Jan 21, 2024 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: Biden's Middle East moonshot

Illustration of a hand pulling back a blue curtain with a recurring Axios logo across it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Biden plans to keep pushing a grand bargain in the Middle East for the days after the war in Gaza — with the hope it could happen before the election, despite Israel's opposition, U.S. officials tell us. 

The plan: Israel gets normalized relations with Saudi Arabia, in exchange for agreeing to an irreversible pathway to a Palestinian state — and allowing the Palestinian Authority to have a role in post-Hamas Gaza.

Why it matters: The Israelis aren't ready to accept a deal like this anytime soon. But they might eventually take it as U.S., international and internal pressure mounts in coming months, U.S. officials tell us.

  • Biden needs to tap into and intensify that pressure without alienating pro-Israel American Jews at home.

Between the lines: This isn't a way to end the war. It's more aimed at setting up what comes after it.

  • The administration — including Secretary of State Tony Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan— used comments in Davos, Switzerland, this past week to lay down its thinking more clearly than ever, in an effort to push world opinion.

What's happening: Biden is growing increasingly frustrated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to engage in how to rebuild and run Gaza once he's done trying to decapitate Hamas, as Axios' Barak Ravid has reported in vivid detail.

  • Bibi has vowed publicly to oppose any deal that provides the Palestinian Authority control over Gaza.

So U.S. officials are working with and around Bibi on a grand bargain to eventually stabilize the region. They believe Gaza needs to be run by a "revitalized Palestinian Authority," and that a new, formal Israel-Saudi alliance could help stabilize the surrounding environment. 

  • Tom Friedman flicked at the many obstacles to this deal in a New York Times column. Notably, he detailed the issues after speaking with Blinken in Davos.

How it works: New insight into these talks was some of the biggest news to emerge from Davos, which was otherwise dominated by talk of AI. As Barak Ravid chronicled in real time:

  • Sullivan said the Biden administration's strategy for post-war Gaza is to link normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia to create a pathway for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
  • The Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, said later that any potential normalization agreement with Israel would be conditioned on a ceasefire in Gaza and the creation of an "irrevocable" pathway toward a Palestinian state.
  • Blinken said the Israeli people and every Israeli "who's in office" will have to make hard decisions about this potential post-war diplomatic initiative.

What we're watching: The grand bargain is a longshot in the immediate future, since Bibi and the majority of his government oppose a Palestinian state.

  • Biden spoke to Netanyahu on Friday for the first time in 27 days. After the call, Biden said he doesn't think a two-state solution is impossible while Netanyahu is in power — and stressed Netanyahu didn't tell him in the call that he's opposed to any two-state solution.
  • The very next day, Netanyahu rebuffed Biden with a statement stressing he told the president that after destroying Hamas, Israel must have full security control over Gaza, "a requirement that contradicts the demand for Palestinian sovereignty."

The intrigue: Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is a key ally of the Biden national security team, tweeted Saturday that he hates to disagree with Biden, "but he is falling for Bibi's spin and shticks."

  • Bibi, Indyk continued, "is selling what he disparagingly refers to as a 'state minus,' which is not an independent Palestinian state at all. It's minus sovereignty, minus independence, minus territorial contiguity, and minus freedom from occupation. Don't buy it, Joe!"

Barak Ravid contributed reporting.

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