The symposium held on December 2, 2019 analyzed the consequences of U.S. retrenchment for the future of Israel and the Middle East. For more than four decades, the United States has played a large part in the Middle East regional order. However, it is now pulling back from the region in a manner that has generated uncertainty and insecurity for America’s allies and partners. The event convened experts to discuss whether Israel is in a particularly exposed position given its traditional dependence on the United States.
The event was cosponsored with Israel's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
HAASS: Well, good afternoon, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations and to today’s symposium on the future of U.S.-Israel relations, co-hosted with the Institute for National Security Studies, INSS.
I’m Richard Haass. I’m president of the Council. Thank you also for braving the elements, and what I wanted to do before I introduce the agenda is say a few words about three people without whom we would not be meeting today.
The first, who will speak after me, Sir Frank Lowy, whose contributions to the policy world are many. He’s the chairman not just of one but of two important policy institutions—the aforementioned INSS in Israel, partnering with us in this event, as well as the institute that bears his name in Sydney, and he’s also a member of the global board of advisors here.
So I want to publicly thank him for what he’s done in supporting important institutions, doing important influential research in three countries, and all three are better for it. So thank you, sir. (Applause.)
I also want to thank General Amos Yadlin, who’s director—where did he go? Where did he go? There you are. Of the INSS. He joined there nearly a decade ago after four decades of service in the Israeli Defense Forces and he, at the end of that, was the chief of military intelligence, served as the attaché here in the United States of America, and I would just say he’s one of the leading strategic thinkers in any part of the world. So it’s great to partner with him.
The third is my colleague and a longtime friend, Martin Indyk, who’s now, we’re happy to say, a distinguished fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations. Martin served as special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and not just once but twice served as ambassador to Israel, proving that there are second acts in life. So thank you to all three gentlemen for bringing us together today.
Now, before I turn to Frank, I want to say a few things about the intellectual fare. I’m not sure if this symposium comes at a good or bad time. But it, certainly, comes at a time—(laughter)—given what’s going on in the region.
The first session of the symposium will focus on Israel. It’s a political situation that most Americans would find hard to understand—the leader of the government in some difficulty—(laughter)—uncertainty surrounding it, and so forth. But whatever—you know, however things are sorted out—and I am an author—sooner or later one day things will be sorted out in Israel.
It will remain, in many ways, a divided country. It’ll be divided about the nature of the society. It’ll be divided about its role and its policy in the region. And these questions, again, transcend the immediate and unfolding, shall we say, political crisis or situation.
One of the things that will greet the new prime minister, whether it’s the current prime minister or a successor, will be Israeli-Palestinian situation and I would simply say the two-state solution is on life support, if it still can be said to exist.
This is lots of reasons to do with lots of parties and I think, you know, one question is whether and if so—you know, whether it or something like it—a three-state solution, a Jordanian option, something else—can be revived and, if not, what then?
What would be the goal of diplomacy? What would be the process? What would be the role for unilateralism? What would be the role for negotiation? What would be the role for outsiders as opposed to insiders? And I think, at the end of the day, for Israel the challenge is how does it stay Jewish and democratic and secure and prosperous, and how does it maintain support in the United States and in the West, more broadly, and how does it square that circle of considerations.
And speaking of the United States, since I just mentioned it, what should our role be? Trump administration has come close to giving Israel unconditional support, whether the question of the embassy move, the Golan Heights, most recently, settlements, and the question is and this—is this in America’s interest, is this in Israel’s interest, and, if not, if there is something better what might it look like.
And then there’s any number of regional challenges that Israel faces beyond any question of the Palestinians and the question then is, and this is to segue to the second panel, what is a sustainable comprehensive security strategy for Israel at a time the Middle East continues to churn.
The second session is titled “The New Great Game in the Middle East,” but it just as easily could have been titled something about the post-American Middle East. It’s not that the United States has departed lock, stock, and barrel. That’s lock, not lox, stock and barrel. It’s attempted—you know, there’s not a lot of humor about the Middle East these days.
But, you know, the U.S. role is, clearly, reduced and we have accepted a reduction in our influence, and we’ll talk about how this came about and so forth. But there’s lots going on, which, again, will inform the second session. Political challenges to existing authority we’re seeing throughout the region, most dramatically in the last twenty-four hours in Iran but also Lebanon, Iraq, and other countries, the continuing war in Yemen, an evolving, to use a generous word, situation in Syria where now we have three outside powers—Turkey, Iran, and Russia—with meaningful roles, the United States with a declining role, a Syrian government that is trying to reestablish and consolidate power around the country.
We still have the aftermath of the intervention in Libya. We have an authoritarian reality—shall we say, a brittle reality—in Egypt. The government in Saudi Arabia, effectively, run by the Crown Prince, has weathered some of the international—has weathered the international outcry about the killing of Mr. Khashoggi but, yet, not all are willing to forget and forgive, and there are still all sorts of problems we’ve seen most recent with the IPO, questions about Yemen, questions about Iran, questions about internal dissent, changing world energy markets to the changing position of the United States vis-à-vis the world and so forth.
So any sorts of—you know, no shortage of questions. Several that come to mind is how will Iran react to the economic warfare it has been on the receiving end, how does it react to its internal dissent, how do other countries react to their internal dissent, the impact of a lower U.S. profile—to what extent is it here to stay.
How will locals take matters into their own hands? How will it manifest itself diplomatically in terms of greater conflict, greater armament, what have you? But what’s clear, as the title, again, suggests, is that it is a Middle East which on some level bears some resemblance to previous eras but, again, is still sui generis.
So we’ve got two sessions with a(n) intermission break between them and we will not lack for things to discuss. The good news is we have an extraordinarily talented crew. I won’t introduce them now. I’ll let the presiders at each of the two sessions. All that stands between, though, me and the first session is I wanted to invite Mr.—Sir Frank Lowy to make a few welcoming remarks as well.
Sir, the podium is yours. (Applause.)
LOWY: Thank you, Richard.
Ladies and gentlemen, to say that I am pleased to be here would be a great understatement. I’m tingling with excitement. I hope you will also be because I know what you are going to hear and what you’re going to talk about this afternoon. It’s wonderful that the CFR and INSS collaborate with each other to talk about very important issues. I think this collaboration is very important to INSS, which is the leading think tank in Israel and, of course, CFR does not need an introduction in New York or in the United States. It is the preeminent think tank in New York, United States, and around the world. In fact, a few years ago, we hosted Richard in Sydney to talk to us about the world.
So, together, I think we cover a little more than CFR does by itself. Nevertheless, I hope that we can add to the debate and raise issues, talk about issues, deal with issues, that, of course, is of great interest to Israel and, to much extent, of course, the United States. And it’s wonderful that we have struck this chord together with CFR and we are here today enjoying the benefit of this and, of course, the benefits not only today but the future—the future debate, the future research that both of these organizations will do.
So that I’m tingling with excitement is not news to me and I hope you’ll get the same. And you will forgive me, and I’m sure that most of you will understand, how am I going to close.
(Speaks in a foreign language.)
(Continues in English.) Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. (Applause.)
INDYK: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Martin Indyk. Thank you very much for braving the weather. We’re delighted to see you all here today. I, too, am tingling with excitement. (Laughter.)
For me, to see INSS come together in a partnership with the Council on Foreign Relations is—it’s been one of my fondest dreams and aspirations, and here we are, and I think it’s, I believe, the beginning of a great partnership and friendship and you were all present at the creation.
We have a great panel to discuss today—the Israeli political landscape and its implications for Israel’s policy towards its neighborhood and the United States—and I’m not going to read the bios. You all have them. Just quickly to say that Dana Weiss, who traveled all the way from Israel to be with us today, she is the chief political analyst for Channel 2 News in Israel and host of Saturday News with Dana Weiss, a kind of premier political evening discussion that kicks off the week in Israel, which she anchors.
Assaf Orion is a senior research fellow at the INSS. He previously served as head of the strategic division in the Planning Directorate of the IDF—the Israel Defense Forces—for five years from 2010 to 2015.
And Tamara Cofman Wittes—Tammy, to me—my friend, I’d like to say my protégé, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Previously, she served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs in the first Obama administration and she’s also the author of Freedom’s Unsteady March: America’s Role in Building Arab Democracy.
So without further ado, I want to ask Dana to start us off by giving us a sense of how we got here in terms of Israeli politics and where we’re likely to be going in the short term because I think for all of us it’s rather confusing at this point.
WEISS: Yes. Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. It’s a great privilege to be here.
And for your second question, I can give you the short answer. No one knows, but I’ll try later be a bit more informative. And I just want to make a point before I start that I’m not giving my personal or political observation. I will try and give you my analysis based on facts and conversations that I have with the key players. and I think it’s important because everything is so toxic now in Israel and I want to try and be as fair as possible.
So if you look at it from the—ten thousand feet and you look down on Israel, I can tell you that we are at the end of an era, the end of the Netanyahu era. It’s been—he’s the longest serving prime minister today, this summer, even more than Ben-Gurion, and I think even Netanyahu himself is coming to terms with the understanding that this is the end. How long will it take? That’s the big question and, you know, we, as journalists, are—we always do the draft of history.
So, for us, everything that happens every minute is important. But when history will judge this period, this year, these elections—maybe we’ll go into a third election—they will for sure say, and then someone else came. But we are stuck and then—at the event of transition. It could be messy. It could be a big balagan, as we say in Hebrew.
Saying that Netanyahu has provided the Israeli public a decade of stability, he gave them stability when it came to security. Remember the region went through all this turmoil and Israel was quite relatively safe. He gave the public stability when it came to economy.
This decade of Netanyahu happened right after the 2008 collapse. Israel went through it with flying colors. Didn’t affect life in Israel. And he gave Israelis what they didn’t have before and that was political stability. No one would have imagined we would have one prime minister for that long and not Netanyahu, based on his first term.
But this is true to the extent that these elections—the ones in April, the ones in September, and maybe the ones in March—are all about just one question that is shaping the political landscape, and that is to Bibi or not to Bibi. (Laughter.)
That’s the only question relevant. Not Iran, not the conflict, not economy, whatever. And if you look at the Knesset today, there are seventy seats in the Knesset. The Blue and White Party, the new party, which has one sole agenda—again, let’s end Bibi’s term—and on the right you have seventy—thirty-five seats or more saying, we want to stick with Netanyahu.
The ideology—the ideological parties on the margins are small and they’ll get smaller in these elections. So it’s to Bibi or not to Bibi, and I think Israel is now in the turmoil between his abilities as a statesman and a leader, a world player, and his politics and his personal need for survival because of his legal affairs.
So in between those two sides, we are now in this turmoil and I will tell you this. Netanyahu is not going to go easily, and I want to tell you a story last—that was ten days ago. Thursday was a dramatic evening in Israel. We were all in the studio and the attorney general was giving out his decision about the indictments and he decided to indict Netanyahu with the severe charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
So he goes on. We’re all going crazy in the studio, talking about how severe this is. Half an hour later, Netanyahu goes on air and accuses him of making a constitutional coup. Now, any other person, I think, who would have gotten the—would have heard that he has these severe charges would have taken some time to think what he did. No.
An hour after the attorney general finished his remark on TV, we got—the reporters got a schedule from the prime minister’s spokesperson. Sunday there’s a meeting in the government cabinet. Monday he’s going up north. So we have to understand that it’s not an option for Netanyahu to give up and I think this is very important to understand.
INDYK: So into this to Bibi or not to Bibi comes the would-be king slayer or king maker, Yvette Lieberman. So explain to us what his role is in all of this.
WEISS: I think it’s like a Shakespearian tragedy because Lieberman—Avigdor Lieberman—is—was—immigrated to Israel when he was twenty and worked as a porter in the airport, and was very active in the university and he started going along in the circles of the Likud and met Netanyahu in the 1990s and became his right-hand man, and these two people formed Israel’s politics. And it was then when they met Arthur Finkelstein, whom you know very well here—the late Arthur Finkelstein—and—
INDYK: Not everybody knows him so—
WEISS: He’s the—he’s a well-known spin doctor and he was the person that Netanyahu went to in the 1990s when he wanted to become prime minister. So Avigdor Lieberman and Arthur Finkelstein and Netanyahu sit together, and Arthur Finkelstein comes up with a formula that has formulated Israel’s politics up to now.
He said, if you want to know who your voters are, if you want to make sure you’re elected you ask—you ask your public two questions. The first question, identity wise, do you feel more Jewish or more Israeli. Your voters, he said, on the right feel more Jewish than more Israeli. The other question is very blunt and I will—I will tell you how he said it but please make—please understand it’s a political question and it has nothing to do with—I mean, it’s very not politically correct.
But he said, ask your voters do they hate or love Arabs. If they dislike Arabs or have—then they’re the voters. OK. So you have two questions. He said, your voters—your right-wing voters feel more Jewish than Israeli and have a bad sentiment against Arabs. Netanyahu went along, brought the—brought the right wing. Avigdor Lieberman brought on board the Russian immigrants—a million Russian immigrants—and formed the majority Netanyahu has been using ever since to become prime minister.
What happened in 2015 is something amazing. Lieberman turned away from Netanyahu and became his enemy. And Lieberman knows him like no other and he’s the only person who can really put him in the spot and cause trouble because Lieberman knows how he ticks and Lieberman is not afraid because he doesn’t care if he stays in power or not.
So in 2015, all of a sudden these two friends fall apart and Lieberman starts thinking that so long as Netanyahu is there he’s not going to have any prospect as becoming prime minister. So what happened was that in April in the elections Lieberman said, I’m not going along with the Jewish identity and the Arab sentiment. I’m breaking away. I’m taking my voters on a different issue and that is religion and state. And for the Russian immigrants, religion and state is a big issue.
So all of a sudden, Lieberman took away the votes Netanyahu needed for a majority and, therefore, in April, for the first time Netanyahu couldn’t count on his ally, Lieberman, and couldn’t form a government, and ever since Lieberman has said, I am not going along with Netanyahu. And therefore, Netanyahu doesn’t have the sixty-one-seat majority that he needs. And Lieberman today is the person who can decide who will be prime minister tomorrow morning because—
INDYK: Why hasn’t he done that?
WEISS: I just want to explain why. Because there are fifty-five seats for the new Blue and White Party and fifty-four seats for the—for the—sorry, fifty-five and fifty-six, and Lieberman has eight seats. So you need sixty-one for a government. So if he says, I’m going with Netanyahu, tomorrow morning we’d have a government, and if he said, I would go with Blue and White, tomorrow morning we’d have a government.
But Lieberman is not keen on making a decision. I, personally, think that it’s safer for him to stay the kings maker than making a choice—either walking away from his promises, getting all his voters angry, and walking back to the coalition with the ultra-orthodox with Netanyahu or, in his view, walking away from his belief and forming a government with the center-left but which will lean on the Arab vote. So, for Lieberman, it’s safer not to make a decision, and as long as he doesn’t make a decision we’re heading towards another election.
INDYK: So that’s a good segue to the next question, which is, as they say in Hebrew, ma yiyeh, “what will be.”
WEISS: You know, there’s a saying that in our region the future is always the same; it’s the past that keeps changing. (Laughter.) If you think about Jerusalem or whatever, I mean, in the region they’re all fighting about—even the Shi’a and the Sunnites are fighting about things that happened six hundred years ago.
I think that we will have to go through another round of elections, unfortunately. I think it will have a very dear price because the country hasn’t—I mean, it’s a year of elections. People in hospitals, schools, whatever, are suffering and it’s a very, as I said, toxic—very toxic campaigning. But I see no option.
If Netanyahu for some reason would have stepped aside and said, I’ll take care of my legal affairs and then come back, we would have a government tomorrow morning. There’s no problem of coming up with a majority. It is all about Bibi or not to Bibi and I think, for him personally, he believes that he’s better off as prime minister facing the legal charges than as a private citizen.
And I just want to finish by saying that in 2008 it was then leader of opposition Benjamin Netanyahu who said to then Prime Minister Olmert, who was going under investigation, a leader with these severe accusations—and he wasn’t even indicted—cannot be trusted with running a country. That was in 2008.
In 2019, I know things that you see here you’d see—so he’s not following his own advice, and I think, at the end of the day, we will have to go to another round of elections. Hopefully, they will change something.
INDYK: And do you expect that Bibi will lead the Likud into that and what impact will there be then, if that’s the case, that you have a candidate who is indicted on bribery running for the position of prime minister?
WEISS: Well, technically, the law allows him to—allows him to run and serve as prime minister. I think—
INDYK: Politically, though, what would be—
WEISS: Politically, I think that these accusations are priced in the brand of Netanyahu. So for his voters—in a sense, it resonates with something I know that another foreign leader said, that if he would stand on 5th Avenue and—(laughter)—
WEISS: So I think for—as it is for Bibi or to not to Bibi, for his own voters it doesn’t really matter—the indictment.
But for the public—for the public life and political life, he’s—his campaign is against the judiciary system. It’s against the rule of law. He has to contest those things in order to stay in power. So it’s going to be—I mean, it’s going to look like a walk in the park—the first campaign, the second campaign—compared to what we’re going to face. He will lead. He will lead the party because I don’t see anyone there moving him away and it will be another—it will be another test for the Blue and White.
But it’s amazing. Once there was a thought that only a general could challenge Netanyahu or anyone coming from the right. If you were center and center-left you had to be a general to convince the public that you had what it take(s) to make sure they’re secure in Israel. Now we have a party of three former chiefs of staff and they’re still having a hard time beating Netanyahu. But—
INDYK: So just quickly before we go to Assaf, just give us a few quick words on Benny Gantz, who looks like, from a distance, Chauncey Gardiner from Being There. He just kind of—(laughter)—turned up and, yet, he seems to have impressed the voters.
WEISS: Yeah. Benny Gantz—Benny Gantz is the former chief of staff, and when he—I think his political appetite grew on him. It wasn’t—it wasn’t the natural thing for him to go into politics and in the April elections he came to our newsroom and said very frankly that he wanted to, first, be a defense minister or some kind of minister to learn the job and then—but he found himself—he looked to the right. He looked to the left. There was no one there, so he said, OK, I’ll run for this job.
And I have to be fair and say that he’s only been in the political life less than a year but he is the first person in Israel’s short history, in the past decade, that gets support from the Israeli public and the Israeli public sees him equal to Netanyahu when asked if—approval rates of prime ministers.
So, you know, he’s a nice guy but I think he’s proven to be more than just a nice guy and he’s managed to keep this Blue and White with three generals around him. That’s not easy. They were—I mean, Benny Gantz has Ashkenazi and Bogie Ya’alon, who were his commanders and I think for sure they feel they could be prime minister. He’s managed to work this out and the public, I think, likes the fact that he’s a normal guy. So that’s working for him.
INDYK: OK. Assaf, Israel, if Dana is right about a third election, and I respect her judgment completely, then Israel will have been in this political turmoil internally for a full year. In the meantime, the regional turmoil, as Richard described it in his introduction, has been developing in more and more tumultuous ways.
How—you know, looking at it from a strategic point of view, how is Israel’s internal political turmoil affecting its ability to deal with the challenges of the region?
ORION: Yeah. Usually, we are saying know the enemy and know yourself. So let’s start with the know ourselves, and this situation that Dana has described, what does it mean for security or national security decision-making? Where can we assume continuity and where do we look for change?
So this is a cabinet or a government who recently enjoyed public vote in 2015, and since last December is just running on staying power, on its ability to neutralize succession processes. The guys around the room, well, now, certainly, Bibi is the most experienced guy and most of the others are his temporary appointments. So high reliability or dependence.
No appointments. Like, even the chief police is a temporary acting. No budgets. No long term. No five-year planning for the IDF. Anything that takes more than a month’s budget is about to go into what this place know as sequestration or government shutdown. So people who need to get budgets or contracts or government budgeting are going to be surprised and without or not surprised but without.
Parliamentary supervision—the Knesset doesn’t really function and it’s weak even when it’s functioning. So what are we looking into? We used to predict with Bibi he’s a very cautious guy. He’s very deliberate on security issues. He’s not a gambler. He knows very well that wars are only expenses and costs. Like, modern warfare only costs. And so he was very restraining.
I think what Dana just described says it’s not the Bibi we knew. He has a different horizon. His risk, let’s say, appetite is different from what we’ve seen, and I think since the end of August, at least, we’re seeing things that were not Bibi typical before, with more appetite to accept risk even if not going all the way to war because I think that’s, basically, he understands.
Also, we need to embrace contradictions. He will be willing more to use force and at the same time he can—he can allow himself to be more generous with Gaza because he can take the flak. Nobody can outmaneuver him from the right and say, oh, you’re weak. So and recently what we’ve seen is a new minister of defense who came in and immediately saw that this—
INDYK: This is Naftali Bennett from the right-wing party.
ORION: Naftali Bennett. This table is not what it seems from the outside. You need to be more responsible and, again, more forceful and more generous. So it’s an interesting situation. We’ve been hearing declarations about going after the octopus’s head. That’s Iran. A non-Kosher option but—(laughter)—it’s pretty blunt, in this sense. And now let’s look at what’s waiting for this government caretaking for as long as it lives because the list is not waiting.
So let’s switch. Know your enemy. We have a list of problems with an inverse ratio or relations between severity and urgency, and the most severe is the least urgent. And in Hebrew it rhymes—(speaks in Hebrew)—from the dagger to the nuclear. The nuclear is furthest on the horizon. The stab attack or stabbing attack, or car ramming attack is the most prevalent, and in between we have Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
We have Hamas in Gaza. We have insurgency, which is kept under a tight lid in the West Bank. We’ve got Hezbollah as the most prominent militia with a larger arsenal of artillery than most nations enjoy, or suffer, and Iran with its own indirect proxy warfare, trying to establishing itself—to establish itself in Syria, Iran trying to equip Hezbollah with precise weaponry, which will seriously increase the threat to Israel, and Iran’s never-ending quest to get to nuclear status if not to a nuclear weapon and their, I would say, obsession with eliminating Israel, although the great news from the last weeks it’s not after the Jewish people. It’s just the Jewish state they want to destroy. It’s very reassuring. (Laughter.) That’s the time to tell the Iranians we’re quite fond of our survival. Israel is part of our survival. We will stand firm.
So that’s the list.
INDYK: So in the meantime during this caretaker period, we have various things being floated. Netanyahu is saying that he wants to take advantage of the situation now to annex the Jordan Valley and to have a defense treaty with the United States. The foreign minister—caretaker foreign minister, Katz—is saying we’re going to have nonbelligerency pacts with the Gulf Arabs, and the defense minister—caretaker, Bennett—is saying this is the time to push Iran out of Syria. Take advantage of the fact that it’s under pressure from all these demonstrators in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. Is any of this real or is this just domestic politics?
ORION: I’ll start with the end. Iran is under immense pressure. Its economy is plummeting. They have serious protests at home. They have negative growth of 9.5 percent and I think they do experience lack of funds to their proxy industry and all those guys that are fighting for Iran and dying for the mullahs.
So, yes, there’s a liquidity problem there. Certainly, on—in my experience, I proposed the London bus model for analysis. Always compare what’s going on top deck and lower deck; what people declare and what they actually do. And the number of times that we heard of all the annexations and we’ll do this and we’ll do that and we’ll build the Golan Heights. Actually, we’ll name them the Trump Heights and we’ll have a metro station near the Kotel—yes, the Wailing Wall—for Trump.
I would wait. This is, I think, campaigning. Now, pushing Iran out of Syria, why rush? It will take a lot of time if it ever succeeds. So I think we need to be very watchful of the time of all the speakers. Our foreign minister is not the most diplomatic of the cabinet members and I advise to wait and see. (Laughter.) I wouldn’t put my money on all those promises.
So, Tammy, this is a good opportunity to bring in the United States into this dimension. President Trump, not the first president to intervene in Israeli politics. But he went further than previous presidents, I would say, and I think put a big bet on Netanyahu, which doesn’t seem to have paid off and he doesn’t seem to be too happy about that.
But, you know, from a Washington perspective, how do you look at the turmoil that we’ve just been discussing in Israel and the kind of future of the U.S.-Israel relationship in the context of this Trump-Bibi bromance?
COFMAN WITTES: Right. So there is a Trump-Bibi bromance but there is also a degree of entanglement between Israeli domestic politics and American domestic politics that predates President Trump, and I think Bibi is, largely, the author of this because of a set of choices he made toward the end of the Obama administration about where his percentages lay in the American political landscape.
But, you know, regardless of those choices, there is deep polarization in Israel, as we were just hearing, and there’s deep polarization here, which means that even if he had been more subtle than going around the back of the president of the United States to speak to a joint session of Congress in opposition to the Iran deal—even if he had been more subtle, it would have produced a reaction on the other side of American politics because at this point in our politics if one side says black the other side says white, and vice versa, and Israel has not escaped the polarization in our political elites and in our American public. You can see it in every poll.
And so Israeli politicians, dealing with their own endless electoral campaign, have increasing incentives to speak at the United States in ways that are really speaking to their own domestic audience, and I think there’s one example from the Obama administration, which was Bogie Ya’alon, then the defense minister, calling Secretary Kerry’s peace efforts messianic. You might remember that one.
INDYK: It was a particularly insulting wound from the defense minister, who received 2 (billion dollars) or $3 billion from the United States a year for his budget, in particular.
COFMAN WITTES: Yes. I think it still smarts. (Laughter.) But more recently, you could see it also in the Israeli Left when Stav Shaffir, in advance of September’s elections, released a video that was purportedly addressed to American progressives saying, listen, guys, let me explain to you why this BDS thing really isn’t progressive; it’s a very bad idea. And that video was really all about talking to Israeli voters, not to Americans, and, indeed, created a backlash here in the U.S.
And so I think that just shows you it’s across the spectrum. The incentives are strong, and now that we’re looking at, as Dana just described, a year in which our election campaign and their election campaign are coinciding, which is the first time, I think, since 1992 when Bill Clinton was campaigning for president and Yitzhak Rabin to displace Shamir as prime minister, it’s going to be almost impossible to escape this constant entanglement.
And this is coming at a time when the United States’ role in the region and its policy toward Israel and toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are all in transition, for structural reasons as well as because of this intensely transactional, short-term, and somewhat impetuous approach from President Trump.
So where does that leave a region in turmoil? I think, you know, at the outset of the Trump administration there were a number of regional governments who, including Netanyahu’s government, who thought that if they came together, because the one thing they all agreed on is that the United States needed to be more present, more involved in dealing with region security problems and that Iran was at the heart of it all—they all thought that if they worked together they could draw Washington back into the region.
And I think over the past year—we’re now almost exactly a year out from President Trump’s first dramatic call with Turkish President Erdoğan in which he said he was going to pull U.S. troops out of Syria—and in this past year, a whole lot of regional governments have come to realize that they cannot rely on this capricious Trump administration to help them deal with their problems.
What’s interesting is that they are coming to different conclusions about how they want to respond. So I just got back from a security conference in Manama, Bahrain, where a bunch of Gulf governments attended and a lot of different voices, and they have been quietly exploring deescalation possibilities with Iran because, for them, the most urgent threat from Iran is the interference with oil shipping through the Gulf and they’re not—you know, because Trump did not respond to this strategic attack on the Saudi facility at Abqaiq they’re not sure they can count on us. So they’re trying to figure out their own way forward.
Netanyahu and the Israeli government, on the other hand, are, number one, fixated on the resumption of nuclear activity, and number two, more interested in rattling the sword than in deescalating. And so this sort of convergence of interests that existed between Israel and the Gulf is now starting to come apart and, frankly, what I heard from the Gulf representatives in Manama about Israel, you know, was the same kind of standoffish skepticism that I think we’re starting to hear from the Trump administration. Wow, looks like this guy really can’t hold it together. Let’s just step back and see what happens.
So I don’t expect we’re going to see the Gulf governments or other Arab governments take any major steps toward Israel in the coming year.
INDYK: Great. It’s a good opportunity to now go to the audience and you’ll have an opportunity to ask your questions of the panel. Please make sure to identify yourself and make sure to ask a question. (Laughter.) Make sure there’s a question mark at the end of your sentence.
Go ahead, please. Who would like to start? Wait for the microphone.
Q: Thank you. I’m Harry Reis from the New Israel Fund.
It’s good to see you all and hear the interesting things you have to say. I’m curious if the panelists could address what are sort of the darker scenarios of what might transpire to Israeli democratic institutions if Netanyahu won't go willingly. That is, what are we seeing as he fights his indictment for bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust in terms of the potential damage to Israel’s legal system and its system of checks and balances?
WEISS: It’s a good question and I want to do something which journalists don’t usually do and be an optimist. I always remember what President Peres—late President Peres saying that optimists and pessimists die the same but live differently so it’s better to live as an optimist—(laughter)—and trust me, being a journalist now in Israel—political journalist—it’s better to be an optimist.
I think a couple of months ago I would have been very, very troubled. But the reason I think, at the end of the day, Israel and the rule of law and Israel’s political system is greater than any one person is because last week there was a protest in Tel Aviv in the Tel Aviv Museum, and it was a protest organized by Prime Minister Netanyahu, funded by the Likud, publicized vastly on social media and called all his supporters to come and rally against what he said was the constitutional coup against him.
And you would have imagined that if the prime minister calls his people to come out and speak their mind and another minister said that everyone should start a rebellion now and go to the streets, and at the end of the day you only manage to rally not more than seven thousand people, and they weren’t Likud members but, really, from the—every conspiracy theorist was there and talking about conspiracy, and only two members of Parliament from his party came and only one minister, who is our cultural minister, Miri Regev, but she openly declares that she didn’t read Chekhov and she doesn’t believe in reading Chekhov. (Laughter.)
So that wasn’t such a big event. If there would have been a hundred thousand people there, I would have said we might have to go through a bloody civil war or whatever.
So I think, at the end of the day, the Israelis will fight on social media. They will maybe show up in the ballots. But I think they understand themselves that this is the end and they’re not willing to sacrifice the country that they love and enjoy living in. So I am more optimistic when it comes to that.
INDYK: There’s also the question of the—you know, the institutions—the judicial institutions, and you want to say something about the strength of those institutions?
WEISS: Yeah. Look, I always—
INDYK: From attorney general to the—
WEISS: Yeah. Being a journalist, I look at things as stories and, look, this is a great story. So we have Prime Minister Netanyahu, who appointed the chief of staff of the police—the high commissioner—and he appointed this attorney general. Now, this attorney general, Mandelblit, comes from a very right-wing—(speaks in Hebrew)—very staunch right-wing house. His father was very active in the Likud Party and the Herut Party. And he worked with Prime Minister Netanyahu for three years as his secretary of cabinet. OK.
But when he was faced with the facts and when he was faced with doing his professional job as an attorney general, he opted for professionalism over his own opinion. So there is struggles. I’m not going to take you there. They’re trying to—you know, all the gatekeepers are under attack and Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying to appoint his gatekeepers.
But even his own gatekeepers are still professionals and there’s a strength—even though we’re a young country and we don’t have a constitution, maybe I’m too optimistic but I think because of the understanding that Prime Minister Netanyahu has not succeeded in two elections now—he’s not the wizard he used to be. He’s not the winner he used to be. Even President Trump doesn’t see him as the winner he used to be. I think it gives the institutions power to overcome this. It’s going to be messy, but I think they will—they will overcome it.
COFMAN WITTES: And can I just add one note, which is that Dana referred to the pro-Bibi demonstration. There was an anti-Bibi demonstration this past weekend. But the biggest nationwide demonstrations in Israel over the last year were one against violence against women and one on the rights of gay men to become parents. And these two protests went across Israeli society—Arabs, Jews, secular, religious. The strength of Israeli civil society, to me, is also a source of democratic resilience. And so the party’s institutions, yes. But you look at what’s even bigger.
INDYK: Yes, please.
Q: Stephen Blank.
Arab parties this time, this election, were much more united and active. Is this the beginning of something new, is it going to continue, and will the Arab parties play a growing role? Or is this just a flash in the pan?
WEISS: I think the most interesting—if you have to follow one person in Israeli politics, I urge you to follow Ayman Odeh. He’s a young Arab leader—political leader—leader of the joint party, which is mainly the Arab representatives in the Knesset. He’s a lawyer from Haifa and he is changing Israel’s landscape in the sense that up to his leadership the Arab members of Knesset were obsessed with the Palestinian issue and couldn’t care less with the Arab population, which is 20 percent of Israel. And the population—the Arab population—this is—we have such an opportunity.
The Arabs in Israel look around, see what’s happening in the countries next to us and understand that they have an opportunity that Israel is—Israel, the country, is providing and they want to take part. If you go into a hospital in Israel, it’s a miracle. You go into a hospital in Israel. Nowhere in the Middle East do you see Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Jews, working together as doctors, nurses, patients.
This is—I mean, there are more—there are more—I had to spend time in a hospital last week with a member of my family. There were more doctors and nurses—Arabs—than any other. And so there’s an opportunity. Ayman Odeh came up and said, enough is enough. We are looking into our community and we’re (saying some of ?) this. We want to be a part. Give us what we deserve.
And for the first time since 1992, the Arab parties, led by Ayman Odeh, took part in this forming of coalition and said, we’re going to support Benny Gantz for—we’re not going to sit with him but we’re going to say he should have the mandate. So Ayman Odeh is changing Israel’s political landscape and I always believe that the new Israeli story is the story of a startup nation for all its citizens.
We are no longer a country of minorities—a minority and a majority. There’s not one majority in Israel. There are four tribes living there. You have the secular. You have the Arab tribe, 20 percent. You have the ultra-orthodox, who are going to form about a quarter, and you have the rest, which are what we call orthodox Zionists.
So there’s no one granting equality. So the only way Israel can start—stay this startup nation and this power—regional power, which it needs because of all these defense issues, is if everyone is on board and equality is not something that the majority grants the minority but it’s a mutual interest. And Ayman Odeh is coming up and saying, look, this is the opportunity to make sure everyone is taking part in this economical miracle in the region. And the very—the reason I’m optimistic is because Benny Gantz is doing something different than other leaders. Other leaders from the center or center-left whenever Arabs came up and said, we want to be a part, they pushed them away because they were afraid of the reaction of the Right.
Now, our prime minister is doing just that, saying, oh, the Arabs—who could imagine a government with the support of the Arabs. But Benny Gantz went and met with them. Benny Gantz is talking to them. Benny Gantz is understanding that if we want to maintain a democratic alliance in Israel we have to have the Arabs on board and there are so many civil issues we can agree on. And because the Palestinian issue is something that is not on the agenda—unfortunately, but that’s true—I would urge you to follow Ayman Odeh. He’s a surprise and an opportunity for a stronger Israel.
INDYK: So, Assaf, let me just pick up on that because it does raise the question what about the Palestinians. If even the Arab citizens of Israel are focusing on their own interests above those of the Palestinians, which was their traditional policy, and nobody in all of these elections is prepared to raise the Palestinian issue, you know, what’s the future of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians?
ORION: First, we’ll have a government. (Laughter.) Then we’ll have a policy, and at some stage the Palestinian issue will emerge there because the great news nobody’s going away. The staying power of those nations is significant.
INDYK: By the time we get there, with what’s happening on the side in Gaza with this truce developing and the Palestinians finding no real support amongst the Arabs with the exception, perhaps, of Jordan and a little bit from Egypt, how does the dynamic change at all?
ORION: I think the first issue to recognize is that we’re in a period of lost years anyway because there are no conditions for success for a diplomatic or negotiated seeking arrangement. So at that aspect you have Mahmoud Abbas, who denounces terror, which is positive. But he’s not a historical figure to take his people across the river and say, OK, time for a final arrangement.
It’s a divided system. Look at the flexibility of Netanyahu going to quiet arrangements with Hamas. One of the things that were outstanding in the last conflict in Gaza is the dog that didn’t bark. Two days of fierce fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad with Hamas none the more active. At the last—you know, after the cease fire they had to object to being portrayed as collaborators so they had two rockets at Beersheba. That’s it.
Now, if this is not saying super communication between Israel and Hamas, what does? So expect the contradictions. We will find ways to quiet down Gaza. Minister Bennett was very fierce in his position. Suddenly floats the island idea. But for staff work eight weeks. We are counting the weeks. It’s a balloon.
INDYK: The island idea is to have a port for Gaza offshore that Israel—
ORION: A port, an airport under Israeli supervision and security.
INDYK: Security and control.
WEISS: It’s Israel Katz’s idea. You have to give him credit for that.
ORION: I think it’s not his but it’s—he branded it so. (Laughter.)
WEISS: He pushed for it. You have to be fair. He pushed for it.
ORION: —I think the Palestinian issue came back to what it really is. It’s an Israeli-Palestinian conflict and all those who call it the Israeli-Arab or the Middle East peace process, forget it. Let’s call a spade a spade. This is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the Palestinian system. Many people now want better livelihood, starting to think about how do we integrate into a one-state system.
INDYK: Well, they’re taking a leaf out of Ayman Odeh’s book here. They’re looking at that and saying—
ORION: They’re going—they’re going the long short road, as Bogie wrote it.
INDYK: Tammy, you described a system within the Democratic Party—a dynamic in the Democratic Party which is going the opposite direction, towards a two-solution. Every presidential candidate is saying they’re going to take an initiative for a two-state solution.
COFMAN WITTES: Well, are they going to take an initiative for a two-state solution? No. Do they want that to remain the U.S. objective? Yes, and I’m glad for that because although I agree that Palestinians in the face of years of stasis and chipping away at the hope for a two-state solution and in the face of an upcoming leadership transition for which they really don’t feel they have much control over the future of the Palestinian national movement, you know, yeah, they’re saying, fine, Israel wants to occupy us forever? Give us a vote. But I don’t think anyone should kid themselves that that is a solution to the conflict.
ORION: Of course not.
COFMAN WITTES: That just moves us into a new phase of the conflict in which it’s a civil conflict. So if that’s what Israelis who would like to hold on to the territories forever are looking for, great. They can have a civil conflict like Syria. I don’t wish that on them, and so I think that the two-state solution needs to remain American policy.
What I would say is that this—what you described, Assaf, this environment in which Israeli political leaders—right, left, center—think that they’ve got this managed and the Palestinians can just wait until Israel gets its leadership issues figured out, I worry about that calculation for two reasons, or maybe three.
One is you can miscalculate, right. Hamas’s two rockets at Beersheba were meant to send a message. But what if they accidentally hit a house and killed a family? We would be in a totally different ballgame right now. We’ve been seconds away from that kind of outcome several times in the last months.
Number two, Jordan, which is teetering financially and politically—King Abdullah was just here in New York a week or two ago ringing the alarm bell and—
INDYK: Which he does so well.
COFMAN WITTES: He does so well, but he usually does it with cause. And it’s not just a Palestinian-Israeli conflict if you’re sitting in Amman. It’s existential for the Kingdom of Jordan, which has always been Israel’s not just partner but bulwark in the region in dealing with these other forms of instability.
You know, and then you have the question of Palestinian leadership. I’m constantly surprised at the extent to which Israeli officials downplay their own influence over the environment within which Palestinian leadership succession is going to take place. Palestinians are making calculations every day about what they need, what they want, from their own leadership, and the Israeli government has huge influence over whether they think they have any interest in a leader who will carry them across the river.
And so why wait, you know? (Laughter.) And I understand all the domestic politics that answers the question of why wait. But it does seem to me it’s a strategic failure.
INDYK: OK. Let’s take another one. Mr. Arbell (ph). Arbess, I should say. Arbell (ph), Arbess.
Q: Daniel Arbess.
Dana, let me ask you all to use your imagination for a moment and try to connect some dots here. Dana, you made reference to the unfinished constitutional project of Israel, which is, in fact, a part of the political problem right now. As you know, Likud and the Right complain about excessive judicial review, dating back to the Ehud Barak era. The Palestinian problem of giving the Palestinians a path to citizenship is it runs into the Jewish character of the state of Israel.
So could we imagine a constitutional advancement in Israel like the one that took place in Canada in the early 1980s when Canada repatriated its constitution from the British system under which you would have a constitutionally-enshrined bill of rights, which, effectively, you already do from the declaration of independence that applies to all inhabitants, and you would have a legitimate separation of powers where the authorities of the executive and the legislative branch would be delineated?
The legislative branch would be responsible for civil affairs and would be elected by all citizens, including Palestinians who earn through adhering to Israeli law applied from the river to the Mediterranean, and the executive branch would be responsible for questions of Jewish affairs. That is, right of return, defense and security, immigration—that would be elected by a mechanism of indirect democracy, not unlike our Electoral College, that assures Jewish control over questions of Jewish identity.
Sorry for the long-winded question.
INDYK: Sounds like a one-state solution to me. (Laughter.)
WEISS: I see no chance of any serious discussion about a constitution. We can’t form a government. We have so many—we can’t agree on anything. I mean, just look at public transportation—the issue on public transportation on the weekends on Shabbat—of the Holy Day. I’ve been to so many conferences where we try to come up with a new constitution. I’ve stopped going because I don’t see any chance of such serious—unfortunately, serious discourse or consensus or whatever. I think we have missed that opportunity when the country was formed. Those things need to be done by fore-founding fathers, and we will write our constitution as we move along. I do not see any chance of—
INDYK: Do you see any prospect that Palestinians—West Bank Palestinians, Gaza—well, West Bank Palestinians are the ones that count, really, here—will be given a choice of having Israeli citizenship? Any possible future scenario?
WEISS: Unfortunately—I interviewed the minister of education—our minister of education—and he sat in his office and had no problem, as minister of education of Israel—he comes from a far right party hat, which has stronger—it has more representation because of Netanyahu’s need for them to help him with his legal issues. He said, oh, no, we will—I want to—we want to annex and, of course, we’re not going to give them rights. What can we do? We’ll give them human rights but they’re not going to be able to vote. And I said, well, that’s apartheid. He said, well, that’s what’s going to happen.
So I think when you talk to Israeli politicians on the right the majority of them do not want to annex and understand the outcome, and when you need the religious right then it’s not talking about rights. It’s talking about God-promised land. So I hope we don’t get there because I fear—I fear the outcome.
INDYK: Did you want to add something also?
WEISS: I just wanted to say just one more sentence.
INDYK: Sorry. I’m sorry.
WEISS: The interesting thing about the peace process and the two-state solution and the Trump peace plan or whatever is for many years it was perceived that a peace plan would work against the right and help Netanyahu with the center, center-left. This is the first time where he needs the peace plan in order to please the right because he understands that with this peace plan he will have some kind of understanding for annexation. We saw the Pompeo declaration about the settlements.
So for—everything is upside down so now the peace plan or the Trump initiative is important for Prime Minister Netanyahu, not to go ahead with the process but to establish and strengthen his ally with the right, and if I would be very blunt I would say the equation is, I will give you any form of annexation and you, the right wing, will give me immunity in my legal procedures. And this is a whole new concept when you talk about a peace plan.
INDYK: Do you want to add something?
ORION: Two peoples who can’t agree on how to reconcile their territorial situation will agree to share the same house? We’ve been there. It’s called the War of Independence.
INDYK: Over here, please, and then we’ll come to you.
Q: Peter Bass.
What would it take for a two-state solution to be considered something beyond life support and could each of you assess the probability or handicap the probability of that happening?
INDYK: Well, let me—let me put it—elaborate a little bit. If you had—this is a hypothetical, of course—but if you had a government that was separationist rather than annexationist—that is to say, a Gantz-led government—which would be—I don’t know whether Assaf would agree—but which would be really representative of the national security establishment’s point of view as opposed to the right-wing religious point of view—if you had that kind of government, which could well emerge one way or the other, how would that impact the prospects for a two-state solution?
WEISS: I think the interesting—it comes back to the INSS because Gantz, Ashkenazi, and Bogie alone have all been members of the INSS and have been part of working on the program that the INSS has for the solution or moving towards a two-state with what we have with the facts on the ground. So I urge you all—(laughs)—I urge you all to go and see—and see that plan because I think that is the plan they will do.
The Israeli public is under trauma from the disengagement from Gaza and I think we can’t undermine the feeling of sitting in your house and having missiles thrown over to you despite the fact that we have the Iron Dome. For the Israeli public, we gave away Gaza and we got missiles. That’s the sentiment and it’s very hard to change.
So any government—if Gantz and the Blue and White form a government with the Likud, they will be cautious in going for a final or a final status solution but they will try to keep the two-state solution a viable option and do whatever it needs unilaterally to protect the borders. That’s a big step forward. That’s the most we can get at this time.
ORION: Security first, and you need a reliable Palestinian partner, which means governance, no corruption, public legitimacy, and one arm-one law, one—
COFMAN WITTES: One gun. Yeah.
ORION: One. We already have two. So Gaza has no solution yet and the solution there is, is not very promising towards peace. So I think we have a long journey in front of us, and the most important thing to understand here it’s not only the choice that the government of Israel does. It takes two for a tango and for peace. There’s a long go or walk on the Palestinian side and Ben-Gurion taught us first you build the state, then you declare. Trying it on the reverse doesn’t work so well.
INDYK: OK. But the INSS plan—
COFMAN WITTES: So—
INDYK: Sorry, Tammy.
COFMAN WITTES: Yeah.
INDYK: But the INSS plan calls for a unilateral separation step, which is the opposite of what we have from Netanyahu now, who is talking about annexing. And isn’t that going to create a different dynamic?
ORION: It’s talking—it’s talking about creation—the conditions for future success, which means that some of Israel’s expectation needs to be bounded. The security presence needs to be maintained until it’s permissive. And so it doesn’t meet all the hopes that the Palestinians aspire but—and not only Gaza. The Israeli public went through the Second Intifada of 2001, too. They said, never again. Security first, peace if possible. It’s not even a right or left issue.
COFMAN WITTES: So I would say that the INSS plan, as I understand it, was designed to operate regardless of these questions of Palestinian leadership and governance that Assaf was just describing. I would agree that the primary prerequisites to move forward on a two-state solution, Peter, are in terms of Israeli domestic politics and Palestinian domestic politics, as was just described.
But that has implications also for the U.S. and I think that after the policies of the last two and a half years we do face a real question about whether the United States can effectively be a broker or sponsor of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even if the two sides are ready, we’re—they’ve lost trust with us or at least the Palestinians, certainly, have lost trust with us at this point, and there are bigger questions about how committed we are to the Middle East as a whole, much less this project in particular.
So I think that, plus this question of reconciliation between the Hamas leadership and the Fatah leadership in the West Bank is something that would depend in part on an American stance. You know, we are the ones who, with the Israeli government, laid out the quartet conditions for Hamas all those years ago and they still stand, and a lot of that is now enshrined in a bunch of legislation and American policy.
And so we can either facilitate the movement in the direction that Assaf is describing or we can kind of stand in the way. Now, obviously, we’re not in a world where we need to consider—
INDYK: Change the conversation.
COFMAN WITTES: Or change the conversation. But, as they said, a lot has to happen on the ground before we even get there and the most urgent thing, as I think you’ve heard repeatedly now, is that Israel is in a hole on the two-state solution and needs to quit digging.
INDYK: We’re running out of time so we’ll just have the last question here.
Q: Jim Fishbein (ph).
Israel is in the context of the Middle East and in looking at the recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine it was really quite depressing about the Middle East, I have to say—(laughter)—and the general consensus was, well, wait for the next U.S. administration before anything can go forward.
Having said that, my question is that the U.S. seems to be retreating from Syria, has retreated, and Russia has filled the gap, and Russia, being an opportunistic adventurer on the world stage, is developing relationships with Saudi Arabia, with Qatar, with Egypt, with you name it. What does this mean from the Israeli perspective? Where is this going? Should we worry about this? Is this a strategic threat or just an annoyance?
INDYK: Now, I’m going to defer the answer to that question to the next panel because it really does fit there, if you’ll allow me, Jim. We’ll get you to ask it again as the first one on the next panel, if Michelle will agree, if you don’t mind. So let’s have a closeout.
WEISS: There was just—there’s a—
INDYK: We don’t have—we don’t have time.
WEISS: Oh. The woman hasn’t been asked before.
INDYK: So we’re going to have a closeout question.
WEISS: I always make sure that a female has a chance to ask. (Laughter.)
COFMAN WITTES: Yeah, I think we have a—
Q: I’ll be quick. So it’s been sort of a throwaway comment from time to time about this three-state solution. Could you just spend a minute describing what that might manifest, in your view?
COFMAN WITTES: You mean in three states that would—
Q: What is the third state when people throw out this solution suggestion?
INDYK: Gaza, West Bank, and Israel.
COFMAN WITTES: Yeah. So I think there are two possibilities that people throw out. One is that you might have a statelet in Gaza, which would not be viable in any economic or political sense. It would be entirely dependent on Egypt and Israel. And then you’d have some kind of statelet in the West Bank.
COFMAN WITTES: State—that’s one way to put it.
COFMAN WITTES: Yeah. There is also this grandiose proposal that involves land swaps with Egypt and Jordan but I think that’s entirely unviable. So I’ll set that one aside.
What I would say is that regardless of whether it’s Gaza, one, West Bank, two, Israel, three, or Palestine and Israel, these entities are going to be inherently intertwined economically and politically. No Palestinian state is going to be viable without an intensive connection to the Israeli economy. Already, and we’ve—we have Palestinian workers going into Israel from Gaza as well as from the West Bank today at levels higher than before the First Intifada in 1987 and I think that that just underscores the extent to which you can create two states. You need to create two states, but they will always be with linked fates.
INDYK: OK. My closeout question to what’s been a great discussion—who will be the next prime minister of Israel? (Laughter.) Assaf?
ORION: The sole survivor. (Laughter.)
WEISS: You know, it always comes as a surprise. We never thought Benny Gantz would be the person to contest—to stand up against Netanyahu. So I’m going to say let reality surprise us. (Laughter.) Don’t know. I’m looking for a surprise. Surprise is good. It’s interesting. It’s a good story. Let’s wait for a surprise.
INDYK: That sounds like you’re betting on Lieberman. (Laughter.)
COFMAN WITTES: Well, I was going to say if Machiavelli is any guide I think Avigdor Lieberman is the next prime minister.
WEISS: So I don’t know yet.
INDYK: OK. And my answer is not Bibi. (Laughter.)
Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Please thank the panel. (Applause.)
This is an uncorrected transcript
FLOURNOY: Well, welcome back to the second session of the CFR-INSS Symposium on the Future of U.S.-Israel Relations. We’re now going to pull back and look at the larger region. This session is entitled “The New Great Game in the Middle East.” I’m Michèle Flournoy, now co-founder and managing partner of WestExec Advisors, a strategy advisory firm in Washington.
And these two gentlemen need no introduction. We have Richard Haass, the head of this illustrious institution, former senior official in the Bush administration; and Amos Yadlin, head of INSS, and as we heard before, had an illustrious career in the IDF, finishing up as chief of intelligence in Israel.
So, as you know, this is on the record. And we’re going to start with a conversation up here, and then about half hour, 40 minutes from now, we will come to you as the audience. So please be thinking about the questions that you as members would like to ask the panel.
So we heard last panel mention of the fact that there are leaders throughout the region that perceive U.S. pulling back, a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East.
Richard, if we start with you, what has contributed to that perception over not just this administration but a longer period? And do you think it’s right, or do you think it’s not the right way to think about it?
HAASS: Well, thank you, Michèle. Thank you for doing this. Great to be here.
Amos, I always describe him as the ultimate scholar/practitioner. Those of us like Michèle and I who are practitioners, we push paper. We didn’t take out nuclear reactors. (Laughter.) So it brings it to a whole new level, in my experience.
Look, is the perception of U.S. withdrawal from the region correct? “Withdrawal” is a bit strong of a word, because withdrawal sounds binary, like a switch. I think a better metaphor is a rheostat or a dial, that there’s a dialing down of U.S. involvement and presence in the region. I think that’s a correct assessment. I think it’s come about in part for structural reasons, in part for political reasons. The structural reasons, among others, are the change in the energy picture. The United States has gone from a net importer now to a net exporter. And its interest in Middle Eastern energy is there, but it’s indirect rather than direct, and so forth.
I think more of the factors are political. I’ll tell you, actually, under the previous administration there also was a sense of rebalancing, a slightly greater emphasis on other parts of the world, particularly the Asia-Pacific.
I’d also say that some of it was natural strategically. If you’ll look at the last thirty years, which is the post-Cold War era of American foreign policy, when it began you would have been hard-pressed to predict that we would spend as many of our calories, both absolute and percentage wise, in the greater Middle East as we did. That this would become the principal area of strategic involvement I don’t think was, shall we say, obvious or predictable or self-evident thirty years ago, but that’s where it’s been, to use a phrase I rather like, to some extent because of wars of necessity, to some extent because of wars of choice, but it happened all the same.
I think as a result of all this, you had intervention fatigue along with strategic rebalancing. I think this began under the last administration. Mr. Obama’s response or non-response to Syrian use of chemical weapons was a big development. The decision not to follow up the intervention and regime change in Libya was yet another. The reticence to get involved more broadly in the Syrian civil war was another dot, if you will, on the graph.
And this administration has taken all that and doubled down or tripled down on American retrenchment in the region, any number, most dramatically what recently happened in Syria with the Kurds, the nonresponse to events involving Iran and several of its neighbors, certainly nonresponse in the military sense.
We just discussed in the last panel in many ways the absence of American diplomacy in the region. It’s not just a reduced military footprint, but it’s really a reduced diplomatic footprint. It’s now three years and we’re still counting waiting for a diplomatic initiative on what we used to call the peace process, the absence of any serious initiative on Yemen, and so forth.
So the only tool that seems to be getting heavy use is sanctions, largely against Iran, and also on the diplomatic side the nonresponse, say, to Saudi Arabia after this Khashoggi killing, and by and large the deemphasis on interests in human rights and democracy around the world.
So again, I’ve seen a real dialing down, dialing back, choose your metaphor, of American involvement in the region that spans two administrations. I think most of the reasons are political, and I think it’s become far more pronounced. It’s not linear. I actually think it’s been a step function, to change metaphors, under this administration. I don’t think you asked me what the consequences are, or did you?
FLOURNOY: We’ll get to that.
HAASS: Okay. And I think one question is consequences. Another is to what extent now is it locked in. And I think a separate question is to what extent might it be reversible, either based upon American changes of thinking it out or developments in the region. But we’ll save all that.
FLOURNOY: Now, Amos, how does U.S. engagement, U.S. posture look from Israel? Do you see it in the same way, or differently?
YADLIN: Yeah, differently because we are living there. And my rules in life are the following: Never panic. Never be in euphoria. That’s another bad statement of mind. We must be slightly paranoid. There is no any more a silver bullet, and nobody can predict the future, OK? This is to the question who will be the next prime minister.
FLOURNOY: Yeah, I’m not going to ask that.
YADLIN: So we are not in panic, but we are worried. We are slightly, slightly paranoid. The U.S. is leaving, disengaging from the Middle East, and this is clear to all the players. And who is filling the vacuum? The bad guys: Iran, Russia, Turkey, Assad. It’s not a good news. It’s not a good news.
But after saying that, Israel is a strong country. And the fact that the U.S. is disengaging from Syria, it’s not that the Iranians immediately are coming to our border. They’ve already been there. The Americans were not allowed to engage the Iranians. The rules of engagement for CENTCOM was ISIS, and only ISIS, unless you are in self-defense. But the Iranians were smart enough not to attack.
So the fact that ten thousand soldiers are leaving Syria is not a reason for panic. Israel stopped Iran in Syria to a certain level. It was not America. And we will continue to do it. If you go to the strategic relation between Israel and the U.S., we never ask you to shed one drop of blood for us. We will fight our wars with the IDF. We will protect our country with our boys and girls. So in this respect, there is no change.
We do need your defense support, which is generous, which is important. And we hope that, you know, the two administration—it’s bipartisan issue in the United States, and we hope that this will continue. If it will not continue, Israel is a strong country. The economy today is much better than it used to be, and we will survive.
The only place we really need you is there, two miles from here, the U.N. building, the U.N. Security Council. Over there, the American veto is very important. We were much more concerned four years ago at the end of your administration, when America abstained. We are less concerned today. Even if the U.S. is disengaging from the Middle East, we think that we have the diplomatic support of the U.S.
The problem is the message. The message in the Middle East is that the U.S. is going back after. And people are not blaming you, because I was in New Orleans months ago. I visited the World War II Museum. This is amazing, what this country has sacrificed. People in Europe, in Normandy, in the Pacific Ocean. But at the end of the day it was a decisive victory. The Japanese and the Germans signed a full unconditional surrender. But you have demonstrated in the Middle East in the last twenty years is huge treasure and blood, and the situation in Afghanistan after twenty years is not much better, right?
HAASS: It’s better.
YADLIN: It’s better? OK. But not something to write home about. (Laughter.) And the situation in Iraq is not much better.
HAASS: It’s better. (Laughter.)
YADLIN: I don’t think you want to live in Baghdad these days. So you do want to live in Berlin or Tokyo.
HAASS: But we had opportunities there in both, both with what we were working with, the nature of the societies, occupation, and so forth. The post-World War II world was a different world than the more recent world, and we were working with homogenous societies, much more organized societies, and so forth after a total war. So we had opportunities then that we didn’t have in the Middle East now. For all we did, there were also things we couldn’t or chose not to do, and we can have that conversation.
FLOURNOY: If I could turn us to the question of—
YADLIN: I haven’t finished. (Laughter.)
FLOURNOY: I’m sorry. Briefly wrap up and then we’ll go to the next.
YADLIN: Last but not least, the message in the Middle East is that America is leaving. and this message, coupled with a sense of betrayal towards the Kurds, which is a very bad message. And Israel will have to cope with it. But the good news is that we are not Kurds and we are not Saudis. We know how to defend ourselves.
FLOURNOY: OK. So I wanted to turn to this question of the consequences of the general perception, and then some of these specific steps like the abandonment of the Kurds and so forth.
In terms of how do you see allies and partners starting to hedge, we’ve seen a lot of leaders from Netanyahu to MBS to MBZ, the different Arab leaders going, making a lot of trips to Moscow. How do we see potential adversaries responding? You’ve had Iran conduct a series of provocations with no real reply or pushback.
So what are the consequences of this perceived, and in some cases real vacuum that’s developed, Richard?
HAASS: Well, whenever a greater power dials back—and this is not unique to the Middle East—countries which had previously been heavy reliant on it, whether they’re formerly allies or simply strategically dependent, they’ve got a couple of options. And again, it’s not unique to this situation. One is they can defer to a more powerful actor, whether that actor is local or distant, but they can basically defer—whatever word you want to use, appease, Finlandize themselves—but essentially accommodate themselves to the sway of a more powerful actor. That is one approach.
At the other end is they can take matters more into their own hands. They can become more self-reliant. And self-reliance can take various forms. You could say it’d be the self-reliance of military self-reliance—whether it’s conventional forces, nuclear forces, what have you—essentially substituting for what the United States was prepared to provide, or you can become more diplomatically self-reliant, essentially cutting deals.
You could also become more militarily self-reliant. For example, I would argue what the Saudis did years ago in Yemen was a form of military self-reliance at a time they weren’t as confident about the United States. We’re seeing some signs now of greater diplomatic activity potentially with Iran at certain levels.
Other countries are taking matters more into their own hands. Turkey is a really obvious one. We’ve seen it in Syria, Russia, Iran, the Syrian government itself. Depending upon how the United States and others, including Israel here, react to the Iranian gradual moving away from the strictures of the 2015 JCPOA, you could have a scenario where Israel would, quote/unquote, “take matters into its own hands” dealing with the Iranian nuclear challenge.
And if at some point Iran achieves a certain breakout capability or near breakout capability that’s perceived to be tantamount to one, I actually think the possibility of self-reliance through nuclearization cannot be ruled out. Turkey’s already articulated it. The Saudis have a quick option called Pakistan. You can imagine Egypt and others.
And this is not unique to this part of the world. I can imagine a similar type effect taking place in Northeast Asia, depending upon what happens or doesn’t happen with North Korea, and how Japan or South Korea or others might. So I think we’re at a point in which the era of American primacy, which has essentially gone on at least for most of the three decades since the end of the Cold War, say for two and a half decades, that is dialing down. That’s clear—I think we agree on that—that that has waned.
What’s not clear—and I don’t think we’ve yet reached a new plateau of stability about what takes its place, to the extent anything takes its place—what I think now we’re beginning to see is the early positioning and decision making of others to essentially how do they position themselves, prepare themselves for this era where the United States is not willing to play the kind of role it played. I think we’re still in the early days of that. You would have to be a real optimist though—I’ll stop with this—you’d have to be a major league optimist to think this transition from an American-led region to a post-American led region, that this is going to happen, both the transition itself and the outcome will be smooth and peaceful.
So, Amos, you’ve been watching Iran for most of your career. How do you see Iran responding in this situation? You know, it’s facing a certain amount of pressure, maximum pressure campaign, sanctions from the Trump administration, a persistent interdiction campaign instead of operations from Israel. We’ve seen protests from across Iran in quite significant numbers. How do you see Iran reading this situation in the region and pursuing its objectives going forward?
YADLIN: I think the Iranians react to the maximum pressure that the president have decided in 2018 with maximum patience. The Iranian is a different culture. The American culture, the Israeli culture is planning a very short horizon. It’s the next quarter. It’s the 6:00 news. It’s the next week.
YADLIN: And the Iranians are planning for a generations, for half a generation. And they decided to wait for a regime change not in Tehran, in Washington, D.C., in 2020, and hoped that the sanctions will not be effective because it’s unilateral American sanctions. And the Americans will be sidelined. The Europeans will compensate them; the Russians and Chinese with them. They hate sanctions from the first place.
And the surprise for the Iranian in the first year was the fact that sanctions were very effective because of the secondary sanctions. Because if you are the CEO of a European company, Total or Volvo, and you have to wait your business in Iran and your business with America, the decision is to—(inaudible). So the Iranians saw a huge economic crisis from 6 percent of growth to minus, a serious minus, devaluation of the rial, inflation in a world with no inflation, huge unemployment.
And the Iranians has a changing point in May 19. This is when Trump decided not to extend the waivers to export oil from Iran. At that moment they understand that that strategic patience is not working, and they have to change it from passive strategic patience to an active strategic patience. By the way, Iranian way, not all the way, but very carefully, well-calculated.
By the way, spying on the Iranian for five years and researching them for eight years, I do appreciate very much the way they craft a strategy. These people invented chess and they are doing excellent rugs—(laughter)—so they know something about strategy and they know something about tactics and details.
And they decided to start and cause some pains to the Americans. If we don’t export oil, nobody will export oil. If the Americans continue to push us, they will have some surprises. And maybe we will collect some bargaining chips to a future negotiation—freedom of navigation, exporting oil, and starting to breach the JCPOA. Once again, Iranians are smart. They know the JCPOA is good for them in the long run, OK? So they didn’t leave the JCPOA, but they started to show you that they’re unhappy.
And Iran started with attacking tankers which were empty on the way to load. Nobody reacted, even though the intelligence evidence was 100 percent photographed by the American sensors. Then tankers that went out loaded, nobody reacted. Then American drone. Not a small drone, Boeing-sized drone, $200 million. You know the sensors on this airplane. Over international water with Iranian taking responsibility, not some proxy, which is the usual way they behave. No response.
So next—and this is very important—14th of September, cruise missiles attack drones, and 50 percent of the Saudi capability to export their oil was knocked out of the market, 5.9 million barrels a day, and no reaction. So Iran is getting more and more confidence that they can do things.
But once again, never panic. They haven’t killed any American yet, so they know what is the redline. And they haven’t sent the same force that attacked in Saudi Arabia to Syria or Iraq to attack Israel. Iran, very much like the U.S., has forces that projected power all over the region—not all over the world. It’s the Quds Force with the ten thousand, two thousand, five thousand, seven thousand. It’s very much like BB5s (ph), but each one of them is a group of Iranians that are playing in one of the countries. And their achievement is huge. They are now influencing four Arab countries: Iraq, that you are very happy with.
HAASS: I didn’t say very happy. I said it’s better. (Laughter.)
YADLIN: Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. They have their influence. But until now they’ve fired at Israel with the Quds Force proxies. And this was not impressive. It was rockets that we intercepted and we were able to stop. If they will decide to deploy the air force of the IRGC, which was the organizations that attacked the Saudis. To Syria or to Iraq, this is going to be more serious.
FLOURNOY: Yes, yeah, thank you.
The other player I wanted to highlight, based on the question that came up before, is Russia. Obviously, President Putin saw an opportunity, a vacuum that he could step into in Syria, regain a foothold in the region, try to expand or regain some influence for Russia. How worried should we be? You do see a lot of leaders of the region making trips to Moscow, engaging Russia as a player that seems to be holding some significant cards in their hands.
Richard, how concerned should we be, or is this not to be worried about?
HAASS: It is to be concerned about, but as Amos might say, not to be panicked over.
HAASS: Russia is a largely—not exclusively, but largely one-dimensional power, mostly in the military realm. All sorts of weaknesses economically, politically at home. But it is good, or fairly good, at projecting military power. You have Georgia, you have Ukraine, and you have Syria. And what we’ve seen is a willingness to deploy military power and a willingness to use it in a way that is the opposite of careful, with zero concern about civilian casualties. At times it’s so bad that one would think the goal is to cause causalities because that reinforces the coercive dimension of the use of military force.
At the same time—and I’d be curious if Amos agrees with me—one also has a sense that there’s a limit to Putin’s appetite for causalities, for both the economic and the military costs of military intervention. Because again, in part, he hasn’t delivered great things domestically to the Russian people, and I think he’s worried about a guns versus butter pushback at home. So I think he’s willing to use significant amounts of military force when he can do so on the cheap, in part because we created space in a place like Syria, and there’s no one now who can push back against him. He has accomplished a lot with a little.
So now is this necessarily a recipe for other things? No, because you have to be able to recreate those conditions. And indeed, I think it is instructive that before the United States did what it did vis-à-vis the Kurds several months ago, there were limits to what Russia was doing in big parts of Syria. Large parts of Syria they weren’t involved, but now things have opened up. I don’t seem them involved meaningfully, say, in Yemen. I don’t see them obviously tangling in certain parts of Syria which would get them crosswise with Israel.
Let me put it this way. To put it most bluntly, Michèle, the era of Pax Americana is not going to be replaced by Pax Russia. That is simply not in the cards. I think we’re more likely to see a situation where Russia’s selectively influential, where it can intervene militarily in certain kinds of conflicts. But I simply see it—coming almost to the title of this session you’re presiding over—it’s one of others. And a “great game” is a little bit off because that suggests great powers. But you’ve got local powers, Israel, Turkey, to some extent Saudi. You’ve got Russia. You’ve got China more involved economically. I see Russia as one of several. But its specialty, its comparative advantage is a willingness and ability to use military force.
FLOURNOY: We are about to turn to our members, so be thinking of your questions.
But, Amos, I’m going to ask you for your assessment. We can’t talk about the Middle East without talking about violent extremism and terrorist groups. Not only we’ve mentioned some of the Iranian proxies, but also some of the Sunni extremist groups, whether it’s remnants of al-Qaida or ISIS or others.
You know, obviously there’s been quite a rollercoaster ride over the last many years in terms of the withdrawal from Iraq allowing for a resurgence of what was al-Qaida in Iraq, rebranded as ISIS; the intervention, building of a coalition to beat that back. And yet, this is not a movie that’s over. So how do you see terrorism in the region in light of this greater sense of vacuum or pulling back? What does 3.0 look like or 4.0 look like?
YADLIN: Yeah, I want to say something about Russia, with your permission.
FLOURNOY: Okay, sure, of course.
YADLIN: Russia is not an enemy of Israel. When I was a young pilot, we fly over the Suez Canal, and the Russians were the enemy. We fought with them. They fired missile at us. There was no embassy in Tel Aviv. They were totally aligned with our enemies. This is not the case today. As you said, Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Moscow, at least during the Obama administration, more times than he visited the White House.
FLOURNOY: That was noticed.
YADLIN: And Russia is not an enemy. It’s not an ally, because we have different interests. We have different interests, but we were able to create, at least on the tactical level, a deconfliction mechanism. When they came to Syria, as Richard explained, we found out that we don’t want to have the Turkish position of having to fire them when they cross the border mistakenly, and we don’t want them to counter our air force when we go against the terrorists or against the Iranians.
So a very good deconfliction mechanism was formed. A Russian-speaking officer in the air force headquarters calling the Russian-speaking officer Russian in Khmeimim Air Force Base in Syria, and they are not coordinating, but they are deconflicting. And the problem is that on the strategic level, with all the visits of the prime minister, they haven’t reached the right agreement that brought upon us Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, in a way by the Russians, because they helped this part of the opposition, of the Assad regime, to win the war in Syria, which I think is now one of our main problem, because the Iranians, after winning the war for Assad with the Russians, haven’t declared victory and went home. On the contrary, they are building a huge military presence in Syria with an armament and equipment that is not used against this ISIS. It’s ballistic missiles, drones, air defense. And Israel has to cope with it.
FLOURNOY: Do you see any possibility of driving a wedge between the Russians and Iran on that point or no—
YADLIN: It’s a very good question. Some of the researchers in my institute explain me that now when the war is over, they will fight over the peace dividends in Syria. To my analysis, the peace divided in Syria is $-450 billion. Somebody has to rebuild Syria, and Syria is in bad shape.
And who will rebuild it? America and Europe saying not before Assad goes. Russia and Iran are bankrupting and they are under sanctions. The Chinese are smart people. They know that this is not the place to invest. There are better places in the Middle East. So, yes, they don’t have identical interests, but they do have two very fundamental interests. Both of these countries don’t want to see the Americans in the Middle East and both of them want to see Assad the president of Syria, and this keeps them together.
To your question about terrorists, from Israeli perspective, with all due respect to ISIS, we never saw it as our number-one problem. And that’s because they don’t have nuclear program. They don’t have ballistic missiles. They don’t have air force, navy, whatever. Terrorists? We live with terrorists and we fight with them for 70 years, and these are not the most dangerous terrorists, for us.
FLOURNOY: And they weren’t focused on Israel.
YADLIN: And the second issue. The rest of the world will fight with them. Your coalition was sixty-four, sixty-eight countries. There was another, ugly coalition of Iran and Russia and Assad fight against them. Vis-à-vis Iran, we were left alone. We were left alone on ISIS.
And finally, your defense establishment decided after twenty years that this is not your number-one issue. I think you took it down. China, Russia, terror. So with all due respect to terror, I think it’s under control. It’s really emerged somewhere, but we can cope with it. It’s now mostly in their websites on the internet, but it’s reemerged, but it’s not the number-one defense problems that we face and you face.
FLOURNOY: Right, thank you.
OK, we’re going to open it up for member questions. The microphone will come to you. Please tell us who you are and do ask a short question. Way in the back. Sir.
Q: Oh, hi. Marty Gross from Sandalwood.
To go back to the beginning of your talk about we’ll say either the withdrawal or the tentativeness of the U.S. vis-à-vis its role in the Middle East, Kissinger and Shultz and many others I think in their 2015 op-ed talked about how our current, shall we say, geopolitical naiveté will result in when we have to go back we’ll be in a much worse situation at that time than if we don’t play it this way. So what do you think are the types of events that might transpire in the next five years or so. Without predicting the future, but perhaps discussing it, what do you think the types of events that could occur that would actually force the U.S. to rethink its tentativeness and take a much different active policy stance?
FLOURNOY: Richard, do you want to start?
HAASS: OK, I can give you two that I think could force it and one that would not.
The two that would force it, one would be a discrete terrorism-type target the equivalent where either before some terrorist group acted, or afterwards, God forbid, in the 9/11 model, that we would do that. It would be focused, limited, and so forth. The only question is, depending upon the country it was taking place, did we also then had to have some kind of a follow-up state building effort along the lines that, say, we did in Afghanistan or we’re doing in dozens of countries around the Middle East and Africa. So that’s one set of events.
The other would be something on the nuclear side involving Iran. The whole advantage of the JCPOA was that we dramatically increase warning time, we not only delayed when Iran could acquire certain capabilities, but up to that point we dramatically increased warning time. If Iran now begins to narrow warning time at some point, that’s an imaginable scenario.
I think the scenarios that it’s very hard for me to imagine the United States getting involved with—and I’d be curious on Michèle’s view on this—but when I worked in the Pentagon each day, the scenarios I hated the most were ones dealing with internal stability challenges. And one can imagine any number of countries in the region facing internal stability challenges. Indeed, the list of those that could face them is much longer than the list of those that are unlikely to face them. And those are ones where I’m really hard-pressed to think about useful interventions by outsiders in ways that could help those we purportedly want to help in a manner and at a cost that in any way is justifiable. And those, to me, are quite likely at various times in various places, but there an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And my only concern is in many cases our prevention efforts are very limited right now, in a very narrow vein. And so I have concerns about that.
FLOURNOY: Yeah. The only thing I would add is just if Iran were to miscalculate or lose control over a proxy in Iraq and if there are Americans killed—you know, an attack on an embassy, a sinking of a shift in the Gulf because they misfire, whatever. So I don’t think they do it deliberately. I do think they understand it’s a redline. But there’s always the risk of miscalculation, and I think that could draw an American response that might escalate into something.
HAASS: I think you’re right. And just to build on something you just said, and Amos said before, I think one of the problems with what recently happened in Saudi Arabia is we’ve opened up now a great area of uncertainty. I mean, we’ve gone a long ways from August 1990, this will not stand, to where we are thirty years later. And there’s always two kinds of deterrence: deterrence by certainty and deterrence by uncertainty. I much prefer deterrence by certainty. And I worry now that we’ve opened up large areas of uncertainty involving the Saudis and other countries, and whether in Iran or an Iran proxy, whatever, I worry about that, that we’ve created gray areas. And that to me, it’s never optimal.
FLOURNOY: Yes, sir, right here.
Q: Herbert Levin, Council member.
General Yadlin, assuming an American administration that is not beholden to a particular group like American evangelicals right now with the Republicans, but an American administration that can select a policy toward the Middle East based on American interests, what from your perspective, is an ideal American policy?
YADLIN: You are now of the assumption that the current administration is playing against the American interests, right?
YADLIN: So from Israeli perspective, you must understand that with all the criticisms that you may have on your president—on his behavior, his values—from an Israeli point of view, he is a good president for Israel. He’s a good president. According to the government in Jerusalem, accept the Israeli perspective on the JCPOA and left it. On some issues that all Israelis agree upon, like Jerusalem, like the Golan Heights, even the Jordan Valley—not annexation, but the need of the Jordan Valley to be part of Israel from security point of view, Gantz and Bibi are on the same page. Don’t develop illusions that if Gantz will be the prime minister, immediately he will accept the Kerry proposal or the Clinton parameters. Israelis are not there anymore.
And there is a president here that say, you know, what was right thirty years ago may not be right today, due to changing on the ground and due to the fact that Israelis don’t see a partner on the Palestinian side, which the Palestinians are divided. There is a terror state in Gaza controlled by a terror organization—not my definition—State Dept definition of Obama administration, or any American administration. And we don’t see the Palestinians willing to come forward.
So if you are thinking about a president that will change the Middle East by saying two-state solution, let me tell you: Even if Gantz go to Ramallah and will try to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, he will not be able to do it, because after saying two-state solution, you should say what is the parameters of the two-state solution.
Two-third of the Israelis support two-state solution. Two-third of the Palestinians support two-state solution. Until they are presented with the parameters. Suddenly, it's a third. So I do hope that the next administration will face the reality in the Middle East and will come with an updated plan very much like the INSS plan, which is saying we do want to see two-state solution, but we understand that it is impossible with these leaders and these generations and the traumas on both sides.
And as it was discussed in the last session, it’s not only the Gaza disengagement, because the Gaza disengagement for the Israelis is the following: We went back to the ’67 border, to the last inch. We dismantle all the so-called unconstitutional, against the international settlement to the last settlement. And what we got? Terror state that’s firing rockets. And there is the trauma of the post-Oslo, the Second Intifada. None Israeli leader even from the center-left will agree to have any arrangement that will not deal with this security.
FLOURNOY: Dr. Louis (ph). We have microphones coming, sir. There we go. Yeah.
Q: I have a question about Russia. Russia is a country economic size like maybe Italy or Australia. How come that the whole world thinks what is Russia going to do? What is it that they can do? Yes, they have weapons of mass destruction, but they can’t use them. So where do they get their power to be what they are other than by bullying?
FLOURNOY: Richard, do you want to take that?
HAASS: Well, again, that was not inconsistent with what I argued. One has to take Russia seriously, though, because they are willing and able to use discrete amounts of conventional military force in a brutal way for limited ends. They’ve done it in Yugoslavia, they’ve done it in Georgia, they’ve done it in Syria.
I think one can say that and not paint Russia as ten-feet tall. They are not a comprehensive great power. They have nuclear weapons. They have conventional weapons. They have considerable energy and considerable cyber tools. What they don’t have is an economy. What they don’t have is a political mechanism for succession, something that I think will kick in if Mr. Putin ever departs the scene. I do not think an orderly succession is to be assumed. Russia has all sorts of nationality issues still, some of the same things that bedeviled the former Soviet Union.
But all of this doesn’t make Russia easier to deal with. The fact that they are in many ways an outlier, that they not only are not integrated in much of the quote/unquote “liberal world order,” but see integration in what we used to call or still sometimes call the liberal world order as a threat. Putin sees it as a threat to his continued rule, and that Russia, therefore, it frees it up to do certain things. So I see Russia as—yes, there’s limits to what it is and what it can do, but it is willing and able to do, as we’ve seen, some things that can be—that can be effective, particularly when we’re not.
We have created openings for Russia, particularly in the Middle East. In Europe, you would say Russia had geography on its side. And I think it’s important not to extrapolate significantly from Georgia or Ukraine to the rest of the world, potentially to the parts of Europe, and I think NATO has to be mindful of that. But I think what it did in the Middle East, it wasn’t doing it before opportunities presented themselves. And once strategic opportunities presented themselves, I think in some ways we allowed Russia on the cheap to reestablish a foothold in the region. They took advantage of it, but shame on us for creating those circumstances.
YADLIN: In 2014 I met a Russian colleague. Was the head of the GRU, I was the head of the Israeli military, but both of us at that time retired. So a friendly dinner. And he say, Amos, look, what happened to us by a guy named Kissinger thirty-five years ago in Egypt, and then in Iraq in 2003, and then in Libya in 2011 is going to be stopped in Syria, and there will be a U-turn. We are coming back. And they are not coming back with nuclear. They’re coming back with a very good conventional weapons—good airplanes, S-300, S-400—that they have produced in the times that Putin decided to make Russia great again. And this is the main goal, the main goal.
And he say, this guy Kissinger also taught us another thing: we should be the mediator between every pair of enemies in the Middle East. And look today. They can speak to the Saudis and to the Iranians; to the Israelis and to the Iranians; to the Israelis, to the Palestinians; to the Turk and to the Kurds; to the Egyptians and to the Kurds. They talk to everybody. They use their very limited power in a way that some other superpower forgot, because there is another superpower that basically the philosophy today is whether we do nothing or it’s a slippery slope to a full-scale war of unintended consequences.
The Russians are not worried about unintended consequences. They repair them as they go forward.
FLOURNOY: And I would just add the U.S. forfeiture of that position diplomatically means that we have much less ability to actually shape the outcomes. And so we’re seeing outcomes that really are not supportive of our interests.
I would only add that Russia’s—more outside the Middle East—the kind of disruptive behavior—the use of the KGB toolbox, whether it’s propaganda, whether it’s interference in elections—it’s really—
YADLIN: Cyber war.
FLOURNOY: Cyber warfare. It’s really about creating dissention, discrediting democratic systems, breaking up alliances—which are a huge strategic advantage for the United States. So it’s—to your point, it’s not that they’re ten feet tall economically or militarily, but Putin is very, very good at playing a limited hand very well.
So you had a follow up?
Q: (Off mic.) And I mean, for instance, there’s a problem of—(comes on mic)—there’s a problem in Venezuela. Suddenly, the Russians are sending somebody there. What do—what does—why should the world think about it, that they have anything to do with Venezuela or somewhere?
HAASS: But Venezuela, the Russian role there I think is peripheral. The role to worry about that is external is the Cuban role. The Cuban role in Venezuela is central, incomparably more significant than the Russian role. Chinese role is significant in a different way, financially.
Russian role is a little bit of a poke in our—in our eye. It’s a way of saying we can muck around in your neighborhood, nothing’s off limits. But I wouldn’t—Russia is not all—the Russia propping up of the Venezuelan regime is really marginal. If it’s a country you’re worried about, it’s—and we ought to be worried about there, that I think is Maduro’s lifeline—is Cuba.
Yes, sir. Right here.
Q: John Washburn, Unitarian Universalist—
HAASS: Try and use the microphone.
Q: Sorry. (Comes on mic.) John Washburn, Unitarian Universalist U.N. Office.
I know that speculation about things a couple of years off is not necessarily one of your favorite things, Mr. Haass, but I’m going to try you on it anyway. And that is that it seems likely—you can’t tell much from the current Democratic contenders/debates right now, but it seems likely that in a post-Trump period that they’re going to try to have—a post-Trump president is going to try to find a way to disassociate from the Trump attitudes on international affairs of the kind that we’ve been talking about just now. If they try to do that, what would you advise them to do about reducing the impact of the dialing down that we’ve had now in the Middle East? What would you advise them to do about allusions about Russia that you feel are not warranted?
HAASS: Well, let me challenge your assumption, because I don’t—first of all, I don’t know when the post-Trump period in the explicit sense begins, whether it’s in a year or five years, and I think that makes a difference.
But second of all, I don’t think Trumpism goes down Pennsylvania Avenue after Mr. Trump leaves. I think elements of Trumpism are now in the American body politic.
One of the things we did at the Council on Foreign Relations, we sent—we sent a dozen foreign policy questions to all of the candidates, Republican and Democratic alike. We got answers from almost all the Democratic candidates, and in certain areas there’s some overlap with Mr. Trump. All this talk about forever wars, the desire to get out of Afghanistan unconditionally, the desire to get out of Syria unconditionally, opposition to free trade, and so forth, these are not uniquely Mr. Trump. So I don’t assume that whoever comes after him necessarily departs 100 percent. Indeed, I assume they do not.
There’s also, if you read the Democratic responses or your read the transcript of the debates or watch them, there’s not a single brush that captures all the Democratic candidates. There’s a range of views in terms of their approach to foreign policy.
I also don’t know what exactly the post-Trump Republican Party—I can imagine a range of views there.
But I—something we hinted at at the beginning—I just—but I think, again, it’s a mistake to simply attribute what we’ve described here are retrenchment, disengagement, a dialing down only to Mr. Trump. It began before him. There are structural reasons for it. And—all of which argues that it continues to a degree after him. Some of the specifics will be determined by exactly who does succeed him. But I—we’re not going back to where we were a generation ago. The world has moved on, one thing. It’s not like the Russians are going to simply say, oh, by the way, if you want to come back into Syria we’re going to depart. Things don’t work that way. The region’s moved on, and I think the American people and the support for America’s world role has moved on to some extent. So if you think of Trump as much a reflection as a driver, that suggests that after he departs the scene there will be more continuity than your—than your question suggests.
FLOURNOY: Yes, ma’am. Right here, in the orange.
Q: Hi. Sarah Leah Whitson.
I want to challenge you both a little bit on this assumption of a withdrawal or a dialing down in the Middle East, because I don’t really see it. And I don’t really see it whether you look in the last two or three years, and I don’t really see it whether you look in the last twenty or thirty years. And I really didn’t hear you offer any evidence to support the claim of any dialing down. When you look objectively at the Middle East today, the United States continues to be the one-thousand-pound gorilla in virtually every country. It’s got troops on the ground more than any other country in the world. It’s got military bases on the ground in nearly every country in the region, by far more than any country. The Syria so-called withdrawal hasn’t actually been a withdrawal; it’s been a reshuffling, pushing troops around Syria. And one could say that that’s actually because the mission of—that the U.S. troops were ostensibly there for, which is to defeat ISIS, was largely completed. I don’t think the mission of the United States in Syria was ever to support the creation of a new autonomous Kurdish state or zone, however much the Kurds would rightly wish that. So really, what is the evidence for the so-called withdrawal or dialing down in the Middle East?
I would add to that, of course, the U.S. continues to be the largest weapons supplier and weapons provider in the region and, you know, it—and continues to nonstop be fighting wars in the Middle East, whether it’s Iraq, or it’s Libya, or of course the more quiet was in which the United States has been engaged since the beginning, which is the war in Yemen. So I’m dubious.
FLOURNOY: That’s great. So—
HAASS: You want to take it, or should I? OK.
Again, we didn’t use the word “withdrawal.” We used the word “retrenchment,” “reduction,” “dialing down.” And we’ll just have to disagree. But let me make the case as to why.
Let’s just go around it. We said in the previous administration there are three strong points of American dialing down. One was in Libya, zero follow up to the intervention. So we removed authority in Tripoli and we didn’t follow it up. That’s, to me—I’m not saying we should have, but I’m saying—I’m just—let me just note it.
Second of all, we said—created a red line about the use of chemical weapons. Chemical weapons were used repeatedly; we didn’t respond.
And then more—thirdly, our role in the Syrian civil war was quite modest.
And we can argue the pros and cons of all these things, but you asked me for evidence of American dialing down. There’s three.
Under this administration, far, far greater. Saudis kill a prominent journalist who was living in the United States. What do we do? Absolutely nothing.
The Kurdish thing, that was a big deal, I’m sorry. Major deal, unilaterally moving away from the Kurds. It wasn’t simply that ISIS had been defeated. That’s a temporary thing, not a permanent thing given the nature of the enemy. But we had an understanding with the Kurds. We were there. They were controlling a third of Syria. We walked away from that, thank you very much.
We didn’t respond to Iranian provocations against tanker traffic, putting out of business half the Saudi oil capabilities. They’ve gradually gotten out of the JCPOA; we haven’t responded to that, other than with economic sanctions.
We haven’t responded diplomatically to human rights problems, not just in Saudi Arabia but Egypt and other places around the world.
We don’t have a serious approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, other than essentially giving Israel unconditional support.
So again, I’m not arguing that this is right or wrong. But the net content of all of this is the United States has dramatically, dramatically dialed down its involvement in the region. I don’t think that’s arguable. What’s arguable is the wisdom of it, the implications of it. But I don’t think it’s arguable about what we’ve done.
FLOURNOY: I also think that our military posture and footprint is always a lagging indicator. Policies change faster than our footprint changes. And even in the—you know, what people focused on was there was no response to these Iranian provocations even though we sent a couple of thousand additional troops to reassure Saudi Arabia. So there is a—there’s a bit of a disconnect between our military posture and the level of engagement and what people—how people perceive the U.S. policy and action.
HAASS: Right, but I think you make—but you make an important point. You know, what always matters is not simply capacity, but it’s willingness to use it. So the fact that we sent a few thousand extra troops to Saudi Arabia, if we have no intention of using is, so what? To be—to be perfectly blunt.
And that’s where the Russians are more interesting. And in that sense, the Russians have less capacity but are more willing to use it. And so I think that’s why their influence is going up and ours is going down.
Yes. Right here. Sir.
HAASS: Right behind you.
Q: I’m Gerald Pollack.
How might Iran’s revving up of its nuclear program play out?
FLOURNOY: Want to take that, Amos?
YADLIN: Yeah. Unlike—
HAASS: (Laughs.) You asked the right guy. (Laughter.)
YADLIN: Unlike the oil and the terror, which they are very active, they had a plan how to do it gradually—starting small, medium, large, extra large. And on the nuclear, the small is breaching the agreement, the medium is withdrawing from the agreement, the large is leaving the NPT, and the extra large is going to the bomb. On this part of their new active strategic patience, they are very, very careful. They are very careful. The don’t want to lose the Europeans, and last week for the first time French have said that they will reconsider to reimpose the sanction. And they of course don’t want to fight with Russia and China. So they are very, very careful on the nuclear issue.
I already used the argument that the JCPOA is good for Iran in the long run, so withdrawing from it is not a good idea for them. The JCPOA was acceptable on the first ten years because it rolled back Iran from being two months from the bomb upon decision to a year: nineteen thousand centrifuges to six (thousand), twelve tons of enriched uranium to three hundred kilograms. So they were less in a good position in the first years, but the sunset clause gave them the legitimation, the legitimacy for a full-scale nuclear program. If they want two hundred thousand centrifuges, fine. So they are very careful on the nuclear issue, but they also signaling that they may go forward—if they will have an assessment, that it’s a good time to do it.
The Israeli prime minister has two dreams about Iran after Trump withdraw from the deal. One dream was that Iran will collapse economically, the regime will collapse. There are the demonstrations there. He hopes that the regime will be another regime. You know, Israel and Iran has a very good relation in the past, before this regime took over. And when such a regime calling to destroy Israel and developing nuclear weapon, it’s a—it’s a problem for us. So the dream was it will be collapse.
The second dream was that if Iran will do something stupid and miscalculate, Trump will attack Iran.
When I lately approached the prime minister, I told him that even though I like his dreams, they are not realistic anymore. They are dreams, and they have to go back to reality. And the reality he’s to be prepared for two scenarios.
One, that Iran and the U.S. will engage in negotiation. Once again, I don’t have to spy on the White House. It is well-transmitted in Twitter: I want to negotiate with Iran. And he was on the line. It was Rouhani who refused to talk to him. So another negotiation is a possibility.
The Obama administration kept us out of the loop, and we found it by intelligence that there is negotiation. And then the Israeli government decided not to be involved, and it was a mistake. You should influence the negotiations, because a new agreement—JCPOA 2.0—should repair the loopholes that we had in the first one.
This is time for Israel to speak with the American administration about the important articles that should be amended. The sunset should be moved for thirty or forty years. Inspection everywhere, every time. The ballistic missile issue. The potential military dimension, which is now definite military. The Iranians lie about it. So there is a lot to do. If the Israelis once again boycott the negotiation, it will be a huge mistake. This is one scenario.
The second scenario is what you ask. If the—if the Iranians are not coming to negotiation, they feel the American weakness, they feel the Israeli weakness, and they will go forward with the plan, with the nuclear program. Then Richard already said that we should have a plan what is our red line, even though red line is not popular anymore. But where is the point that you do something different, and who is doing it, and how we coordinate between the two countries.
This is huge two scenarios that we do need a government to deal with, because now it’s all about internal politics and not the right thing.
HAASS: Can I say one thing on that? I also think we need to be crystal clear on what would be the necessary response from Iran in order for us to ease sanctions. And is it, as some would suggest, to get back into the JCPOA? Is it to get into JCPOA 2.0, we’d only do it in that context? But I think we need to come to a position because we’ve been—quite honestly, we’ve done better than I would have thought with these sanctions. Where I think we have not done nearly as well as we could do is essentially saying what are the policy response—what are our goals and what are we looking for Iran to do in order to get some easing. And I think it would help if we made up our minds on that.
FLOURNOY: Right now it’s a very long laundry list of everything that we could possibly imagine, which is—
HAASS: It’s not a serious list.
FLOURNOY: —probably not realistic.
So I think we have time for one more question, or? A short question. A very short question. Is that a—yes, sir. Go ahead.
HAASS: Short answers.
FLOURNOY: Very short question.
Q: Peter Clement, Columbia University.
Quick question on the current protests in Iraq and Lebanon. To what extent do you assess that this will have any kind of an impact on Iran’s influence in those two countries?
YADLIN: Yeah. Some people wanted it to be a second Arab Spring, Arab Spring 2.0. Unfortunately—unfortunately, the regimes have learned the lessons. Very much like the first Arab Spring, you don’t see leadership. You don’t see positive paths for these countries. It’s only we don’t like what we have, which is understandable. They don’t like what they have. They have governments which are corrupt. They have governments that are not efficient. There is no real democracy. There is a lot of, you know, different sects in Iraq and Lebanon. And there is a huge Iranian influence. But I don’t see them moving from the street to a real effective political change in these two countries.
I think it is important—and if you look at the development in the Middle East, this is maybe not too many good news. The fact that the people in Iraq are saying to the Iranians enough is enough is important. It’s a good news. The fact that the young generation in Lebanon are not admiring Hezbollah anymore, and Christian and Muslims and Shia and Sunni together asking for a better government, to a less corruption, to a better opportunities for the young generation, is positive. But I’m not that naïve to think that it will change these two countries. Qassem Suleimani is working hard. You know, in Iran they have done it from their perspective very effective: shut the internet, shut the demonstrators, and it’s gone. In Iraq and Lebanon they are not controlling the internet and they are not controlling the country totally. They do it through proxies. They are more careful. But I think it’s a good news. And it’s into the future, not tomorrow, give some hope.
FLOURNOY: OK. That’s a wonderful note to end on. (Laughs.)
HAASS: Good way to end. Nicely done. (Laughs.)
FLOURNOY: So thank you so much. (Laughter, applause.)
This is an uncorrected transcript.