Top White House official Brett McGurk is quietly floating a controversial plan to reconstruct Gaza after Israel’s assault concludes, HuffPost has learned, despite serious concerns from some officials inside the administration that it would sow the seeds for future instability in the region.
In recent weeks, McGurk has been pitching national security officials on a plan suggesting an approximately 90-day timeline for what should happen once active fighting in Gaza ends, three U.S. officials said. It argues that stability can be achieved in the devastated Palestinian region if American, Israeli, Palestinian and Saudi officials launch an urgent diplomatic effort that prioritizes the establishment of Israel-Saudi ties, the officials continued. Such a development is widely referred to as “normalization,” given Saudi Arabia’s refusal to recognize Israel since its founding in 1948.
There is a widespread belief that similar U.S.-led deals that involved Israel and other regional Arab governments — and that downplayed Palestinian concerns — have fueled anger and violence, including the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and other Palestinian militants inside Israel.
Still, U.S. President Joe Biden has echoed his predecessor Donald Trump in arguing that those agreements are vital for the region’s future. Biden’s focus on an Israel-Saudi pact has been especially alarming for Palestinians and officials working on Israeli-Palestinian peace. And McGurk’s accelerated timeline has only caused more concern.
McGurk’s plan would use the incentive of aid for reconstruction from Saudi Arabia and possibly other wealthy Gulf countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to pressure both the Palestinians and the Israelis, per the officials. In this vision, Palestinian leaders would agree to a new government for both Gaza and the occupied West Bank and to ratchet down their criticisms of Israel, while Israel would accept limited influence in Gaza.
Foreign policy experts in the U.S. and global governments say that they understand the logic of uniting U.S. partners in the region who share a deep skepticism of Iran, a U.S. foe. Given Arab solidarity with Palestinians and its stature as the most influential country in the Muslim-majority world, Saudi Arabia would find it hard to publicly embrace Israel without being able to say that it helps the Palestinians. Meanwhile, building closer ties with historic enemies has long been a top Israeli objective, and the Palestinians have few options for and limited leverage over their international backers.
But for years in the run-up to Oct. 7, experts were warning that the key to any settlement is meaningful progress for Palestinians toward statehood, not simply promises of additional economic support or limited Israeli concessions. Skeptics of McGurk’s effort to craft an Israel-Saudi deal said that Palestinian frustration over such an agreement could doom it and prompt cycles of unprecedented violence, and noted that Biden had refused to take even minimal steps to build U.S. credibility in the Palestinian territories, like reversing precedent-shattering pro-Israel moves by Trump.
McGurk is leading post-war Gaza planning in Washington, and his proposal comes after initial discussions among a broad range of U.S. officials that did not so heavily emphasize a Saudi angle. McGurk’s suggestions reflect the Biden administration’s pre-Oct. 7 approach of treating the Palestinians as an afterthought, argued all three officials, who requested anonymity to describe sensitive internal discussions.
“It misses the point,” one U.S. official said of the plan. Another said that McGurk has laid out his vision in a top-secret document shared in some circles of the Washington national security establishment — a plan that envisions Biden traveling to the region in the coming months on “a victory tour” to claim credit for an Israel-Saudi deal as an answer to Gaza’s pain. The document references a preliminary deal called “the Jerusalem-Jeddah Pact,” the official told HuffPost.
“The clock [for the 90 days] starts when you can say, ‘Saudi and Israel have agreed on X,’” the first official added.
“They really think they can utilize the reconstruction portion of this to ease the pain of normalizing with Saudi,” said a third official who works on regional policy, referring to the wariness of the Saudi public over a deal with Israel and the prospect of pro-Palestinian activism scuttling the agreement. “They want to show that Israel is giving more than they have before.”
A recently conducted poll of Saudis by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that nearly 96% believe Arab states should cut any ties with Israel over its conduct in Gaza, and Saudi Arabia has long maintained that it will not establish ties with Israel unless the Israelis permit the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, a host of other forces in the region would rage against an agreement perceived as sidelining Palestinians. That group includes the Houthis — the Yemeni militia that has crippled Red Sea shipping, citing concern for Gaza, and that the U.S. and allies launched airstrikes against on Thursday. “These plans are delusionally optimistic and have numerous spoilers and parties that will be unlikely to cooperate or do what the U.S. plans,” one U.S. official said, pointing to the Houthis but also Palestinians and Israelis
“It seems to lack a lot of reality on where the Israeli government is headed,” the official working on regional policy continued, in a reference to hard-line statements from right-wing Israeli ministers and the country’s unprecedented crackdown on Palestinians both in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. “This is what happens when you put people at the top who lack a lot of historical and cultural context in the region.”
Another U.S. official shared a similar view, telling HuffPost, “I’m not sure this is realistic with the Israelis,” though they noted Saudi “eagerness.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week told Israeli counterparts that he expects them to do more to achieve a Saudi-Israel pact than they would have had to do prior to their campaign in Gaza, The Times of Israel reported.
NSC spokespeople initially declined to provide comment for this story. After the article gained wide traction, NSC spokeswoman Adrienne Watson emailed on Saturday: “This story is not true.”
McGurk has long focused on relations with Saudi Arabia, arguing for Biden to treat a Saudi-Israel agreement as a major international success that could be useful for his reelection bid. He was instrumental in organizing Biden’s controversial 2022 trip to Saudi Arabia, and his policy shift away from his campaign trail pledge to treat the kingdom as a “pariah.” McGurk previously worked on Middle East issues under Trump, who promoted his set of agreements between Arab states and Israel — the so-called Abraham Accords — as one of his biggest triumphs.
Regardless of whether his plan is feasible, the White House adviser and his team have a clear interest in trying to win support for it in terms of their influence within the government and over Biden, per the official focused on regional policy. “It’s for them to disprove the talking point that all the work McGurk has done on normalization is lost because of [Gaza] — there’s a lot of saving face,” the official said, describing the White House push for a U.S.-Saudi deal as “intensified.”
In his first public remarks after the Oct. 7 attack, McGurk claimed that he never sidelined Palestinian concerns in pursuing an Israel-Saudi agreement. Palestinians were “both a partner and at the center of the developing package deal,” he said. And on his latest visit to the region, earlier this week, Blinken explicitly discussed the potential deal, saying: “It would require the conflict to end in Gaza, and it would clearly require there be a practical pathway to a Palestinian state. … The interest is there. It’s real and it could be transformative.”
Outside experts and some American and foreign officials are extremely skeptical that the U.S. will be able to win real support for a Saudi-Israel agreement from Palestinians, given the community’s horror over the Gaza crisis and Washington’s reported focus on reengineering Palestinian leadership from the outside with help from Arab partners.
“There’s a lot of deja vu in what we’re hearing about the allegedly new thinking,” said Khaled Elgindy, an analyst at the Middle East Institute think tank and former adviser to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. “I have a hard time believing that the administration that misread the region for three years before Oct. 7 and certainly deprioritized the Palestinians … can understand Palestinian aspirations.”
“Even if they did understand what was required, would any Palestinian leader be willing to trust them after they have facilitated the annihilation of Gaza?” Elgindy added.
Biden administration officials are focused on bolstering the Palestinian Authority, which controls parts of the West Bank and works closely with Israel and the U.S., although it has not controlled Gaza since 2007 and is led by officials whom many Palestinians disdain. McGurk’s plan calls for developing a new cabinet for the body, one U.S. official said, and Washington is widely understood to be attempting to loosen the hold of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“When they talk about revitalized leadership, someone other than Mahmoud Abbas but very, very similar in almost every other way” — in terms of ties to Israel and the U.S. — “the echoes of 2002 and 2003 are quite loud because it was exactly that thinking: If we could just reengineer Palestinian politics to diminish [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat’s power, all would be well,” Elgindy said. Abbas became the Palestinian Authority’s first prime minister in 2003, before becoming its president in 2005 and since then intensely centralizing his own power.
Elgindy challenged the idea that the U.S. could seriously address Palestinian discontent by staffing the Palestinian Authority with more effective leaders, such as those seen as mostly focused on technical matters rather than politics like Salam Fayyad and Mohammad Mustafa. Technocratic experience “is important but what Palestinians are looking for is leadership. That is not Abbas; it is not these people,” he added. He envisions a figure who could have appeal across the spectrum of Palestinian politics, from the left to Hamas, but said that is “a disincentive for Israel” and that the U.S. would be “ambivalent” on the importance of that influence.
“They’re just going to fall back on simple power: We can control the flow of funds, we’re the only ones who can convince Israel to do anything. That’s been the modus operandi of the U.S.-led peace process all along, but look where it’s gotten us,” Elgindy said.
Blinken raised the idea of a new Palestinian Authority cabinet with Abbas this week and the Palestinian leader’s response was “poor,” a U.S. official told HuffPost. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller disputed that presentation in an email to HuffPost, writing, “This account is false in every respect.”
Beyond the McGurk gambit’s questionable chances of winning real Palestinian backing, the bid would likely face serious challenges on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers have repeatedly said their interest in helping Israel make friends in its neighborhood does not outweigh their concerns about what the U.S. would need to commit to in diplomacy for a Saudi-Israel pact — likely a binding American defense treaty with Saudi Arabia and U.S. assistance with a Saudi nuclear program, among other enticements. Congress would have to approve a treaty and could also scrutinize or bar other U.S.-Saudi deals.
Calling Saudi Arabia “an authoritarian regime which regularly undermines U.S. interests in the region, has a deeply concerning human rights record, and has pursued an aggressive and reckless foreign policy agenda,” 20 senators urged Biden in an Oct. 4 letter to tread carefully in pursuing a Saudi-Israel agreement.