The Greater Goal in Gaza

Palestinians inspecting a house after an Israeli strike, southern Gaza Strip, January 2024 . Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters
Palestinians inspecting a house after an Israeli strike, southern Gaza Strip, January 2024 . Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

As Israel’s war in Gaza enters its fourth month, an intensifying debate has unfolded about who should rule the territory when the fighting stops. Some have suggested an Arab force, a notion already rejected by Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab states. Others have proposed a reconstructed Palestinian authority, ignoring the fact that less than ten percent of Palestinians would support such an outcome, according to a recent Palestinian poll. Yet a third idea is to put Gaza under international control, an approach that has already been rejected by Israel, which does not want to set such a precedent.

But there is a larger reason these envisioned solutions are doomed to fail: they all treat Gaza in isolation, as if it can be addressed without regard to the broader issue of Palestinian statehood and self-determination. In this way of thinking, once Hamas is made to disappear and once the question of who rules Gaza is answered, there can be a return to the status quo ante. Both assumptions are fundamentally flawed, and any policy based on them will lead to disaster.

To be truly durable, a solution for the future of Gaza must be framed within a larger endgame for all Palestinians under Israeli control. It must finally address the root cause of unending violence: the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Years of failed negotiations have also made clear what such a plan will require in order to succeed: unlike so many of its predecessors, it must be credible and time-bound, and the endgame itself must be well defined at the outset.

Establishing such a comprehensive process will require extraordinary effort. But the alternative is far worse. The current war has already led to the killing of huge numbers of civilians, the destruction of Gaza, the undermining of Israel’s security and international support, the creation of another 1.5 million Palestinian refugees, and the looming threat of a further mass transfer of Palestinians out of their ancestral lands. Any attempt to resolve the day-after problem by reverting to the old paradigms will simply invite these catastrophes to be repeated again.

THE MISSING ENDGAME

To understand the true scope of the day-after problem, it is first necessary to recognize that the current conflict did not begin with Hamas’s attack on October 7. Nor is it limited to Gaza alone. Although the Palestinian question begins with the 1948 war, in which an estimated 750,000 were dispossessed of their homes, the best starting point for today’s crisis is the 1967 war. That conflict led to Israel’s occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem and produced an estimated 300,000 new Palestinian refugees. It also marked the beginning of decades of efforts to end the occupation and establish a viable Palestinian future.

The first such attempt was UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed in November 1967. Although the resolution referred to “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”, it did not envisage a separate Palestinian state. Instead, Gaza was supposed to revert to Egyptian control and the West Bank to Jordanian control. Nor did the resolution define a time frame for ending the occupation, calling only for a political process that was open and not binding. Indirect negotiations among the Jordanian, Egyptian, and Israeli sides were held through a UN mediator, without any results.

Two and a half decades later, the Madrid conference—launched by President George H. W. Bush in 1991 after the first Gulf War—finally brought the Palestinians directly to the negotiating table. Once again, however, the process left the endgame unclear beyond referring to Resolution 242, which was interpreted by Israel in a drastically different way than by the international community. (Although the resolution called for Israel to withdraw from occupied territories, Israel interpreted this to mean not withdrawal from all such territories but only to so-called safe borders it never specified.) Even after the Palestinians started negotiating separately with Israel once the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin came to power in June 1992, the process never defined a separate Palestinian state as the objective of negotiations.

Then came the Oslo accords in 1993, perhaps the most well known of all of these peace efforts. In this case, not only did the two sides mutually recognize each other and establish a Palestinian interim authority in Gaza and parts of the West Bank, they also set up a five-year negotiations process toward a durable peace. But although the process was supposed to result in a lasting solution to the conflict, the parties failed to specify what that solution is: in other words, the endgame was not clear at the outset. Moreover, the Oslo accords did not freeze settlement activity, meaning that the two sides were negotiating over the future of the occupied territories even as one of them—the Israelis—was continuing to change these territories’ geography and demographics. Indeed, Rabin, in his last speech to the Knesset in September 1995, where the parliament ratified the second part of the Oslo accords, declared that Israel’s objective was a Palestinian “entity which is less than a state”.

In fact, the conflict’s main players did not agree on a two-state model until 2000, near the end of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s tenure. At the time, Clinton presented the two sides with an overall framework based on a Palestinian state, largely defined by the 1967 borders, that would be established alongside the state of Israel, with special arrangements for Jerusalem, refugees, and security. When last-minute negotiations over these parameters failed and the second intifada broke out, both parties became convinced that they had no partners for peace at the other end of the table. Successive efforts since then, including the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, the Middle East Road Map of 2002–2003, the 2007 Annapolis conference, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy in 2013—the last official effort by the U.S. to help negotiate a settlement—have all failed.

Although there are many reasons why each of these rounds of negotiations ran aground, there were larger shortcomings that were common to most of them: they were almost always either open-ended or did not specify the endgame at the outset. They also lacked a credible monitoring mechanism to make sure the parties were meeting their stepwise obligations on the road to a permanent settlement. Moreover, on numerous occasions, negotiations broke down over what the endgame should be, rather than on the steps needed to reach that goal.

FROM FAILURE TO CATASTROPHE

For Palestinians, the consequences of these failures have been devastating. Israel has been able to continue settlement activity, illegal under international law, in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem (and, until 2005, in Gaza), absorbing Palestinian land and rendering the establishment of a viable Palestinian state increasingly difficult. Since the signing of the Oslo accords, the Israeli settler population has grown from about 250,000 to more than 750,000, almost a quarter of the population in the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem, while the relentless expansion of settlements has steadily broken up contiguous Palestinian territory.

Amid these failed negotiations, Gaza suffered a particularly harsh fate. In 2005, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza, ending Israel’s direct military presence. But the Israeli government built a security barrier around the territory to isolate it, and Israel continued to control who went in and out of the strip. Israel also prevented its Palestinian inhabitants from having an airport or a seaport, effectively cutting off Gaza from the world. As a result, Israel’s occupation effectively continued, with brutal consequences. After Hamas gained full control of the strip following a split with the Palestinian Authority in 2007, living conditions further deteriorated to the point where the per capita income of Gazans has been reduced to a fraction of that of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Then, when the Obama administration ended, the United States gave up on negotiations between the two sides entirely. First under U.S. President Donald Trump and then under U.S. President Joe Biden, Washington replaced peacemaking efforts with the Abraham Accords, a series of bilateral treaties among several Arab states and Israel that are not based on the “land for peace” formula derived from Resolution 242. The Palestinians had no involvement at all. The Biden administration, in particular, assumed that if it encouraged regional cooperation, peace between Israelis and Palestinians could wait for better times. In turn, the Israeli government used the accords to argue that it was no longer necessary to reach a settlement with the Palestinians, since they could forge separate agreements with Arab states in the region.

This is the context in which the October 7 attacks took place. Targeting civilians is abhorrent in any scenario, regardless of which side is the perpetrator. But it is impossible to ignore the reality that Gaza had become a giant, walled-off prison over the last ten years, with millions of inmates who no longer had any reason to think that the occupation would end.

PREREQUISITES FOR PEACE

The Biden administration has recognized that there will need to be a political process after the war in Gaza ends. Guided by the October 1973 war, which ultimately led to peace between Egypt and Israel, and the first Gulf War of 1991, which led to the Madrid conference, the Biden administration has started to discuss plans for the day after for Gaza. But if that thinking is limited to who rules Gaza after Hamas, or if Washington commits to an open-ended process that simply repeats the mistakes of earlier ones, the prospects for success are practically nonexistent. Overwhelmingly, Palestinians today feel that they were taken for a ride, engaging in peaceful efforts to end the occupation while Israel was creating facts on the ground that make a two-state solution impossible. Thus, any political process for Gaza has to be credible, time-bound, and with a clearly defined endgame—before any negotiations start. Otherwise, it will simply be a waste of time.

As of now, it is crucial to acknowledge that the elements necessary for a serious U.S.-led process are absent. The United States is entering an election year in which the chances for launching a peace process that requires applying pressure on all sides—particularly Israel—are remote. The current right-wing Israeli government has also repeatedly and publicly declared that it has no intention of ending the occupation or helping establish a Palestinian state. And although it is true that a majority of Israelis hold the current government responsible for the security lapses on October 7—and polls indicate that the opposition would handily win new elections if they were held tomorrow—the public divide in Israel today is no longer between pro-peace and anti-peace camps, as it was decades ago. Instead, it is merely between pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps, with both sides holding a hard-line, almost identical stance against a Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has lost much of its credibility and legitimacy. It has not held elections since 2006, and its approval rating was very low, even before October 7. In a poll conducted during the brief cease-fire in Gaza in late November, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 88 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza want Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to resign. Only seven percent want the PA under Abbas to rule Gaza after the war. No side can claim to represent the Palestinians in any political process without elections, but the PA, Israel, and the United States will almost certainly oppose such elections in the near term, given that Hamas might get a plurality of votes, as the poll suggests. While the same poll indicates that figures like Marwan Barghouti enjoy wide support among both Fatah and Hamas publics, it is doubtful that Israel would agree to his release, precisely because the current government is not interested in a political deal.

But despite these difficulties, it is worth setting down the specific elements that a credible process would require so that Washington can avoid the pitfalls of past negotiations. First, the United States should present a political plan that would lay out a clearly defined objective of ending the occupation within a specified time frame, say three to five years. Precise borders on the basis of the 1967 lines with minor and reciprocal land swaps to accommodate the settlements along the border would be subject to negotiations. The United Nations would issue a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 border, with details to be worked out through negotiations. New settlement construction would be completely frozen.

Then, to carry out this plan, negotiations would be focused on the steps needed to reach the objective rather than on what the endgame looks like. Many of the necessary possible steps are already in view. Referendums on the plan should be held in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza to establish and ensure popular support: voters would go to the polls based on the plan’s clearly defined political horizon, which might break the impression on both sides that a two-state solution is no longer possible. In this framing, the issue of who rules Gaza would become a step on the road to ending the occupation, rather than an endgame in itself: in questions of governance, Gaza and the West should be treated as one.

Once such a process is underway, both sides will have an incentive to reconsider solutions that were rejected in the past because of the absence of an overall political framework or a concrete timeline. For example, the reconstruction of Gaza could become a step along the road to a final settlement, with parties such as Gulf states, the European Union, and the World Bank ready to take part in ways they are not today. (The case of Syria offers a useful lesson here: although the civil war has been effectively over for nearly five years, little reconstruction has taken place in the absence of a comprehensive plan for the future of the country.) An international fund could be set up to help Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank stay on their land to alleviate fears among Palestinians they will be mass transferred outside of their historic territory. The Arab Peace Initiative, which offered collective peace treaties and collective security guarantees for Israel by all Arab states, could be then revived, giving Arab states a political, security, and economic role in the Palestinian territories and a strong incentive for Israelis to embrace the plan.

Although this outline may seem ambitious, it is grounded in realism: its purpose is to show what a serious political process will entail and to make clear that the failed processes of the past cannot simply be resurrected. It is worth noting that this plan leaves aside the still more difficult issue of what to do with the existing settlements. Even if the political will exists on both sides to end the occupation and adopt a two-state solution, coming up with an ingenious solution to the settlement question will still be a daunting task. If the international community decides this overall plan is too unrealistic to achieve, they should weigh the costs of the alternatives.

FROM BAD TO WORSE

If, at the end of the war in Gaza, a serious political process proves impossible to put into play, three alternative scenarios could unfold. First, the parties could revert to waiting for a quieter, better time—much as the United States did for years leading up to the October 7 attacks. This strategy, if returned to now, would certainly fail. It assumes that a two-state solution is ultimately the preferred outcome for all parties and that it is simply a matter of having the right political forces in power to make it happen. But in Israel, support in the Knesset for a peace agreement to share the land has dropped from a majority of members 30 years ago to no more than 15 members today. Moreover, the logic of waiting assumes that there is a static status quo, which is clearly not the case given Israel’s continued expansion of settlements. If the number of settlers today already makes it extremely difficult to separate the two communities into two states, the situation could become irreversibly worse in a few years, once the settler population exceeds one million.

A second alternative, in the absence of a serious political process, could be even worse: a mass transfer of Palestinians out of their historic land either through force or by making Palestinian life in the occupied territories untenable or unbearable. The reason that such a drastic outcome needs to be taken seriously is the demographic reality Israel now faces: the number of Palestinian Arabs in areas under Israel’s control is now 7.4 million—greater than the 7.2 million Israeli Jews inside Israel and the occupied territories. Given that Israel at present does not want to end the occupation and accept a two-state solution, and given that it does not want to become a minority ruling over a majority in what many human rights organizations describe as apartheid, then its preferred option will be to transfer huge numbers of Palestinians out of territories under Israeli control: from Gaza into Egypt and from the West Bank into Jordan.

Already, the Israeli government has made clear that it is thinking along these lines. Large parts of Gaza have been rendered practically uninhabitable, and several Israeli cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, have directly or indirectly promoted the idea of moving Palestinians to other countries. Several Israeli and international commentators have also portrayed the Egyptian and Jordanian decisions to close their borders to Palestinians as an inhumane act, perhaps to pressure both states into letting Palestinians flee. But it is clear that the Israeli government would then bar them from coming back.

But any attempt at mass transfer will not be easy to implement. Jordan and Egypt have already drawn international attention to this scenario, to the point where the United States and other countries have publicly come out in strong opposition. Palestinians themselves also appear uninterested in leaving, having learned from 1948, when 750,000 were forced to leave their land and were never permitted to return.

That leaves a third and most likely alternative: continued Israeli occupation, but now under even more unsustainable conditions. Palestinians have a birth rate higher than that of Jewish Israelis, and as they increasingly lose hope for the prospect of a Palestinian state, their demands for equal rights with Israelis will grow louder and more insistent. The conflict could then become more violent. According to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research poll, 63 percent of Palestinians today say they would support armed resistance to end the occupation. In fact, such resistance had already started in the West Bank in the months before October 7, with young, leaderless youth taking up arms and shooting at Israelis.

Moreover, if it chooses to continue the occupation, Israel’s challenge won’t just be internal. The country is also confronting an emerging younger generation in the United States and many other Western countries that has shown it is far more supportive of Palestinians and the issue of equal rights than its predecessors. As this generation rises to positions of power, the world will become increasingly critical of the Israeli occupation, and the focus will shift from defining an illusory peace settlement to tackling the problem of deep injustice in indefinitely occupied lands. It is also likely to make Israel increasingly isolated on the world stage.

This is where a continuation of the status quo will likely end. The international community is certainly partly to blame for all the violence that is unfolding today. By abandoning any serious attempt to address the underlying causes of conflict in recent years, Western leaders, as well as governments in the region, have helped create the untenable situation that now exists. It is possible that another process will be initiated along the lines of many earlier ones. If that happens, it, too, will fail, and violence will continue to define the world of the Israelis and Palestinians. Either the United States and its international partners must make a historic decision to end the conflict now and move both sides swiftly toward a viable two-state solution, or the world will have to contend with an even darker future. For soon, it will no longer be a question of occupation but the more difficult issue of outright apartheid. The choice cannot be clearer.

Marwan Muasher is Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was Foreign Minister of Jordan from 2002 to 2004 and Deputy Prime Minister from 2004 to 2005.

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