A Plan to Remake the Middle East (2024)

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michael barbaro

From New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.

[MUSIC CONTINUES]

Today, if and when Israel and Hamas reach a deal for a ceasefire fire, the United States will immediately turn to a different set of negotiations over a grand diplomatic bargain that it believes could rebuild Gaza and remake the Middle East. My colleague Michael Crowley has been reporting on that plan and explains why those involved in it believe they have so little time left to get it done.

It’s Wednesday, May 8.

[MUSIC CONTINUES]

Michael, I want to start with what feels like a pretty dizzying set of developments in this conflict over the past few days. Just walk us through them?

michael crowley

Well, over the weekend, there was an intense round of negotiations in an effort, backed by the United States, to reach a ceasefire in the Gaza war.

archived recording

The latest ceasefire proposal would reportedly see as many as 33 Israeli hostages released in exchange for potentially hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

michael crowley

US officials were very eager to get this deal.

archived recording

Pressure for a ceasefire has been building ahead of a threatened Israeli assault on Rafah.

michael crowley

Because Israel has been threatening a military offensive in the Southern Palestinian city of Rafah, where a huge number of people are crowded.

archived recording (president biden)

Fleeing the violence to the North. And now they’re packed into Rafah. Exposed and vulnerable, they need to be protected.

michael crowley

And the US says it would be a humanitarian catastrophe on top of the emergency that’s already underway.

michael barbaro

Right.

archived recording

Breaking news this hour — very important breaking news. An official Hamas source has told The BBC that it does accept a proposal for a ceasefire deal in Gaza.

michael crowley

And for a few hours on Monday, it looked like there might have been a major breakthrough when Hamas put out a statement saying that it had accepted a negotiating proposal.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm

archived recording

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the ceasefire proposal does not meet his country’s requirements. But Netanyahu says he will send a delegation of mediators to continue those talks. Now, the terms —

michael crowley

But those hopes were dashed pretty quickly when the Israelis took a look at what Hamas was saying and said that it was not a proposal that they had agreed to. It had been modified.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

And overnight —

archived recording

Israeli troops stormed into Rafah. Video showing tanks crashing over a sign at the entrance of the city.

michael crowley

— the Israelis launched a partial invasion of Rafah.

archived recording

It says Hamas used the area to launch a deadly attack on Israeli troops over the weekend.

michael crowley

And they have now secured a border crossing at the Southern end of Gaza and are conducting targeted strikes. This is not yet the full scale invasion that President Biden has adamantly warned Israel against undertaking, but it is an escalation by Israel.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

So while all that drama might suggest that these talks are in big trouble, these talks are very much still alive and ongoing and there is still a possibility of a ceasefire deal.

michael barbaro

Mm.

michael crowley

And the reason that’s so important is not just to stop the fighting in Gaza and relieve the suffering there, but a ceasefire also opens the door to a grand diplomatic bargain, one that involves Israel and its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians, and would have very far-reaching implications.

michael barbaro

And what is that grand bargain. Describe what you’re talking about?

michael crowley

Well, it’s incredibly ambitious. It would reshape Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors, principally Saudi Arabia. But it’s important to understand that this is a vision that has actually been around since well before October 7. This was a diplomatic project that President Biden had been investing in and negotiating actually in a very real and tangible way long before the Hamas attacks and the Gaza war.

And President Biden was looking to build on something that President Trump had done, which was a series of agreements that the Trump administration struck in which Israel and some of its Arab neighbors agreed to have normal diplomatic relations for the first time.

michael barbaro

Right, they’re called the Abraham Accords.

michael crowley

That’s right. And, you know, Biden doesn’t like a lot of things, most things that Trump did. But he actually likes this, because the idea is that they contribute to stability and economic integration in the Middle East, the US likes Israel having friends and likes having a tight-knit alliance against Iran.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

President Biden agrees with the Saudis and with the Israelis, that Iran is really the top threat to everybody here. So, how can you build on this? How can you expand it? Well, the next and biggest step would be normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

And the Saudis have made clear that they want to do this and that they’re ready to do this. They weren’t ready to do it in the Trump years. But Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, has made clear he wants to do it now.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

So this kind of triangular deal began to take shape before October 7, in which the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia would enter this three way agreement in which everyone would get something that they wanted.

michael barbaro

And just walk through what each side gets in this pre-October 7th version of these negotiations?

michael crowley

So for Israel, you get normalized ties with its most important Arab neighbor and really the country that sets the tone for the whole Muslim world, which is Saudi Arabia of course. It makes Israel feel safer and more secure. Again, it helps to build this alliance against Iran, which Israel considers its greatest threat, and it comes with benefits like economic ties and travel and tourism. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been very open, at least before October 7th, that this was his highest diplomatic and foreign policy priority.

michael barbaro

Hmm.

michael crowley

For the Saudis, the rationale is similar when it comes to Israel. They think that it will bring stability. They like having a more explicitly close ally against Iran. There are economic and cultural benefits. Saudi Arabia is opening itself up in general, encouraging more tourism.

But I think that what’s most important to the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is what he can get from the United States. And what he has been asking for are a couple of essential things. One is a security agreement whose details have always been a little bit vague, but I think essentially come down to reliable arms supplies from the United States that are not going to be cut off or paused on a whim, as he felt happened when President Biden stopped arms deliveries in 2021 because of how Saudi was conducting its war in Yemen. The Saudis were furious about that.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

Saudi Arabia also wants to start a domestic nuclear power program. They are planning for a very long-term future, possibly a post-oil future. And they need help getting a nuclear program off the ground.

michael barbaro

And they want that from the US?

michael crowley

And they want that from the US.

michael barbaro

Now, those are big asks from the us. But from the perspective of President Biden, there are some really enticing things about this possible agreement. One is that it will hopefully produce more stability in the region. Again, the US likes having a tight-knit alliance against Iran.

The US also wants to have a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia. You know, despite the anger at Mohammed bin Salman over the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration recognizes that given the Saudis control over global oil production and their strategic importance in the Middle East, they need to have a good relationship with them. And the administration has been worried about the influence of China in the region and with the Saudis in particular.

So this is an opportunity for the US to draw the Saudis closer. Whatever our moral qualms might be about bin Salman and the Saudi government, this is an opportunity to bring the Saudis closer, which is something the Biden administration sees as a strategic benefit.

All three of these countries — big, disparate countries that normally don’t see eye-to-eye, this was a win-win-win on a military, economic, and strategic front.

michael crowley

That’s right. But there was one important actor in the region that did not see itself as winning, and that was the Palestinians.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

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michael crowley

First, it’s important to understand that the Palestinians have always expected that the Arab countries in the Middle East would insist that Israel recognize a Palestinian state before those countries were willing to essentially make total peace and have normal relations with Israel.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

So when the Abraham Accords happened in the Trump administration, the Palestinians felt like they’d been thrown under the bus because the Abraham Accords gave them virtually nothing. But the Palestinians did still hold out hope that Saudi Arabia would be their savior. And for years, Saudi Arabia has said that Israel must give the Palestinians a state if there’s going to be a normal relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Now the Palestinians see the Saudis in discussions with the US and Israel about a normalization agreement, and there appears to be very little on offer for the Palestinians. And they are feeling like they’re going to be left out in the cold here.

michael barbaro

Right. And in the minds of the Palestinians, having already been essentially sold out by all their other Arab neighbors, the prospect that Saudi Arabia, of all countries, the most important Muslim Arab country in the region, would sell them out, had to be extremely painful.

michael crowley

It was a nightmare scenario for them. And in the minds of many analysts and US officials, this was a factor, one of many, in Hamas’s decision to stage the October 7th attacks.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

Hamas, like other Palestinian leaders, was seeing the prospect that the Middle East was moving on and essentially, in their view, giving up on the Palestinian cause, and that Israel would be able to have friendly, normal relations with Arab countries around the region, and that it could continue with hardline policies toward the Palestinians and a refusal, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said publicly, to accept a Palestinian state.

michael barbaro

Right. So Michael, once Hamas carries out the October 7th attacks in an effort to destroy a status quo that it thinks is leaving them less and less relevant, more and more hopeless, including potentially this prospect that Saudi Arabia is going to normalize relations with Israel, what happens to these pre-October 7th negotiations between the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel?

michael crowley

Well, I think there was a snap assumption that these talks were dead and buried. That they couldn’t possibly survive a cataclysm like this.

michael barbaro

Right.

michael crowley

But then something surprising happened. It became clear that all the parties were still determined to pull-off the normalization.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

And most surprisingly of all, perhaps, was the continued eagerness of Saudi Arabia, which publicly was professing outrage over the Israeli response to the Hamas attacks, but privately was still very much engaged in these conversations and trying to move them forward.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

And in fact, what has happened is that the scope of this effort has grown substantially. October 7th didn’t kill these talks. It actually made them bigger, more complicated, and some people would argue, more important than ever.

[MUSIC CONTINUES]

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Michael, walk us through what exactly happens to these three-way negotiations after October 7th that ends up making them, as you just said, more complicated and more important than ever?

michael crowley

Well, it’s more important than ever because of the incredible need in Gaza. And it’s going to take a deal like this and the approval of Saudi Arabia to unlock the kind of massive reconstruction project required to essentially rebuild Gaza from the rubble. Saudi Arabia and its Arab friends are also going to be instrumental in figuring out how Gaza is governed, and they might even provide troops to help secure it. None of those things are going to happen without a deal like this.

michael barbaro

Fascinating.

michael crowley

But this is all much more complicated now because the price for a deal like this has gone up.

michael barbaro

And by price, you mean?

michael crowley

What Israel would have to give up. [MUSIC PLAYING]

From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, you have an Arab population that is furious at Israel. It now feels like a really hard time to do a normalization deal with the Israelis. It was never going to be easy, but this is about as bad a time to do it as there has been in a generation at least. And I think that President Biden and the people around him understand that the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians is intolerable and it is going to lead to chaos and violence indefinitely.

So now you have two of the three parties to this agreement, the Saudis and the Americans, basically asking a new price after October 7th, and saying to the Israelis, if we’re going to do this deal, it has to not only do something for the Palestinians, it has to do something really big. You have to commit to the creation of a Palestinian state. Now, I’ll be specific and say that what you hear the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, say is that the agreement has to include an irreversible time-bound path to a Palestinian state.

We don’t know exactly what that looks like, but it’s some kind of a firm commitment, the likes of which the world and certainly the Israelis have not made before.

michael barbaro

Something that was very much not present in the pre-October 7th vision of this negotiation. So much so that, as we just talked about, the Palestinians were left feeling completely out in the cold and furious at it.

michael crowley

That’s right. There was no sign that people were thinking that ambitiously about the Palestinians in this deal before October 7th. And the Palestinians certainly felt like they weren’t going to get much out of it. And that has completely changed now.

[MUSIC CONTINUES]

michael barbaro

So, Michael, once this big new dimension after October 7th, which is the insistence by Saudi Arabia and the US that there be a Palestinian state or a path to a Palestinian state, what is the reaction specifically from Israel, which is, of course, the third major party to this entire conversation?

michael crowley

Well, Israel, or at least its political leadership, hates it. You know, this is just an extremely tough sell in Israel. It would have been a tough sell before October 7th. It’s even harder now.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is completely unrepentantly open in saying that there’s not going to be a Palestinian state on his watch. He won’t accept it. He says that it’s a strategic risk to his country. He says that it would, in effect, reward Hamas.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

His argument is that terrorism has forced a conversation about statehood onto the table that wasn’t there before October 7th. Sure, it’s always in the background. It’s a perennial issue in global affairs, but it was not something certainly that the US and Israel’s Arab neighbors were actively pushing. Netanyahu also has — you know, he governs with the support of very right-wing members of a political coalition that he has cobbled together. And that coalition is quite likely to fall apart if he does embrace a Palestinian state or a path to a Palestinian state.

Now, he might be able to cobble together some sort of alternative, but it creates a political crisis for him.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

And finally, you know, I think in any conversation about Israel, it’s worth bearing in mind something you hear from senior US officials these days, which is that although there is often finger pointing at Netanyahu and a desire to blame Netanyahu as this obstructionist who won’t agree to deals, what they say is Netanyahu is largely reflecting his population and the political establishment of his country, not just the right-wingers in his coalition who are clearly extremist.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

But actually the prevailing views of the Israeli public. And the Israeli public and their political leaders across the spectrum right now with few exceptions, are not interested in talking about a Palestinian state when there are still dozens and dozens of Israeli hostages in tunnels beneath Gaza.

michael barbaro

So it very much looks like this giant agreement that once seemed doable before October 7th might be more important to everyone involved than ever, given that it’s a plan for rebuilding Gaza and potentially preventing future October 7th’s from happening, but because of this higher price that Israel would have to pay, which is the acceptance of a Palestinian state, it seems from everything you’re saying, that this is more and more out of reach than ever before and hard to imagine happening in the immediate future. So if the people negotiating it are being honest, Michael, are they ready to acknowledge that it doesn’t look like this is going to happen?

michael crowley

Well, not quite yet. As time goes by, they certainly say it’s getting harder and harder, but they’re still trying, and they still think there’s a chance. But both the Saudis and the Biden administration understand that there’s very little time left to do this.

michael barbaro

Well, what do you mean there’s very little time left? It would seem like time might benefit this negotiation in that it might give Israel distance from October 7th to think potentially differently about a Palestinian state?

michael crowley

Potentially. But Saudi Arabia wants to get this deal done in the Biden administration because Mohammed bin Salman has concluded this has to be done under a Democratic president.

michael barbaro

Why?

michael crowley

Because Democrats in Congress are going to be very reluctant to approve a security agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

michael barbaro

Hmm.

michael crowley

It’s important to understand that if there is a security agreement, that’s something Congress is going to have to approve. And you’re just not going to get enough Democrats in Congress to support a deal with Saudi Arabia, who a lot of Democrats don’t like to begin with, because they see them as human rights abusers.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

But if a Democratic president is asking them to do it, they’re much more likely to go along.

michael barbaro

Right. So Saudi Arabia fears that if Biden loses and Trump is president, that those same Democrats would balk at this deal in a way that they wouldn’t if it were being negotiated under President Biden?

michael crowley

Exactly. Now, from President Biden’s perspective, politically, think about a president who’s running for re-election, who is presiding right now over chaos in the Middle East, who doesn’t seem to have good answers for the Israeli-Palestinian question, this is an opportunity for President Biden to deliver what could be at least what he would present as a diplomatic masterstroke that does multiple things at once, including creating a new pathway for Israel and the Palestinians to coexist, to break through the logjam, even as he is also improving Israel’s relations with Saudi Arabia.

michael barbaro

So Biden and the Crown Prince hope that they can somehow persuade Bibi Netanyahu that in spite of all the reasons that he thinks this is a terrible idea, that this is a bet worth taking on Israel’s and the region’s long-term security and future?

michael crowley

That’s right. Now, no one has explained very clearly exactly how this is going to work, and it’s probably going to require artful diplomacy, possibly even a scenario where the Israelis would agree to something that maybe means one thing to them and means something else to other people. But Biden officials refuse to say that it’s hopeless and they refuse to essentially take Netanyahu’s preliminary no’s for an answer. And they still see some way that they can thread this incredibly narrow needle.

michael barbaro

Michael, I’m curious about a constituency that we haven’t been talking about because they’re not at the table in these discussions that we are talking about here. And that would be Hamas. How does Hamas feel about the prospect of such a deal like this ever taking shape. Do they see it as any kind of a victory and vindication for what they did on October 7th?

michael crowley

So it’s hard to know exactly what Hamas’s leadership is thinking. I think they can feel two things. I think they can feel on the one hand, that they have established themselves as the champions of the Palestinian people who struck a blow against Israel and against a diplomatic process that was potentially going to leave the Palestinians out in the cold.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

At the same time, Hamas has no interest in the kind of two-state solution that the US is trying to promote. They think Israel should be destroyed. They think the Palestinian state should cover the entire geography of what is now Israel, and they want to lead a state like that. And that’s not something that the US, Saudi Arabia, or anyone else is going to tolerate.

michael barbaro

Mm-hmm.

michael crowley

So what Hamas wants is to fight, to be the leader of the Palestinian people, and to destroy Israel. And they’re not interested in any sort of a peace process or statehood process.

michael barbaro

It seems very clear from everything you’ve said here that neither Israel nor Hamas is ready to have the conversation about a grand bargain diplomatic program. And I wonder if that inevitably has any bearing on the ceasefire negotiations that are going on right now between the two of them that are supposed to bring this conflict to some sort of an end, even if it’s just temporary?

Because if, as you said, Michael, a ceasefire opens the door to this larger diplomatic solution, and these two players don’t necessarily want that larger diplomatic solution, doesn’t that inevitably impact their enthusiasm for even reaching a ceasefire?

michael crowley

Well, it certainly doesn’t help. You know, this is such a hellish problem. And of course, you first have the question of whether Israel and Hamas can make a deal on these immediate issues, including the hostages, Palestinian prisoners, and what the Israeli military is going to do, how long a ceasefire might last.

michael barbaro

Right.

michael crowley

But on top of that, you have these much bigger diplomatic questions that are looming over them. And it’s not clear that either side is ready to turn and face those bigger questions.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

So while for the Biden administration and for Saudi Arabia, this is a way out of this crisis, these larger diplomatic solutions, it’s not clear that it’s a conversation that the two parties that are actually at war here are prepared to start having.

michael barbaro

Well, Michael, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

michael crowley

Thank you.

[MUSIC CONTINUES]

michael barbaro

On Tuesday afternoon, under intense pressure from the US, delegations from Israel and Hamas arrived in Cairo to resume negotiations over a potential ceasefire. But in a statement, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear that even with the talks underway, his government would, quote, “continue to wage war against Hamas.”

[MUSIC CONTINUES]

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today. In a dramatic day of testimony, Stormy Daniels offered explicit details about an alleged sexual encounter with Donald Trump that ultimately led to the hush money payment at the center of his trial. Daniels testified that Trump answered the door in pajamas, that he told her not to worry that he was married, and that he did not use a condom when they had sex.

That prompted lawyers for Trump to seek a mistrial based on what they called prejudicial testimony. But the judge in the case rejected that request. And,

archived recording (president biden)

We’ve seen a ferocious surge of anti-Semitism in America and around the world.

michael barbaro

In a speech on Tuesday honoring victims of the Holocaust, President Biden condemned what he said was the alarming rise of anti-Semitism in the United States after the October 7th attacks on Israel. And he expressed worry that too many Americans were already forgetting the horrors of that attack.

archived recording (president biden)

The Jewish community, I want you to know I see your fear, your hurt, and your pain. Let me reassure you, as your president, you’re not alone. You belong. You always have and you always will.

michael barbaro

Today’s episode was produced by Nina Feldman, Clare Toeniskoetter, and Rikki Novetsky. It was edited by Liz O. Baylen, contains original music by Marion Lozano, Elisheba Ittoop, and Dan Powell, and was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

[MUSIC CONTINUES]

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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A Plan to Remake the Middle East (2024)

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