Where Do We Go Once the Israel-Hamas War Ends?

  • Opinion by Alon Ben-Meir (new york)
  • Inter Press Service

More than anything else, it is a dangerous illusion for anyone to assume that a large-scale invasion will capture or kill all of Hamas’ leaders and senior operatives and prevent it from ever reconstituting itself both as a resistance movement and as a political entity.

Many of Hamas’ leaders have not lived in Gaza for years, or have recently fled. Most of Hamas’ commanders and ‘foot soldiers’ are embedded in the civilian community and a massive complex of tunnels while lying in wait for the ground invasion, in order to kill and injure hundreds if not thousands of Israeli soldiers.

They know full well that they will sustain massive casualties and destruction, but they will only technically lose the war and can still reconstitute themselves regardless of the immense losses they might sustain.

Israel simply cannot eradicate a religious movement or obliterate an ideology. And to suggest, as Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant recently stated, that “we will wipe them off the face of the earth,” is an illusion. Even if Israel manages to decapitate every senior Hamas leader, it will be only a question of time when a new generation of Palestinian leaders will rise.

If Israel reoccupies Gaza to prevent Hamas from reconstituting itself, it will be sheer madness, a quagmire from which Israel cannot exit without incurring massive casualties. Moreover, Israel will have to care for 2.2 million Palestinians, coupled with a relentless insurgency by Palestinian militants bent on killing and maiming Israeli soldiers.

The urge for revenge and retribution following the massacre of 1,400 Israelis is perfectly understandable, and in the minds of many, revenge is the only way to assuage the unbearable pain that so many Israelis are living with. But then the inevitable death of hundreds of young Israeli soldiers, should Israel decide to an all-out invade Gaza, will only add to the national tragedy and offer no solution.

The better path for Israel is to pursue targeting killings, and engage in a limited invasion into northern Gaza, keep Hamas’ leaders on the run, and cut off the flow of money, while focusing on releasing the hostages. Israel must make it publicly and unequivocally clear that its fight is against Hamas and not against innocent Palestinian people.

Furthermore, Israel ought to facilitate the delivery of all the basic necessities, especially drinking water, medicine, food, and under strict monitoring by UN observers, fuel to generate electricity and feed generators. But since Israel cannot eliminate Hamas, it can only weaken it to a point where it is effectively inoperative by providing an alternative that will dramatically improve the lives of the Palestinians and offer them a promising path for the future.

Second, Israel should come to terms with the inevitability of a Palestinian state and inform the US and Saudi Arabia that it is willing to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians in the West Bank based on a two-state solution. I expect that the current Netanyahu government will fall and sooner perhaps rather than later, there will be a new government in Israel and a new Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

They should begin to engage, under the auspices of the US and Saudi Arabia, in a peace process accompanied from the onset by a process of reconciliation, both government-to-government and people-to-people, to mitigate the pervasive hatred and distrust between the two.

An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in the West Bank that would lead to a dramatic improvement in the living standard of the population and a growing sense of security will be the most potent weapon against Hamas. Hamas will have to choose between joining the peace process by first recognizing Israel’s right to exist, or remaining under blockade.

The Palestinians in Gaza will be well aware of the changing fortune of their brethren in the West Bank and will not accept a continuing life of despondency and despair in Gaza. Hamas being on the run and with depleting resources to deliver what the people need will be hard pressed to change direction, or else face the wrath of the people. Hamas’ claim that Israel is the cause of their suffering will no longer resonate.

In the final analysis, the creation of an independent Palestinian state will be strengthened and peacefully sustained through the establishment of an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian confederation, once a Palestinian state is first established.

Indeed, given the interspersed Palestinian populations in the West Bank, Jerusalem, Israel proper, and Jordan, the geographic proximity of the three states, their unique religious affinity to Jerusalem, and their intertwined national security, it is not only possible but necessary to establish such a confederation where all three countries will collaborate on a host of issues to serve their national interests.

Some will say that this is a glaringly naïve proposal and, in any case, this is the wrong time to talk about a two-state solution. Naïve or not, I challenge anyone to tell me what is the alternative? Where does Israel go from here?

The Palestinian problem will not simply disappear; they are not going anywhere and they are more determined today than any time before to unshackle themselves from the occupation. The unfolding tragedy and its inescapably horrifying consequences made the need for a solution ever more urgent. And if not now, then when?

Third, the development of a major economic program is critical to sustaining any Israeli-Palestinian peace in the West Bank. What is needed is a sort of a Marshall Plan for the West Bank to be financed by the Gulf states, the US, and the EU. Such a program should be at the center of the peace process to relieve the people of their economic hardship. The West Bank is in desperate need of better infrastructure, schools, and hospitals. Such national projects would also provide job opportunities for the tens of thousands of unemployed youths.

Moreover, since the Palestinian refugees have and continue to play a major role in the search for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a solution to the Palestinian refugees must be found based on resettlement and/or compensation.

A solution to this and other conflicting issues, including the future of Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements, which have stymied peace negotiations in the past and remain contentious issues, can be and in fact must be resolved.

The inevitability of coexistence and the inescapable need for a peace agreement based on a two-state solution, coupled with a commitment by a new Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, and the US’ determination to that end, will facilitate a solution to these conflicting issues, however intractable they may seem at this juncture.

Fourth, Saudi Arabia should play a front and center role, at the urging of the US. Saudi Arabia, which has been negotiating normalization of relations with Israel behind-the-scenes and has linked normalization to the establishment of a path that will solve the Israeli Palestinian-conflict, should publicly state so once the war ends.

This will not only assure the Palestinians that they will not be abandoned, but it will also send a clear message to the Israelis that they now have a historic opportunity not only to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but open up the door wide to normalization of relations between Israel and much of the Muslim world.

The Saudis and every Arab state in the region know that as long as there is no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, instability will continue to rattle the region, making normalization of relations with Israel tenuous at best. Moreover, Israel must remember that regardless of how the Saudis and other Arab states feel toward the Palestinians, in any violent confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians, as demonstrated in the current conflagration, they will always land on the Palestinians’ side.

And even though the Israel-Hamas war started because of the horrific massacre of Israelis, the Arab public throughout the region and beyond is sympathizing with the Palestinians. It is the death of thousands of innocent Palestinians in Gaza that is capturing headline news now, not the indescribably horrendous massacre of Israelis.

Thus, the greater the casualties and destruction inflicted on Gaza, the harder it will be for the Saudis to resume negotiations over the normalization of relations with Israel. Normalization can serve as the conduit for Israeli-Palestinian peace, which will be deferred for years if not lost for the foreseeable future unless Israel weighs carefully what will happen next if the war spins completely out of control.

But then again, it is up to Israel and the US—which will have a say on this matter as Israel today cannot simply say NO to the US—to ensure that the war does not cripple the prospect of normalization between Israel and other Arab states.

Fifth, the US paying lip service to the idea of a two-state solution must now be acted upon. Successive American administrations have demonstrated consistent support of Israel and the US became the de facto guarantor of Israel’s national security. No US president, however, has demonstrated in words and deeds the US’ commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity more than President Biden.

His visit to Israel in the moment of unprecedented national grief and his dispatch of formidable American forces to the region, including two aircraft carriers to deter Israel’s sworn enemies and prevent the escalation of the war, sent an unambiguous massage that has not been lost on Iran and Hezbollah.

Although Israel is receiving annually $3.8 billion in military aid from the US, at no time in recent memory has Israel found itself so dependent on the US for additional military aid and political backing. Israeli National Security Minister Ben-Gvir’s statement earlier this year that Israel is “not another star on the American flag. We are a democracy and I expect the U.S. president to understand that,” is no less stupid than his boss Netanyahu, who stated in March that “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

Now the Israeli government recognizes how indispensable America is, forcing it to listen carefully to what President Biden is recommending, which is clearly against waging an all-out ground invasion without very diligent consideration of what comes next, which will otherwise be catastrophic by any account.

Thus, President Biden is now in a position, more than any of his predecessors, to exert significant influence over Israel. There is no better time for the US to formulate a plan that would begin a peace process and stick to it regardless of what transpires on the ground. By providing Israel all it needs to protect itself and maintain a military edge over its adversaries and now to prevail in this war, the US becomes complicit to Israel’s conduct in Gaza.

This is also applicable to the occupation of the West Bank, which is inconsistent with the US’ formal position. Therefore, the US should make it clear to Israel that given America’s unflagging support, it is seen as a party to the occupation which must end.

It is time for the Biden administration to translate the lip service that the US has customarily been paying to the two-state solution into a plan of action. Upon his return from Israel, President Biden reiterated that the two-state solution is the only realistic option.

And however far-fetched this may seem to Israelis and Palestinians at this juncture, President Biden must begin to press the issue and pave the way for serious negotiations, albeit he has to wait for Netanyahu’s exile from the political scene, which may well happen sooner than later.

The breakdown in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can dawn a historic breakthrough to reach at last a peace agreement. There is no need for even one more Israeli or Palestinian child to die on the altar of misguided leadership on both sides. The Israeli and the Palestinian publics must rise in unison pour into the streets by the hundreds of thousands and scream:

Enough is Enough.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University (NYU). He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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