Biden set to meet nine Middle East leaders, USIP’s Ambassador Hesham Youssef says the trip aims to untangle recent tensions rather than “result in all kinds of breakthroughs and deliverables … the question is whether we can set ourselves on a path that can lead to more constructive relations.”

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Julie Mason: Ambassador, good morning.

Ambassador Youssef: Good morning.

Julie Mason: Real pleasure to have you. So, this is quite a bit of a fraught trip for the president.

Ambassador Youssef: Well, any visit by the president is an important tip, so it has its challenges, but it also has its opportunities.

Julie Mason: Of course, Israel is in a bit of a muddle, politically, at the moment. But that's any Tuesday for them.

Ambassador Youssef: Absolutely. That is the case because Israel now has its fifth election coming up in the last three and a half years or so. So, they are in a difficult situation. But this did not prevent the president of the United States to indicate that there is still interest in visiting Israel, regardless of whether they have a regular government or a caretaker government.

Julie Mason: Ambassador, the previous administration really gave a stiff arm to the Palestinians. And I wonder if Biden will be, I don't know, playing a little bit nicer, this go around?

Ambassador Youssef: Well, in a sense, he has by returning the United States' assistance to the Palestinians. But in another sense, they feel that there is much more that needed to be done, in particular, because the president has made a number of promises to the Palestinians that are yet to be witnessed. So, we are waiting to see how this would play out. But this is an important visit, to have discussions with the Palestinians, although no breakthroughs are expected, but it is going to set the stage in relation to how this administration will deal with the Palestinian question in the coming two and a half years or so.

Julie Mason: How is Biden's relationship with Mahmoud Abbas?

Ambassador Youssef: Well, I think he has known him for many, many years. And they have met on many occasions, whether when he was in Congress, or as vice president, and today as president. So, I think they have a very long relationship. And I think the question is not a question of chemistry, because I know that they know each other quite well. But the question is what is politically feasible at this point in time, which is a very difficult time, as far as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned.

Julie Mason: Now I mean, it's never a good time. What do the Palestinians want at this point? What's the ask of Biden?

Ambassador Youssef: Well, there are, as you can expect, there are numerous asks, as far as the Palestinians are concerned. First of all, they want to see, what does it mean when the United States keeps saying that the two-state solution is the only solution? If this is the case, then what is the U.S. plan? What is the U.S. policy in relation to how this can be fulfilled? The second point is in relation to Jerusalem. President Biden, even during in the campaign, promised that he will reopen the U.S. consulate to the Palestinians. This is yet to be also achieved.

And, of course, there are questions in relation to the situation in Jerusalem and how the situation in Jerusalem will be addressed. Because this is a point of friction between Israelis and Palestinians. It has been for many times and will continue to be so. So, there is a need to see how this issue can be dealt with. And finally, issues pertaining to settlements. And perhaps I can even add another point in relation to having the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, designated as a terrorist organization. This is also something that Mahmoud Abbas would want to see terminated because this is affecting the presence of a Palestinian office here in Washington.

Julie Mason: Interesting. Is there a sense that the two-state solution is dead? Or is that still a functioning goal?

Ambassador Youssef: Well, there are many who are now of the opinion that this is no longer feasible. Not that they are not in support of a two-state solution, but they feel that as a result of all kinds of developments on the Israeli front, in particular, and the movement of the Israeli society to the right, that this has become a much more difficult proposition. So there are those who have leaned to trying to think about different options and different solutions to address this situation. However, there is a plurality of support for the two-state solution both on the Israeli side and on the Palestinian side. And there are those who believe that many of the other options that are being presented are not really practical and may not necessarily work. But then there are creative ideas to see how this can can work out in some form of combination of openness, having two states but also having two societies open to each other in the context of peace.

Julie Mason: Is there a general belief in the region that Israel is even open to a two-state solution?

Ambassador Youssef: Well, as I mentioned, they are moving towards the right. And they feel that there is no real pressure coming from the United States, coming from the Europeans, and even coming from a number of countries in the region who have normalized relations with Israel. They don't see that there is huge pressure on Israel to move in that direction. Therefore, they are trying to see how they can, you know, try to avoid that as much as they can, because they know that this will, you know, lead to all kinds of concessions that perhaps the Israeli right is not ready to move in that direction at this point in time. And the question of leadership as well.

Julie Mason: Indeed. Ambassador, on the Saudi piece of this trip, that seems also a bit of a minefield for President Biden.

Ambassador Youssef: Not to that extent. I think it is a difficult situation, because I think the relations have been tense with a number of countries, including Saudi Arabia, but I think this is a crucial visit to set the stage. It will not be a visit that will result in all kinds of breakthroughs and deliverables and so on. But it is important to set the record straight so that the countries in the region and the United States would understand what the demands are for each side, and how they're going to deal with it, whether it's in relation to regional security on one side, or whether it's in relation to aspects pertaining to oil, or in relation to how the region will deal with the situation in Ukraine and relations with Russia, as well as in relation to the global competition, particularly between the United States and China.

So there are numerous items on the agenda. And it will take a long time. But the question is whether we can set ourselves on a path that would lead to more constructive relations between the United States and countries in the region. Remember, the the president of the United States will be meeting nine leaders in this session. So it is important, they are nine key countries that have a huge influence on how the situation would evolve in the region. And of course hoovering over all this will be the situation in Iran, as well, where there are some differences between the United States and a number of countries in the region on how this issue can be pursued in a more effective way.

So, there is a long agenda. And there are, you know, there are ideas for how to deal with this issue in a constructive way. And I hope that this visit will result in a situation whereby we are set on a path for more constructive engagement between the U.S. and the countries in the region, especially in light of the fact that there was all this kind of discussion about the U.S. withdrawal from the region, the U.S. reducing its footprint in the region, and so on. So there were all kinds of descriptions as to what the United States will do in the future in relation to the region. And there needs to be a better understanding of how this will take place. What does it mean, and what is the region willing to do also in relation to helping itself to getting out of the mess that we have in relation to conflicts, whether it's in Yemen, in Syria, in Libya, in all kinds of places, and, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well.

Julie Mason: Ambassador Hesham Youssef, thank you so much for joining me this morning.

Ambassador Youssef: It was my pleasure. Thank you, Julie.

Julie Mason: Good to talk.

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