In many ways the August war in Gaza was a war of no choice. Had the Israelis and Palestinians moved forward on peacemaking in the past, either through the efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry or through one of the numerous other missed opportunities, perhaps the outbreak of violence would not have occurred. But that is water under the bridge and arguing now about it, just like arguing about who is responsible for the recent round of violence, would be just another pointless game of chicken and the egg.
But now, no one seems to know how to end the war. The fighting might not be as intense as it was a week ago, but, post-temporary cease-fire, it continues nonetheless. I asked senior Palestinian Authority officials Saturday evening for their thoughts on how this war should end. Their response: “Israel should end the occupation.” OK—that is obvious, but how do we end the war right now, this evening, when anything that Israel and the Palestinian Authority could do will strengthen Hamas as the party that brought home the rewards of the war? While the Israeli delegation left Cairo on Friday, talks are continuing in Egypt between the Egyptian General Intelligence and the Palestinian factions. The Egyptian strategy is to wear down the resolve of Hamas and get them to accept some compromise that Israel, too, could accept. But I don’t see Hamas making any significant compromises that might, even in the slightest way, lead to its demise in Gaza—and those are the only compromises Israel should be willing to make.
This all means that Israel should not negotiate with Hamas. Israeli efforts, and the efforts of its regional partners, should be wholly focused on how to reduce Hamas’ control, not increase it.
Hamas will declare victory, regardless of the outcome of the war. It will list its heroism against the mighty Israeli army and will present itself as the only force in the world that defends Palestinian rights. It has already won the battle of words among Palestinians and Arabs by laying down demands that no Palestinian or those who support them can deny as being legitimate. They want their border to be opened for movement of goods and people; they want an airport, a seaport, building materials to rebuild Gaza, to be reconnected to the economy of the West Bank and the world. These are all reasonable demands that could even be acceptable to Israel, if they were on the table while both sides were negotiating comprehensive peace, end of conflict, and end of claims. But Hamas is demanding these achievements for a mere cease-fire, which would leave them with the ability to rearm and plan for the next war.
The obvious longer-term opportunities that have grown out of this conflict are for Israel and its neighbors to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative from 2002, negotiate with the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas on the basis of that and turn over responsibility for Gaza in the short term to a multinational Arab-led force. Hamas would definitely oppose this step, but Hamas’ ability to oppose an all-Arab army with the backing of the Arab League and perhaps even a Security Council resolution would be very small. That, along with an Israeli promise to end the occupation, to allow Palestinians to achieve their national aspirations of a free Palestinian state that includes the West Bank and Gaza, would both answer the Palestinian demands and make Hamas irrelevant in the eyes of the Palestinian people. This would be a plan that would reward the moderates at the expense of the extremists, breaking the pattern of doing exactly the opposite for far too many years.
None of this is impossible, and its chances would be advanced significantly if the initiative came from Riyadh. If King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia would issue an invitation to Netanyahu, Abbas, President El-Sisi of Egypt, and King Abdullah of Jordan to come immediately to Riyadh with Gaza on the table, it could very easily lead to the acceptance of the Arab Peace Initiative. The current war is a dead end; we need a brave initiative and a courageous Arab leader (and Israeli one) to get beyond the current lose-lose scenario in progress.
There is more Israel can do to move things in the right direction, without giving an inch to Hamas. Netanyahu’s government should reach out to the Palestinian population in Gaza with messages that move from the current language of threats to the language of promise and hope. Israel needs to articulate to Gazans what a peaceful Gaza could look like with an airport, economic development, and jobs. Gazans desperately want to hear concrete plans for how their basic needs for a normal life could be met, and Israeli officials should be the ones to tell them.
What’s more, Israel should encourage the process launched with the formation of the Palestinian reconciliation government in May 2014 to convene new Palestinian elections as soon as possible so that the people will have their say to elect a legitimate leadership to represent them. Elections held while Gaza is recovering from the pains of war, with a positive message about Gaza’s future coming from Israel, all while serious, genuine negotiations are taking place on ending the Israeli occupation will significantly increase the chances of electing a government in the West Bank and Gaza that would continue to build Palestine and not destroy it.
To reach that end, Israel should now recognize the Palestinian national reconciliation government, which, although supported by Hamas, has no Hamas representatives in it. The main task of that government is to prepare Palestine for new elections—that is its mandate.
In the meantime, Hamas is likely to continue to shoot rockets and mortars at Israel at the rate of between 50-100 per day, but its supplies are running down and eventually will come to an end. Israel can continue to respond to the rocket fire with air attacks against military targets, taking extra special care to avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties—yes, more than they have until now. During this time, it is essential for Israel to engage positively the Palestinian Authority leadership, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and others with plans for bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end.
This is the way to avoid granting Hamas a victory that would once again prove that violence pays. It is essential that Israel reward diplomacy and moderation or else this latest war will just be another round in this never-ending conflict.