAMS: OK, very quickly. I think the nuclear part of the deal, U.S.-Saudi, is almost done. I think the U.S.-Saudi treaty idea is almost done. I agree with Steve, the problem is the Palestinian state idea. And what’s so bizarre is that it isn’t a Saudi problem. It’s a Washington problem. We are more Catholic than the Pope on this one. 

COOK: Carla, you’re muted. 

ROBBINS: I’m not muted. The world’s great religions all brought together in one place. (Laughter.) I want to thank Elliott Abrams. I want to thank Steven Cook. I want to thank all the questioners. And I want to thank CFR for bringing us together. Video for this will be posted on CFR.org. More resources—I’m told to say this—are available on CFR.org and ForeignAffairs.com. And thank you, everyone, for today. So until next time. Bye. 

COOK: Thanks, everybody. Thanks, Carla. Thanks, Elliott. 

(END)

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