March 7, 2024
11:00 am - 12:00 pm


Virtual Briefing

The Middle East Institute hosted an on-the-record briefing on current Israel-Hamas cease-fire negotiations and likely outcomes in the coming days and weeks.


Amb. Gerald M. Feierstein
Distinguished MEI Senior Fellow on US Diplomacy and Director of the Arabian Peninsula Affairs Program

Randa Slim
MEI Senior Fellow and Director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program


The following transcript was automatically generated and may contain errors.

Courtney Lobel [00:00:00] Good Morning or good afternoon, everyone, depending on where you're joining from. My name is Courtney Lobel, and I'm the chief development officer of the Middle East Institute. Welcome to another session in MEI's virtual briefing series on the crises in the Middle East, which this week will focus on the road to a cease fire in Gaza and on the Lebanon Israel border. Since last October, MEI has been working hard to provide you with expert analysis on every dimension of the ongoing conflict in the region, and we hope they've been valuable to you and your colleagues. Today on the call, I’m delighted to welcome two of MEI's most distinguished scholars. On the line with us is Ambassador Gerald Feierstein, distinguished MEI senior Fellow on U.S. diplomacy and the director of the Arabian Peninsula Affairs Program. Alongside him is Doctor Randa Slim, MEI Senior fellow and director of our Conflict Resolution and Track to Dialogs program. We will start today's call with opening remarks from our speakers and then turn to a Q&A with all of you dialing in. As always, we encourage you on the line to use the raise hand function in zoom to ask a question, or you can put your question in the chat box at any time, and I can read it aloud to our speakers when we start the Q&A. So now I'd like to invite Ambassador Feierstein and Doctor Slim to make their opening remarks, and then we'll move to a Q&A. Ambassador, can you illuminate for us where the ongoing ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas currently stand and the likelihood of an agreement emerging in the coming weeks? What might an eventual ceasefire mean for civilians and military personnel in Gaza moving forward, and whether or not it might halt other escalating tensions throughout the region, especially during the critical month of Ramadan? On the flip side, what are the implications if further weeks go by and there's no ceasefire agreement?

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:01:49] Thanks, Courtney. It's a pleasure to be with all of you today. And what we're seeing, of course, as of this morning is despite the hopes of the Biden administration and the confidence that President Biden expressed last week that he thought we would have an agreement by now. In fact, we're not there yet. And, why exactly we're not there yet is open to debate. We've heard from the Hamas side, what their position is, we've heard from the Israelis as well. And then so, while the talks continue, the hope that the administration and the other mediators had, that we would have an agreement in place before the start of Ramadan, which we anticipate is going to be this weekend. It does not look like that's going to happen. And so, there are a number of implications for that. One, of course, is whether or not, if we don't have an agreement in place by this weekend, will we be able to continue the negotiations? Will they keep going until we get to a deal? It may be the first week of Ramadan or somewhere thereafter. Or is that going to be a signal that we're going to cut off the talks that we're going to be in a situation where there could be significant escalation of fighting, particularly around Rafah, and remembering that the Israelis had said that if there is not a deal on releasing additional hostages, by the beginning of Ramadan, that they would launch their military operations against Rafah. And so, this is one particular concern that certainly the Biden administration has. And again, we've seen in recent days the administration doubling down with the Israelis and saying that you cannot begin Rafah operations unless and until you have a plan in place to evacuate the million plus Palestinians who are internally displaced and have taken shelter in the Rafah region, and making clear that whatever the Israelis have put on the table so far is not sufficient from our perspective, to guarantee the safety and security of those hundreds of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians.

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:04:36] The other, of course, immediate implication is that, again, the administration has emphasized the requirement to what they call flood the zone with humanitarian relief. Again, making the point that primarily because of Israeli obstruction, there has not been nearly sufficient flow of humanitarian goods into Gaza over these past weeks. We've seen estimates from the U.N. that as many as 25% of Palestinians are facing the threat, famine, because of the lack of food and medicine and other necessities of life that are reaching the Gaza Strip. The administration has launched these airlifts, but we know that these are far below whatever is even the minimum amount that's necessary to sustain life and limb in Gaza. And so, if there's no agreement on the ceasefire, then of course, the ability of the administration and the international community, the UN, to take care of the humanitarian requirements is going to be threatened. And again, during the period of Ramadan, where these issues of the daily Fast and then the iftar become even more critical for the population, for the Muslim population, both in Gaza and elsewhere.

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:06:20] So, all of these things are left to hang while we wait to see whether the two sides are going to be able to come to some kind of an agreement. We know what the basic issues are. The release of hostages, the time frame for the ceasefire. The administration should hope that even a temporary ceasefire to palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons. And then beyond that, of course, we also know and to the second part of your question of what the implications for no deal are. And that again, is potentially serious because if you have the continuation of the conflict in Gaza and especially if the Israelis follow through on their threat to begin military operations in the Rafah region, we know that Ramadan is often a period of greater tension in the West Bank and Jerusalem, particularly as the Israelis try to restrict the number of Palestinians who are able to go to the Haram al-Sharif and to pray at Al-Aqsa mosque. We've seen, of course, in recent days Israeli operations in Ramallah, as well as ongoing in Jenin, so the tensions in the West Bank are already high. If that flares up and you have a combination of greater conflict in the West Bank, in Jerusalem as well as in Gaza, then the potential for a greatly expanded conflict is absolutely their worst-case scenario for the Biden administration. So let me stop there, Courtney.

Courtney Lobel [00:08:16] Thank you so much, ambassador. Incredibly challenging and difficult issues and gut wrenching at this time. But we really appreciate your analysis. Let's turn to Doctor Slim. Doctor Slim, can you touch on the ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas? And also, we'd very much like our callers to hear your assessment of the negotiations taking place on the Lebanon front to secure a cease fire on the Israel Lebanon border, which has been experiencing its own ongoing deadly conflict. What's your assessment of the state of play of those negotiations? What should we be on the lookout for in the coming weeks in this flashpoint?

Dr. Randa Slim [00:08:54] Thank you, Courtney, and good to be with you and Jerry and the audience today. Let me quickly add something, I totally wholeheartedly agree with what Jerry said about the cease fire negotiation. Let me add just one point. In terms of the complexity of these negotiations. I mean, we have to understand these are negotiation that is involving multiple parties and multiple issues are being negotiated at the same time. And so, you have a number of agendas that are going to be reconciled by the mediators. And I have to say that especially the Qataris and the Egyptians are really doing a good job as best as they can, you know, trying to get to a deal. But you have the two main contending parties, Israel, and Hamas, that have their own domestic issues, that have their own internal divisions, and that complicates negotiations. On the Israeli side, you have an Israeli prime minister who, you know, primarily is interested in his political survival and every deal, every you know scenario for a deal. He's going to look at it through that lens of political survival. And that does not necessarily mean good for Israel. I mean, Israeli interests are not necessarily best represented by the interests of Mr. Netanyahu. And so, the question is, is there enough of a pushback inside the Israeli war cabinet against that agenda by Mr. Netanyahu? But also, we are seeing a lot of pushbacks by the Israeli public against that agenda, you know, pushback for a deal releasing of the hostages. But at the same time, all public opinion polls show that a great majority of Israelis still support the war. And so, if the next phase were to go to, head toward Rafah and the case will be made by Mr. Netanyahu that it has to be, you know, liberated or it has to be occupied by the by the Israelis. You know, I think that will be a humongous complicating factor for the negotiation. I cannot see those negotiation proceeding if Rafah were to happen.

Dr. Randa Slim [00:11:20] On the other side, if you look at Hamas, they have their own internal issues to reckon with. You have the internal wing, the external wing. Internal wing, meaning those that are still based inside Gaza, primarily led by Mr. Sinwar, and they are the ones who are calling the shots on the hostages. You know, how many hostages do they have? How many can they be released? And they have not only political, but also physical survival, you know, to worry about. I mean, after all the hostages is their trump card. And so, they are going to try to use it as much as possible to guarantee their physical survival, but also to guarantee Hamas’s survival. So, you have that split between the internal and external leadership of Hamas, but also you have the relationship between Hamas and other, you know groups in the Palestinian armed resistance movement, like Islamic Jihad. But also, you have some hostages that are being held by people in Gaza, you know, by plans, by groups. So, in the midst of a war, especially, you know, the war that is being waged right now, it's going to be very hard for Hamas to get, you know, a total count, you know, of hostages, if that's one of the ask of the Israelis, but also to guarantee the release of all the hostages. Again, that's going to be asked by the Israelis. At some point, the Qatar mediator said in public pressure. Some of the Qatari officials said, it's hard for them for the external leadership of Hamas to contact physically, you know, to connect physically, I mean, by phone, by whatever, with the internal leadership of Hamas. So, these are the logistical issues also they have to contend with, because every deal has to be checked by the internal and external and by the people who are in Beirut, the leadership that is in Beirut, the leadership that is in Doha, you know, so that kind that complicates issue.

Dr. Randa Slim [00:13:28] Let me stop here and that is going to continue, but that's an issue that that we need to pay attention to. On the Lebanon- Israel fraught. Okay. I think we are really at an inflection point here. I mean, based on what I heard, from reports inside Lebanon of Mr. Hochstein visit, is that the message was clear. You know, that one, you have to de-link these two fronts, which Hezbollah does not want to do. Meaning dealing the Gaza front from the Lebanon-Israel front. Nasrallah, Hezbollah secretary general, has said many times that the war that he's waging, or the conflict or the escalation that he's raising is primarily in support of Gaza, in support of Hamas. So, he's not going to delink it easily. But at the same time, you know, the other message is that, the timeline, for negotiation is, perhaps, say, or the deadline for this status quo of military escalation that is contained until now between the two sides, Hezbollah and Israel, it's not going to last for a long time and is not going to be able to be limited to this particular, you know, front that it's likely to, you know, escalate beyond the border. And so what Hochstein has put on the table in the past are ideas for implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which was passed after the 2006 war, which basically calls for physically removing, you know, heavy weapons of Hezbollah from the area between the blue line and the Litani River, the blue Line being not the official border between Israel and Lebanon, because there is no official delineated border between Lebanon and Israel, but rather in a line that was put together by the UN after the withdrawal of the Israelis in 2000 from southern Lebanon. There are a lot of contested points, 13 of them along that line between Lebanon and Israel, most of them have been resolved. A few of them are very tough to resolve, but they can be resolved in a negotiation.

Dr. Randa Slim [00:15:55] So, that is the proposal. However, I think it's going to be very hard to implement 1701 in full, not because Hezbollah does not want to, but also because Israel, I mean, 1701 in full, means denying Israel sorties over Lebanese territories by air, by whatever, you know, and that's something that Israel is going to be, you know, asking for, for the future in terms of intelligence gathering and you know, for intelligence gathering purposes. And so, it's going to be hard to implement. But I think elements of 1701, including deployment of Lebanese Armed forces to that border area, including some understanding on removal of some weapons of Hezbollah or physical sighting of weapons of Hezbollah from that area. And some kind of a potential launch of negotiations, between Israel and Lebanon, with the help of the US mediation on the land border, like it has been done in 2022 when they struck a maritime border deal.

Dr. Randa Slim [00:17:04] However, again, the window is shrinking. And if we follow the scenario that, Jerry, you know, mentioned in his opening remark. If we don't have a deal before Ramadan, if we have any escalation in Al-Aqsa, I don't see how that front can be contained anymore. But also, I cannot see how other escalation in other parts of the region, be it Iraq, Syria, you know, more on the Houthi side can be also contained. So, it is really a major inflection point for right now. Especially in terms of time that we still have left, before either a big war, you know, is launched by Israel, including maybe a ground incursion into Lebanon or, whether there will be a ceasefire in Gaza and then a parallel track. And that's what Mr. Hochstein suggested, is that there will be a ceasefire in Gaza and then a parallel track between the Lebanese and the Israelis. You know, everything hinges around the ceasefire. So, if it were not to happen, then all other scenarios are possible.

Courtney Lobel [00:18:16] Thank you so much, Doctor Slim. At this time, I'd like to open up the discussion to callers on the line to ask a question. Please use the raise hand function in zoom. Keep your hand raised until I call on you and unmute yourself, then kindly state your name and affiliation and direct your question to one or both of our MEI scholars on the call. Questions can also be submitted in writing via the Q&A chat box on zoom, and I'd be happy to read them to our scholars. To kick things off, I'll start a question while people queue up. Ambassador Feierstein, what are the implications of Israeli Minister Benny Gantz, his recent visit to Washington, DC, and his meetings with Secretary of State Blinken and Vice President Harris? Do we think those meetings will change Israeli calculations about the way forward?

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:19:06] Thanks, Courtney. What I would say is that even though the administration officially in their statements and we saw what, Tony Blinken said, just yesterday, while he was meeting with the Qataris, you know, continues to focus on Hamas and to say, well, Hamas is the one that's holding back on agreement. Nevertheless, I think that there's an understanding within the administration, that the Israelis are an obstacle. And as Randa said in her remarks, you know, particularly that Benjamin Netanyahu, for his own political interests and reasons is complicating the ability to get to an agreement with Hamas. And by bringing, Benny Gantz, even though we understand that it was Gantz himself who initiated the visit.

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:20:06] Nevertheless, under normal circumstances, he would not have received the meetings at the level that he received them with the vice president, with secretary of state, defense and others, a national security adviser. You know, unless the administration wanted to send a very clear and strong signal to the Israelis and to Bibi Netanyahu specifically, that their patience is running out, that their sense in Washington, that they need to address these dire humanitarian issues in a much faster and more comprehensive way, that they need to basically get off the dime and get a deal done, that it's going to get us to a temporary ceasefire and avoid, at least hopefully, avoid many of these negative implications that we've talked about, that the administration is really very focused on it, and they see Benny Gantz, rightly or wrongly, as someone who, even though he's a hard liner, even though he has strong views that are not that dissimilar from Benjamin Netanyahu, is nevertheless a more reasonable individual, is somebody that they can deal with. And of course, it has real implications for the future, not only of Israeli domestic politics of what's going to happen after the conflict, but also in terms of how the U.S. and Israel are going to go forward together. So, a very significant visit, a clear signal. And we know that Benjamin Netanyahu got the message, because of the way he reacted and responded to the visit. He understands that, in many ways, what we saw over the last several days was the administration putting its thumb on the scales in favor of a change of government in Jerusalem, and the arrival of new leadership that perhaps will be more open to some of the day after kinds of issues that are going to be critical as we go forward.

Courtney Lobel [00:22:19] Thank you, ambassador. Again, to callers on the line to ask a question, please use the raise hand function and I'll unmute you and you can ask your question to our speakers, or you can put a question in the Q&A chat box, and I'll be happy to read it aloud to our scholars. Dr. Slim, if there's no ceasefire in Gaza soon, can you talk about the regional implications and a little bit more detail that you touched on? Do you anticipate that there may be a lull in fighting across the region, or will we see an escalation in any of the other regional flashpoints during Ramadan that you haven't yet addressed?

Dr. Randa Slim [00:22:54] Thank you, Courtney. I think, look, Ramadan is a highly charged emotional time for Muslims, and especially now, especially after, you know, as more and more pictures of people who are fasting and starving, you know, and people who are being denied entry into Haram Al Sharif, Muslims who are being denied entry by Israeli forces. I think, violence in the West Bank is not definitely something not to think of potentially, in reaction to Israeli forces behavior targeting Muslim worshipers who are trying to enter Haram Al- Sharif. Pictures again of Gazans who are standing in line, for food, as well as Gazans who are being killed while standing in line for food during Ramadan. You know, especially people that are fasting and trying to fast and trying to get food while they are fasting. These are highly emotional for Muslims, but particularly for the publics, the Arab publics who are going to be shown this day in, day out, you know, picture after picture. And so, it's going to be very hard, to reign in, in a way. You know, flash points, going forward in reaction to this. Even let's say, it's going to be hard, for example, even for Hezbollah leadership to reign in some of their people, you know, from launching attacks, it's going to be very hard for Iraqi government to come across as against attacks by Iraqi militias targeting American forces. Again, we have seen a lull in that targeting, since Kataib Hezbollah killed three US service persons, in Jordan in the outpost tower 22.

Dr. Randa Slim [00:25:16] And partly that has been the case because of pressure from Iran, you know, Iranian forces, but also pressure from the Iraqi prime minister. So, if you have that kind of picture coming out of Gaza, if you have those kinds of pictures coming out from Masjid Al-Aqsa, it's going to be very hard for Arab leaders of governments, you know, leaders of non-state actors like Hezbollah to argue for the lull fighting, or to argue for de-escalation. And so, yeah, if there is no ceasefire deal and I think the American administration and the president said it recently, that we are entering a very, very dangerous situation, If there is no ceasefire deal. And the kind of aggression we have seen at the hands of the Israelis against Palestinians in Gaza, the Palestinians in the West Bank continues, the killing continues, the targeting of women and children continues. The targeting of humanitarian aid lines continues. I think, yes, there will be escalation in the other fronts that have seen until now, either de-escalation like on the Iraqi side or, I mean, total lull in fighting or de-escalation or attempt at containment and de-escalation, like on the Lebanon- Israel side.

Courtney Lobel [00:26:48] Ambassador, did you want to add anything, or should I go to our next question?

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:26:52] I think we should go to the next question.

Courtney Lobel [00:26:55] Sounds good. I have a question here in the queue from Julie Chan of More Capital. Julie, please go ahead and unmute yourself and ask your question. Oh. Sorry, I think we're having an issue with the unmute function. I'll go ahead and ask your question for you. What do you expect will be the response of the USG, Iran, Houthis, and other key actors if Israel invades Lebanon and Rafah?

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:27:33] Well, why don't I start? You know, the Iranians, like the U.S., have made very clear that they don't want to see an expansion of the conflict. As Randa said, after the incident at tower 22, the Iranians, you know, clearly gave instruction to the militias, the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria, not to attack U.S. forces, U.S facilities. We've seen a continuation of the Houthi attacks. But that's primarily because, the Houthis, unlike perhaps the Iraqi or Syria based militias, are operating pretty much independently of Iranian guidance. But we've seen this, you know, kind of downturn as Randa referred. I think that if the Israelis follow through on both the threat to attack Rafah as well as to cross the border into southern Lebanon, all of those attempts, minimizing the kind of knock-on effects of the Gaza conflict, are going to be abandoned. It will be extremely difficult for Iran to maintain its position of staying on the sidelines, in the event of an attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon. And so, I think at that point, the likelihood of seeing a general flare up, is going to be much, much greater if we see Israeli military operations expanding into the region.

Courtney Lobel [00:29:40] Doctor Slim, did you want to add anything on any of those actors and their possible reactions?

Dr. Randa Slim [00:29:53] Totally agree with Jerry. It's going to be very hard to get other actors that have in the past, until recently, been involved in this kind of escalation, again, especially in Iraq, to stop or to maintain the lull that has been now in place for some weeks. In Lebanon then, you are going to see definitely, you know, a major escalation. I mean, the problem is that I don't know, what Iran will do, you know, in that situation, that's the actor that I’m most uncertain about. Definitely, I don't think they want to be involved directly in this conflict. Maybe in the red sea, you know, creating some issues there. But the Houthis you know, are doing a pretty good job on their behalf. I mean, the one thing they can do is that, you know, again, remove their veto, if we can put it this way, on actions by Iraqi militias and basically say, you know, go for it. And that would create a major problem for the Iraqi prime minister, who is slated to come to D.C., you know, in April, and, for the intra Iraqi politics. And so, in a way, they can push them to go, you know, to attack. But at the same time and that's where I think there is a difference between how Iran looks at Iraq versus how Iran looks at Yemen. And Jerry mentioned that how the relationship between Iran and Houthis, Iran, and the Iraqi militia. I think in terms of assets, Iraq is a much bigger asset for Iran than, for example, Yemen or the Houthis. Yemen has always been an opportunistic front or an opportunistic player. I mean, Iran has always been an opportunistic player when it comes to the Houthis and to Yemen.

Dr. Randa Slim [00:32:17] But in terms of Iraq, I mean, that relationship is much deeper. The survival of the regime is much deeper. The avoidance is most important for them, the avoidance of any kind of civil disturbances that will, you know, create something akin to what happened in October 2019 and threatened that political order is more of a concern for them. Iraq itself, as a political space is contested by different actors. And so different actors have the opportunity to create, you know, disturbances and unrest. I think less so, and Jerry is more of an expert on Yemen, less so in the case of Yemen and Houthis. Whereas in Iraq, you have so many again, Iraqi actors, but also, you know, actors that have regional backing that can create the kind of disturbances that can be of concern to Iran going forward. And given, again, the high level of dissatisfaction of Iraqis with the kind of services and the corruption that successive Iraqi government since 2003 have you know, presented to the public. So, I think they will go, you know, far, with the Iraqi militias. But I don't think there is a limit, if there is a ceiling whereby, they cannot go beyond that, again, because of what kind of assets Iraq represent, for the Iranian security doctrine and the Irani security calculus. I'm not in an Iran expert, you know, but I think this is an issue that I've always been thinking about, you know. Yes. If we are going to go to a much regional escalation, is that a ceiling to that? You know, what's that ceiling? Especially as far as Iran is concerned because we are mostly talking about Iranian partners, Iran proxies that are involved in this, you know, against Israel, along with Hamas. So, that's the issue that I think we need also to think about, and I don't have an answer for it.

Courtney Lobel [00:34:43] We have a follow up question here. If Iran can no longer contain its militias and we see immediate escalation in the region, what can we expect the U.S. government to do? Will they move more military assets into the region? Is there a risk that the US will be drawn further into violent conflict in the region? Do you think the risk goes up that Israel strikes directly, overtly into Iran? Ambassador Feierstein, drawing on your 40 plus year career in the State Department, I wonder if we could start with you for that tricky question.

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:35:18] Yeah Courtney, you're exactly right. It is an extremely tricky question. And I think it's one that everyone in the Biden administration is desperately hoping that they never have to confront, because, again, it is a big question. And we know, from the outset, that you know, one of the reasons that the administration was so anxious to contain this conflict in Gaza, was because they did not want to have to answer that question of what is the United States going to do? I think that, you know, it's extremely difficult. I mean, you know, if we wanted to take, for example, the Houthis, the Houthis are, you know, operating probably at the extent of their capability right now and trying to interfere with obstruct, prevent shipping in the Bab al-Mandab and the Red Sea. Don't know that they have much capacity beyond what they're doing right now. The U.S. has tried all of its various tools, from diplomacy to sanctions and to military response, to try to deter, degrade, the Houthis. But it's clear that, none of those initiatives has really had much of an effect on the Houthis. They continue to operate pretty much at will.

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:36:54] And so, you know what more could the Houthis do? They could, you know, and they did once again try to hit Israel directly from Yemen. But they have a very limited capacity to reach. They could get basically to southern Israel but not much beyond that. But, you know, could they do more of that? They could, of course, heat up the situation with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, that would definitely get everyone's attention. But at the same time, they don't want to do that, because they want to maintain their political dialogue with the Saudis. They don't want to jeopardize the advances that they've made with Saudi Arabia, by bringing the Saudis in. And the Saudis and the Emiratis, frankly, don't want to be drawn in. They've been pretty clear in saying that they wanted to stay out of this whole mess, keeping their heads down, hoping that it all goes away. And so, there's a limitation on, you know, what the Houthis can do and, you know, in terms of Lebanon, if the Israelis initiate a conflict with Hezbollah, will the administration feel compelled to come in and support of Israel? The position of the Biden administration was previously that if Hezbollah attacked Israel, that the U.S. would support the Israelis. But if it's the other way around if it's Israel attacking Lebanon. Will the administration feel the same way?

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:38:39] It's not at all clear. And, of course, for Joe Biden in particular, a lot of it has to do with how this is going to all play out domestically. And I think it's pretty clear that the American people don't want to see U.S. direct military engagement in the region. They don't want to see the U.S. getting drawn into another conflict. They're not terribly sympathetic to what the Israelis are doing, and probably they'll be even less sympathetic if Israel is provoking a conflict with Hezbollah. And so, domestically, this is a dangerous situation for the administration and for Joe Biden's reelection campaign, which increasingly, as we go forward, is going to be the primary consideration. So, I think that the U.S. is going to consider very carefully what it can do. It's going to use all of its diplomatic tools. It's going to again message Iran to try to, you know, to try to confine conflict. It's probably going to increase pressure on Israel, to be very careful about how it goes about issues in Lebanon as it is in Gaza, and hope that all of this can come to a very rapid conclusion.

Courtney Lobel [00:40:07] Doctor slim, can we draw you in on this question? And also, to address the last part of her question about do you think there's a risk going up that Israel will strike directly, overtly into Iran?

Dr. Randa Slim [00:40:27] Wow. This is a big question. I mean, definitely members in in Israel's war cabinet would love to do that. And you have a lot of voices in the United States now in some of the think tank communities that are basically saying, this is where the problem lies, and that's where we should go next. Not meaning the Americans, but the Israelis supported by the Americans. I think this is the kind of escalation that even Mr. Netanyahu is not contemplating and will not contemplate. He has enough war on his hand, if we can put it this way, and he has a lot of ready pressure from his Israeli public. If there is any red line for the Americans, in my opinion, and Jerry might disagree with me, is going to be an Israeli hit against Iranian assets. Now they can do covertly. They can do the kind of things they did in the past. But I think if there is that, you know, this kind of blatant hit or an attempt to take the war to Iran and against Iran by Israelis, I think this is a major red line for the administration. What do you think, Jerry? This is a major red line for the administration.

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:41:43] Yes, I would absolutely agree with you, Randa. I mean, I think, first of all, my understanding and I'm not a military expert. I'm not, you know, somebody who's spent a lot of time studying this issue, but my own understanding is that without cooperation and coordination with the U.S.

Dr. Randa Slim [00:42:02] Exactly.

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:42:02] They didn't really have the capacity to hit Iran directly. You would have to take into account what the consequences might be for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or other GCC partners. And I think that, you know, the administration would be absolutely against any kind of an escalation directly. And again, I think that the Iranians, even though they may give a green light, they may encourage their partners in the region, the proxies in the region, I still think that the Iranians are going to do everything they can to not get directly involved in this conflict. They will provide support, but they're not going to, you know, become an adversary themselves. And I think that as long as that's the case, the U.S. is not going to either contemplate or give a green light to Israel to contemplate a direct attack on Iran.

Dr. Randa Slim [00:43:03] And even if you look at the track records in the past of, for example, Israeli-Hezbollah, you know, wars in 2006, the Iranians provided support. Qasem Soleimani came to Lebanon, was part of a, you know, war operation room, you know, along with Hezbollah and, you know, some involvement from the Syrians. But even that did not warrant an Iranian direct involvement in the war. And I think the only country where we have seen direct Iranian involvement is Syria, right? During the civil uprising, when they sent, you know, IRGC people, when they sent these foreign legions, if we can put it, the Pakistani Shia, the Afghani Shia to fight on the side of the Assad regime. And partly because the way they look at the resistance axis, they see Syria and Damascus as being an anchor in this resistance axis. Whereas I think, you know, Hezbollah is very important. But the belief even among Iranian is, you know, among Iranian officials is that Hezbollah can take care of itself, that it has enough capacity to take care of itself. And the same thing with Hamas, you know, other fronts have been, you know, opened up like the Lebanon-Israel front to support Hamas. But again, still, the belief is that Hamas will be able to survive and eventually, you know, be able to, you know, regroup, and take care of itself. And so, again, the only exception was Syria, where Iran, and it’s not involvement against Israel, remember, it’s not involvement against, the United States, because that's the calculation for the Iranians here. If there is a direct Iranian involvement, it's going to be an Iranian involvement against Israel and against the United States. And that's not something that Iran is ready to do at this point.

Courtney Lobel [00:44:56] We're coming up on time here, but I thought I might abuse my moderator's privilege to ask a question myself, of both of you. Ambassador Feierstein, you had mentioned that the Emiratis and the Saudis are trying to keep their head down and kind of stay out of it, but do you think at some point that's no longer going to be possible? You know, the Saudis have vision 30, the Bahrain's sovereign wealth fund just aimed a deal with the Saudi sovereign wealth fund this week, the UAE on the back of Cop 28 has big plans on global issues. Do you think at some point these regional dynamics, if they get worse in the ways you both suggested, will suck oxygen out of those ambitious societal projects, and they'll have to get involved?

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:45:42] Courtney I think that and of course, we know, Secretary Blinken has visited Riyadh and Abu Dhabi several times. Bill Burns has been there. We have engaged, you know, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, extensively on kind of day after issue. So, I do think that once the conflict in Gaza comes to a conclusion, you know, we will look to the Saudis and the Emiratis to play a role on the reconstruction of Gaza, the rehabilitation, the recovery of Gaza from what's happened. And hopefully, also, if there is going to be a political process that's going to look at the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict and try to find ways to move beyond that. We've heard very clearly from the Saudis, that any kind of a normalization process with Israel would be contingent on there being an irreversible path towards an independent Palestinian state. That's been their position for over 20 years now, It's still their position. And so, I think that in that context, we will see, and we will want to see, much greater Saudi Emirati role in what comes next. But I think that for the moment and both parties understanding where their popular opinion is, that they will not want to do anything that might be interpreted as being supportive of Israeli military operations in Gaza. This I think is where both are going to try to do their best to stay out of it. Now, I will say and interestingly, that the Emiratis as part of their trying to avoid getting dragged into this conflict have not withdrawn their ambassador from Israel. They have not sent the Israeli ambassador home. They haven't done other things that would pull back from the normalization agreement that they made with the Abraham Accords. So again, they are doing their best to stay on the sidelines, to remain neutral on all of this, waiting and expecting that the United States is going to fix this problem in the short term, and then we can see where we go after that.

Dr. Randa Slim [00:48:31] Can I add something Courtney here to what Gerald has said? You know, I wholeheartedly, you know, agree with him. But I think what this has shown, and especially if it becomes a protracted attrition kind of war, you know, in the region, is that these whole underpinnings of the Abraham Accords, you know, would basically say, let's do business, forget about politics, and that's how we're going to integrate region has been, you know, upended in my opinion. I think now, the Palestinian issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is re-centered at the heart of regional politics, especially at the public level. And so, the whole thinking behind Abraham, behind normalization going forward must be rethought. You know, and that definitely there is not going to be integration in the region without a two-state solution. And in a way, it's interesting that this war has revived the prospects of the two-state solution. Remember, before this war, people were talking about we are moving toward one state. Now because of the violence, because of the killings in the hand of the Israelis, no Palestinian would say to you, I want to be part of a one state Israel or a one state where you have different rules of the game that enable participation, equal rights for Israelis, but to be part of Israel? No, you will not find the Palestinians to say that they want their own state. And I think this is where we are today. I think the whole mindset that drove Abraham Accords is no longer viable in the region because of this war. Not in the short term, not in the long term. But also equally, the whole mindset that underpinned Oslo is no longer viable, right? I think we have to rethink about the pathway to the two-state solution, and it's the only way. It has to be a two-state solution going forward.

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:50:42] And ironically, of course as people will say, what was Hamas’s thinking? What do they possibly think would be the outcome of what they did on October 7th? And I think that you're absolutely right. This is the outcome of what they did on October 7th. You know, and in a terribly brutal, unacceptable fashion. But nevertheless, they put the Palestinian issue back into the center, as you said quite correctly, back into the center of Israeli Arab issues.

Courtney Lobel [00:51:25] Well, we're coming up on the one-hour mark, so we're going to have to wrap this up. But I just want to say this has been an absolute masterclass from two leading experts on the region that we're so grateful to have here at MEI. I hope everyone on the call will join me in thanking Ambassador Feierstein and Doctor Slim for participating in this week's session on the road to a cease fire in Gaza and on the Lebanon Israel border. If you missed any part of this call, it is on the record, we'll be posting it to our website. You can view it again, share it with others, at Thank you everyone for your questions. If you have any questions you didn't get to ask, you can email and we'd be happy to send them to our experts who can answer them at a later time. So, thank you again to all of you for joining this week's session, and look out for an email invitation to next week's briefing.

Gerald M. Feierstein [00:52:21] Thank you Courtney, Thank you Randa.

Dr. Randa Slim [00:52:22] Thank you Courtney, Thank you Jerry.