Extend the Cease-Fire in Gaza—but Don’t Stop There

Palestinians leaving the site of an Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, November 2023. Mohammed Salem / Reuters
Palestinians leaving the site of an Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, November 2023. Mohammed Salem / Reuters

Recent days have seen the first good news out of Gaza in a long time. As part of a U.S.-brokered cease-fire that began last Friday and will expire tomorrow, Hamas has released dozens of the more than 200 people it took hostage during its October 7 attack on Israel; those released include many of the children whom the group took captive. For its part, Israel has released 150 Palestinian prisoners, paused its bombardment of Gaza, and allowed more humanitarian supplies into the territory, providing a brief respite to the millions of civilians there who have suffered immensely for weeks.

The agreement holds open the prospect that the parties could extend it, and U.S. President Joe Biden said yesterday that his administration was working to that end. That is the right call. Now, the Biden administration must make clear why such an extension is in the interests of both the Israeli and the Palestinian people, as well as the interests of the United States and its international partners. An extended cease-fire could facilitate the return of more Israeli hostages and reduce the risk of deepening the humanitarian catastrophe among Gaza’s civilians. It could also help calm tensions in the West Bank and reduce the risk that the war could escalate by drawing in outside actors, such as the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and its patron, Iran.

But extending the cease-fire should be just the first step in a larger process that would require intensive U.S.-backed regional diplomacy—and an overhaul of American policy. When Biden took office in 2021, he was determined not to spend his time and energy on fruitless efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the war in Gaza has shown that the issue cannot be ignored. To make good on Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s November 8 statement that there can be no return to a manifestly unsustainable status quo ante, the United States must change its overall approach and commit to a broad-based diplomatic process that can finally resolve the conflict and prioritize rights and dignity for people in the region.

The United States’ global reputation and credibility have been severely damaged by its seemingly unconditional backing of Israel’s devastating military campaign in Gaza. But the United States remains the only country with the relationships and influence necessary to secure an extension of the cease-fire and facilitate a process that might lead, at long last, to a conflict-ending agreement.

TALK THE TALK

If an extended cease-fire holds, it could pave the way for a resolution to the current war. Any agreement must end Israel’s blockade and functional imprisonment of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. It must also deny Hamas the capability to launch attacks on Israel. The Israeli government’s stated goal of “ending Hamas” is understandable in light of the group’s October 7 atrocities, but it is unrealistic. Hamas will endure as a political movement as long as the denial of Palestinian rights endures. It is not possible to “end” Hamas, but it is possible to make Hamas irrelevant by addressing the anger and hopelessness on which it feeds. Finally, any just resolution would entail a reckoning with the mass civilian casualties on each side. The United States has supported the International Criminal Court’s investigation into Russian atrocities in Ukraine. Washington must do the same in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

An extended cease-fire would also afford Washington a chance to get serious about using diplomacy to resolve the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a just manner. To do so, however, the Biden administration must explicitly break with former U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision of piecemeal bilateral normalization agreements—the so-called Abraham Accords—between Israel and Arab- and Muslim-majority autocracies. Far from creating peace, that approach—which Biden adopted shortly after taking office—merely gives cover to permanent Israeli control of the occupied Palestinian territories and the denial of fundamental Palestinian national, political, and human rights, in violation of international law. Trump and Netanyahu’s model involved Washington essentially bribing autocratic regimes into recognizing Israel with promises of U.S. weapons and security assurances. But “arms for peace” has been a failure: it has led to the increased militarization of the region but no increase in stability—as the war in Gaza shows.

More broadly, the United States should also abandon its failed policy of facilitating direct, bilateral negotiations between parties with a massive imbalance of military and diplomatic power. Instead, if an extended cease-fire holds, Washington should immediately convene the parties that met in February to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and issued the so-called Aqaba Communique: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the United States, and representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This time, however, Turkey and Qatar—U.S. security partners who maintain open channels to Iran and Hamas—should be invited, as well.

The goal should be to secure a comprehensive resolution of the conflict in accordance with international law. This would include universal normalization and recognition of the national rights of both the Israelis and the Palestinians while ensuring their security and well-being. Participants could propose different models as terms of reference. One potential model is the Arab Peace Initiative, which proposed full Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for an end to the occupation that began in 1967, a just resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Another potential model is an Israeli-Palestinian confederation arrangement such as the one recently proposed by the Israeli group A Land for All, which seek to maneuver around legitimate doubts regarding the desirability and feasibility of full partition and separation. Whatever formula emerges, it must contend with the baseline reality that the indefinite Israeli occupation and de facto annexation of Palestinian territory is illegal under international law. A failure to counter Israeli efforts to establish permanent, undemocratic control in these territories will doom any diplomatic conflict resolution effort and feed more violence. A just resolution must also ensure the rights of Palestinians in all of the territories: Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Any approach that keeps Gaza separate will fail because it is an integral part of the Palestinian nation.

WALK THE WALK

In addition to leading regional diplomacy, Washington must reorient its own policies, ending its practice of merely criticizing Israel’s deepening occupation and instead taking concrete steps to end it. The absence of any meaningful consequences for Israel’s constant, aggressive settlement expansion has boosted the country’s extremist pro-settlement right wing. Washington must reinstate legal guidance that settlements are inconsistent with international law. Doing so would reaffirm a genuinely rules-based international order by bringing the United States in line with the overwhelming international legal consensus embodied in the Geneva Conventions, which make clear that occupying powers may not transfer their own populations into territories they militarily occupy. The Biden administration’s recent announcement that it is considering imposing sanctions against Israeli settlers involved in attacks against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank is an encouraging sign that Washington is finally starting to take this longstanding problem seriously.

The United States should also cease using its UN Security Council veto to shield Israel from accurate and appropriate criticism for its settlement and annexation-related activities. Washington must no longer allow Israel or any other country to use weapons purchased from the United States or financed by U.S. aid to violate international humanitarian law—as Israel likely has during the Gaza war—or for any purposes proscribed by U.S. law. By meaningfully enforcing existing U.S. laws, including those prohibiting aid to military forces with records of gross human rights violations, the Biden administration could incentivize better Israeli behavior and make good on Biden’s pledge to put human rights at the center of American foreign policy.

Washington should also support a democratic process that would create a legitimate Palestinian leadership, one that could make credible commitments on behalf of the Palestinian people. To be clear, the United States has neither the right nor the ability to decide who should lead the Palestinians. Indeed, the George W. Bush administration’s presumption that it did have that right led directly to Hamas’s taking control of Gaza in 2007. The United States can, however, bolster those Palestinian leaders who want peace with Israel by showing that nonviolence and diplomacy offer a better path to liberation for the Palestinian people than does terrorist violence. The United States can strengthen the legitimacy of such leaders by upgrading Washington’s own bilateral relations with the PLO (which recognized Israel in 1993), exercising existing executive authority to terminate the decades-old legislative designation of the PLO as a terrorist organization, and reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem serving Palestinians. At the same time, Washington should work with regional and international partners to construct a major economic support program benefiting the Palestinian people.

The United States must also stop blocking international organizations and discouraging other countries from recognizing Palestinian statehood. Although only the Israelis and Palestinians can reach a comprehensive resolution to the conflict, Palestinians are well within their rights to seek recognition of their state from international organizations and foreign governments. Binding themselves to the obligations of statehood and acceding to treaties that require responsible conduct is a nonviolent way of doing so—one that accords with international law and that should be applauded, not discouraged or penalized. The United States should therefore cease delegitimizing those efforts and instead welcome them as beneficial to the prospects for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel for his entire political career. He has built up enormous credibility among the Israeli people with his effusive embrace of their country since October 7. Now is the time for Biden to use that credibility to push the Israeli government in the right direction. He can easily make the case that such steps are not in tension with his promised support for Israel’s long-term security; in fact, they would be the fulfillment of that promise.

Gaza has endured multiple wars since 2007, and the pattern is always the same: a few weeks in which everyone agrees that the underlying crisis must be addressed, and then everyone forgets. The catastrophe now unfolding is a result of that pattern. It must not be repeated. It is hard to imagine that anything good could come of the last two months of horror and bloodshed. But an American commitment to a sustained diplomatic process grounded in international law would be a giant leap toward a secure and peaceful future for both peoples.

Matthew Duss is Executive Vice President of the Center for International Policy. From 2017 to 2022, he was a Foreign Policy Adviser to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Nancy Okail is President and CEO of the Center for International Policy.

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