Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is testing limits of US and European support for Israel’s war on Gaza.
Cracks in Western support have emerged not only because of the devastating human toll of Israel’s military campaign, including stepped-up attacks on hospitals and schools, but also due to differences on how Gaza would be governed once the guns fall silent.
Mr. Netanyahu has yet to outline his vision of an interim Gaza administration beyond stating that Israel would retain security control for an “indefinite” period to ensure that the Strip does not re-emerge as a threat but would not re-occupy Gaza or shoulder responsibility for the territory’s day-to-day administration. Israel, the United States, and Europe agree that Hamas’ revival is not an option.
Quietly so do some Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
However, that is where the agreement between Israel and its Western backers ends.
In contrast to the United States and the European Union that insist on the West Bank’s Palestine Authority taking control of Gaza, Mr. Netanyahu has ruled out any role for the entity created under the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo accords.
Yet, even if Israel and the West were on the same page about this, getting from A to B is fraught with multiple problems.
For one, none of the multiple options under discussion for the day after in Gaza, ranging from the Palestine Authority or Egypt taking control to a United Nations mandate, an Arab force moving into Gaza, to Israeli occupation or the expulsion of Gazans from the territory, take Palestinian concerns into consideration.
With Palestinian attitudes hardening as a result of the Israeli assault, any post-war interim arrangement that fails to hold out credible hope for an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to be fragile at best.
A recent post-October 7 poll of Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank and Gaza conducted by Ramallah-based Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD) does not bode well for arrangements that disregard Palestinian aspirations.
More than 80 per cent of those surveyed said their confidence in a peaceful resolution of the conflict had decreased. More than 60 per cent said their faith in a two-state solution, involving the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, had diminished.
More than 70 per cent indicated their support for a state in all of historic Palestine had increased. Almost 90 per cent said their confidence in Palestinian-Israeli peaceful coexistence had dropped. Seventy-four per cent supported Hamas’ brutal October 7 attack that killed 1,200, mostly civilian, Israelis.
Seventy-five percent described Hamas’ overall role as positive. Eight-three per cent said the same about Islamic Jihad, a Gaza-based militant group and 88 per cent were positive about Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
Seventy-two per cent favour a post-war national unity government in the West Bank and Gaza. While not explicitly asked, it is a fair assumption that those surveyed envisioned Hamas as part of such a government.
Beyond Palestinian public opinion being at odds with post-war options under discussion, the Palestine Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas’ leadership has little, if any, credibility in the West Bank and Gaza.
Ninety-five per cent of Gazans surveyed and 88 per cent in the West Bank judged the Palestine Authority’s role negatively.
Western leaders have suggested that reform of the Authority, widely seen as ineffective and corrupt, would be a pre-requisite for it to take control of Gaza.
However, it remains unclear how reform would be implemented.
Leaving practical difficulties aside, Israel and the West are likely to oppose an election that could be won by Hamas or a group that stands for Hamas’ principles that emphasise armed struggle and, at best, a long-term ceasefire between Israel and a Palestinian state but no recognition of the Jewish state or peace treaty.
In addition, there are no immediate unproblematic candidates to succeed Mr. Abbas. Marwan Barghouti, the most popular candidate long touted as a successor, is serving five cumulative life sentences for murder in an Israeli prison.
It is unlikely that Israel would support positioning Mr. Barghouti as a successor, even though he potentially could be released from prison in an exchange of Israeli military personnel captured by Hamas on October 7 and held hostage in Gaza.
Israel accuses Mr. Barghouti of founding the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a coalition of Palestinian armed groups in the West Bank.
In 2006, Mr. Barghouti authored from prison a National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners that was co-signed by Hamas. The document endorsed Palestinians’ right to resist Israeli occupation, implicitly including armed resistance, while appearing to envision a two-state solution.
Equally problematic is the possible candidacy of Abu Dhabi-based Mohammed Dahlan, a UAE-backed Gazan and former Al Fatah Palestinian security chief in Gaza who was convicted in absentia in a West Bank court on corruption charges. It’s unclear whether Mr. Dahlan, who has been tacitly positioning himself in recent weeks, has a support base in Gaza or The West Bank.
Moreover, persuading the Palestine Authority or Arab states to get involved in Gaza’s post-war administration and reconstruction is easier said than done. Neither the Authority nor Arab states are willing to engage without a viable prospect for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Recent US and European statements emphasising a two-state solution are widely considered across the Middle East as empty declarations without evidence of a willingness to force Israel to the negotiating table and elicit the policy changes that would make a resolution viable.
Even if the United States, the power potentially capable of forcing Israel’s hand, were willing to pressure Israel in much the same way that President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted in the 1950s “a resolution which would call on all United Nations members to suspend not just governmental but private assistance to Israel,” it would require a political change in Israel with no guarantee that a new government would be more pliable.
Mr. Netanyahu’s political days may be numbered with a majority of Israelis holding him responsible for Israel’s intelligence and military failure in anticipating and preventing Hamas’ October 7 attack.
Proponents of a two-state solution expect that Mr. Netanyahu’s post-war downfall would remove from power ultra-nationalists and ultra-conservatives, with whom no constructive engagement is possible.
The problem is that changing the Israeli government is unlikely to be a panacea.
Benny Gantz, a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s war cabinet, who is touted as the prime minister’s possible successor, has ruled out a return to Israel’s pre-1967 borders and insisted that Palestinians should have an “entity” but not a state.
Ram Ben Barak, a former senior intelligence official and contender for leadership of Yesh Atid, Israel’s main opposition party, illustrated just how deep and widespread Israeli anti-Palestinian sentiment is by calling for the disbursement of Gaza’s population to the four corners of the world.
In a Wall Street Journal oped entitled ‘The West Should Welcome Gaza Refugees,’ Mr. Ben Barak and Likud Knesset member Danny Danon, a former deputy defense minister and ambassador to the United Nations, spelled out the call for the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza.
“We simply need a handful of the world’s nations to share the responsibility of hosting Gazan residents. Even if countries took in as few as 10,000 people each, it would help alleviate the crisis,” Messrs. Danon and Ben Barak said.
“The international community has a moral imperative — and an opportunity — to demonstrate compassion, help the people of Gaza move toward a more prosperous future and work together to achieve greater peace and stability in the Middle East,” they added.
Scholars Nathan J. Brown and Amr Hamzawy argued in a recent paper that Arab states could potentially break the deadlock and create an opportunity for US President Joe Biden to balance his support for Israel by putting forward an updated version of the Arab peace plan drafted in 2002.
The plan called for normalisation of relations with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital alongside the Jewish state.
“Recent history has shown that heightened attention to Israel and Palestine during phases of intense violence and human suffering could produce unexpected multilateral efforts to push forward conflict resolution measures and peaceful settlements,” Messrs. Brown and Hamzawy said.
The scholars suggested the Arab peace plan should be bolstered by a set of principles that recognise that:
- Palestinian and Jewish national identities are legitimate and need institutional expression.
- individual human rights as well as national communities’ rights need protection.
- anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and racist rhetoric and actions must be explicitly and unconditionally repudiated by all actors.
- any targeting of civilians should be actively combated by all parties to the negotiation process.
- settlement activities in the Palestinian territories and forced displacement of Palestinians to Egypt, Jordan, or anywhere else is an outlawed action all parties commit to fight against.
- full diplomatic, political, and economic relations among participating states should be an outcome of the process.
- no stateless people should be left behind at the conclusion of any set of agreements.
With Arab and Muslim foreign ministers visiting the capitals of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, one way of updating the Arab peace initiative would be to enshrine a reworked plan in a Council resolution. The ministers kicked off their tour in Beijing, this month’s Council chair. Permanent members would find it difficult to veto adoption of an initiative that reflects principles they have all endorsed.
“Washington seems desperate for realistic ideas and may, along with its European allies, react to…the suggestions listed here less allergically if they are coupled with an offer of regional relations among its various partners,” Messrs Brown and Hamzawy suggested.
So far, Washington appears to be missing opportunities rather than looking for openings.
In Jerusalem this week, Mr. Biden’s energy security advisor, Amos Hochstein, explored creating revenue streams for a post-war Gaza administration, including the development of a gas field off the Strip’s shore.
Mr. Hochstein discussed the proposal with Israeli officials, failing to involve the Palestine Authority.