The horrific breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian relations

Where do we go from here?

The unprecedented and unfathomable savagery that was inflicted by Hamas on 1,400 innocent Israeli civilians and off-duty soldiers has shaken to the core every human being with a conscience. Beyond that, it has also rattled the prevailing conditions between Israel and the Palestinians, making it impossible to return to the status quo ante. This incomprehensible massacre offers, though under horrifying circumstances, an unprecedented opportunity to bring a gradual end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those Israeli and Palestinian extremists who have been dismissive of each other’s right to exist in an independent state and in peace have now been awakened to the bitterest reality—that both sides are here to stay.

This unparalleled breakdown resulting from Hamas’s savagery has fundamentally changed the dynamic of the conflict and created a new paradigm that could lead to a breakthrough of historic proportions to reach a peace agreement based on a two-state solution. This opportunity can be realized or lost depending on how well thought-out the post-war strategic plans that Israel (and its indispensable ally the US) puts in place are, which is of paramount importance, and without which the sacrifices and losses that innocent Israelis and Palestinians have sustained will be in vain. And once again, it will be only a question of not if but when the next horrific Israeli-Palestinian conflagration will befall.

Introduction
Since the 1967 Six Day War, many efforts have been made to reach a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians through mediation conducted by an impartial mediator, face-to face negotiations, international conferences, offering incentives, back-channel talks, interim agreements (in particular the Oslo Accords), and occasionally by an influential party exerting pressure on both sides, especially the US. As we know, none of the above approaches nor several others to reach a peace agreement have worked. The failures to reach an agreement are fundamentally attributed to the fact that both sides claim exclusive ownership to the entire land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, albeit they blame each other for failing to make the necessary concessions to reach a peace agreement.

While the prospect of a two-state solution was viable following the 1993 Oslo Accords, the outlook for such a solution became progressively dimmer as Israel moved to the right-of-center. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was bent on sabotaging the Oslo Accords when he served as prime minister between 1996 and 1999, and has been in power for most of the past 15 years, made it clear repeatedly that there will be no Palestinian state under his watch. The idea of a two-state solution was steadily losing traction in Israel, the occupation of the West Bank was normalized, and a de facto apartheid state was created, which became a way of life for most Israelis and Palestinians.

The changing dynamic of the conflict
It is well known in conflict resolution that sometimes it takes a major breakdown that precipitates an extraordinary crisis to change the dynamic of a conflict. The shockingly unexpected and devastating Yom Kippur War in 1973, which subsequently led to a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, offers a potent example. As such, it made it simply impossible to return to the status quo ante. Indeed, neither Israel nor the Palestinians, including Hamas, will be the same following this most heinous and unprecedented massacre and Israel’s retaliation that has already exacted (as of this writing) 
more than 7,000 Palestinian casualties—not to speak of the unimaginable death and destruction that will occur should Israel undertake a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza.

This unfolding horror should have been expected because of what was happening on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza over the past few years, especially in the last 10 months since the formation of the most extremist right-wing messianic coalition government in Israel’s history (as I pointed out in my article published on October 3, 2022). Indeed, it did not take a prophet to augur what would happen next. The increasingly violent flareups in the West Bank have been claiming hundreds of Palestinian lives, mostly under the age of 30, each year (so far this year nearly 300 West Bank Palestinians have already been killed, including 102 since October 7 (as of the time of writing). The frequent night raids, evictions, incarcerations, demolition of houses, and gross human rights abuses became the norm.

Despair, depression, and hopelessness swept much of the Palestinian population, akin to the gathering of a ferocious storm that successive Israeli governments led by Netanyahu chose to brush off. Moreover, it is the psychological dimension of the conflict that has now come into full display, exposing decades-old mental and emotional trauma the Palestinians have been experiencing to which the Israelis were oblivious and which was bound to manifest in an unprecedented way.

The Palestinians’ resentment and hatred of Israel were intensifying. Since the new government could not formally annex Palestinians territories, it has resorted to intimidation and harassment of the Palestinians under the watchful eye of the criminal Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, who gave the settlers free reign to rampage Palestinian communities in order to ‘encourage’ them to leave. The Netanyahu government’s intent to slowly annex much of the West Bank became abundantly clear. None of the above can justify under any circumstances Hamas’ heinous attack on Israeli civilians. Hamas must pay for it dearly, and pay they will. But such unthinkable carnage happened because of the perilous “strategy” that successive Israeli governments pursued that enabled Hamas and prevented the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. This also explains why Netanyahu consistently refused to negotiate with any prospective unity government between the PA and Hamas.

The creation of Hamas
Israel created Hamas to counter balance the secular national Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) movement led by Yasser Arafat, which was intended to divide the Palestinians into two camps and prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. The creation of Hamas by Israel, which has been confirmed by many top Israeli military and civilian officials over a number of years, is unquestionable. Former Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, who was the Israeli military governor in Gaza in the early 1980s, 
told a New York Times reporter that he had helped finance Hamas as a “counterweight” to the secularists and leftists of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Fatah party, led by Yasser Arafat, stating “The Israeli Government gave me a budget and the military government gives to the mosques.” And among many others, Avner Cohen, a former Israeli religious affairs official who worked in Gaza for more than two decades, told the Wall Street Journal in 2009 that “Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation.”

In a 2015 interview, Bezalel Smotrich, the current finance minister who is also in charge of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), stated “The Palestinian Authority is a burden, and Hamas is an asset” [emphasis added]. And in an article published in the New York Times on October 18, 2023, entitled “Netanyahu Led Us to Catastrophe. He Must Go.,” author Gershom Gorenberg stated that “Bringing Gaza back under the Palestinian Authority was apparently never part of the prime minister’s agenda. Hamas was the enemy and, in a bizarre twist, an ally against the threat of diplomacy, a two-state solution and peace.”

Indeed, no Israeli prime minister has pursued this disastrous policy of divide and conquer more vigorously than Netanyahu. Although he maintained the blockade over Gaza, he allowed the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars from Qatar and other countries into Hamas’ coffers, knowing full well that more than 50 percent of these funds were used by Hamas to buy and manufacture weapons, including tens of thousands of rockets, and build a massive network of tunnels with command and control while readying itself for the next war.

Gorenberg further stated that “In 2019, for instance, Netanyahu explained why he allowed the Hamas regime in Gaza to be propped up with cash from Qatar rather than have it depend on a financial umbilical cord to the West Bank. He told Likud lawmakers that ’whoever is against a Palestinian state should be for’ the Qatari funding…” Yuval Diskin, head of Shin Bet from 2005-2011, stated in January 2013 that “If we look at it over the years, one of the main people contributing to Hamas’s strengthening has been Bibi Netanyahu, since his first term as prime minister.” And in a more telling statement from someone who has been deeply immersed in Israeli politics and governance, Ehud Barak stated in August 2019, “His strategy is to keep Hamas alive and kicking… even at the price of abandoning the citizens [of the south] … in order to weaken the PA in Ramallah…”

Netanyahu’s ill-fated “strategy” was an illusion. He believed that he could control the monster that he nurtured over the years, which instead came back to slaughter hundreds of innocent Israelis who have been relying on their government for protection and were tragically let down. They have been betrayed by a prime minister who has been fixated on bolstering Israel’s security in the West Bank while weakening the security of the southern front along the Gaza border. And while Netanyahu was sparing no efforts to ‘reform’ the judiciary, Hamas was planning, training, acquiring weapons, and perfecting the technique to wage the most daring assault against Israel that no one could have possibly imagined.

It all happened under Netanyahu’s watch. And worse yet, how is it possible that the world’s most renowned intelligence agency, Israel’s Mossad, failed to detect the planning of an attack of such magnitude that it took perhaps more than a year to prepare? And why did Netanyahu ignore the warning of Egypt’s Intelligence Minister General Abbas Kamel, who personally called Netanyahu and warned him that Hamas was likely to do “something unusual, a terrible operation” only 10 days before the attack?

I do not suggest or even imply that Netanyahu knew what was going to happen but chose to ignore it, but rather that he was simply dismissive of what Hamas is capable of and believed that he had a good handle on what was happening in Gaza. He was preoccupied with passing legislation that would subordinate the Supreme Court and the appointment of judges to elected politicians, which would have destroyed Israel’s democracy and allowed him to assume authoritarian powers, to which he badly aspired.

Although the Palestinians on the whole, be they in the West Bank or Gaza, are innocent civilians, the extremists among them have committed many egregious acts of violence against Israel. The Palestinian leaders missed many opportunities to make peace, and made countless mistakes that aggravated their own situation. Moreover, by threatening Israel’s very existence, extremist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad allowed successive Israeli governments to make a strong case against the Palestinians by portraying them as an irredeemable mortal enemy that poses the greatest danger to Israel’s national security and hence, the Palestinians cannot be a party to peace. With these perspectives established by the Israeli government, maintaining the occupation became the state policy, however unsustainable it has been deemed by any keen and informed observer.

What’s next
That said, once the war is over and the dust settles, a growing majority on both sides will come to recognize one irreversible fact. Co-existence is not one of many options, it is the only option, be that under conditions of peace or perpetual violent enmity. The two-state solution has come back to the table, as it has always been the only viable option. Both sides must now face this bittersweet reality.

The question is what will happen now that Israel and Hamas are poised to engage in fierce fighting on the ground that will surely exact an immense toll on both sides. I maintain that whether Israel undertakes a large-scale ground invasion of Gaza, or a partial incursion into its northern part, or continues its targeted bombing of Hamas’s encampments while seeking to decapitate as many of its leaders as possible, or simply stops the fighting and focuses on releasing the over 200 hostages, nothing will change in any substantial way the irreversible new paradigm that has bitterly awakened both sides to their miserable, unsustainable status quo.

To be sure, what option the Israeli government will choose to bring an end to the conflict will only define the length of time that that might take, the extent of difficulties in the negotiation, the modalities of the negotiating process, the level of public and international pressure to find a solution, and the likely intermittent violence. But none of these issues will change the fundamental point of departure that point to the endgame of a two-state solution, regardless of how many more hurdles might be encountered.

There are five measures the Israeli government, along with the US and Saudi Arabia, should put in place to move the peace process forward.

First, Israel should not undertake a large-scale ground invasion of Gaza that will inevitably inflict massive destruction and thousands of casualties on both sides, especially Palestinian civilians, and put the lives of the hostages at a much greater risk. More than anything else, it is a dangerous illusion for Israel to assume that the invasion, regardless of its scale, 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 [Hamas] 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, which will make the lives of the Israeli forces a living hell.

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 invade Gaza, will only add to the national tragedy and offer no solution. The death of thousands of innocent Palestinians will not bring to life one single Israeli who died on the altar of a government that failed its people.

The better path for Israel is to pursue targeting killings, and to save face, engage in a limited incursion 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 do not expect that the current Israeli government led by Netanyahu will be willing or able to change its stripes and make such a giant leap forward. Nevertheless, 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 the Israelis are 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, they together make it 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 path forward? 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. Their quest for statehood is supported by the entire international community, including the US, and if anything, 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 development 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, 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 entirely 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, pain, and anguish, 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, as well as financial assistance. 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 earlier this year 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 a massive 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, and with that bring an end to the vicious cycle of violence which has been consuming both sides for 75 years.

Consequently, 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.

Conclusion
The horrifically unfathomable massacre of Israelis happened under the watch of the most extremist, corrupt, messianic, and perilously delusional government in Israel’s history. Netanyahu, the self-absorbed character who excels in his capacity to collude and conspire, is a coward, whose desperation to cling to power knows no bounds. He has lost his legitimacy to lead the country in an hour of unparalleled crisis to which he contributed due to his dereliction of duty, misguided policies, and blindness that precipitated an unprecedented national disaster.

Israelis must demand that Netanyahu resign now to prevent him from initiating or influencing any strategy in conducting the war against Hamas. He will do anything, however sinister and uncanny, to cover up for his disastrous mistakes which led to a catastrophe the likes of which Israel has never experienced since its creation.

As the architect who has been shaping the contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the past 15 years, he must now answer the simple question: is Israel better off today in its relations with the Palestinians than it was 15 years ago? The answer is a clear NO. Netanyahu poses a greater menace to Israel than Hamas.

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.

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Dr Alon Ben-Meir
Dr Alon Ben-Meir
Dr Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Centre for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. [email protected]

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