By Robert O. Freedman, Johns Hopkins University
As the war between Israel and Hamas enters its third month, with heavy fighting underway in Gaza, many have given up hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Yet, if two conditions are met, such a peace agreement might well be possible. The first condition is that Hamas must be deprived not only of its ability to attack Israel, but also of its ability to politically control Gaza. The second condition is that the Government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must fall, to be replaced by one that will seriously consider a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hamas by its charter and by its actions is committed to the destruction of Israel, and its credo “From the River to the Sea” means replacing Israel with an Islamic State. It sabotaged the OSLO peace talks in 1996 with a series of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, leading to the defeat of then Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres who had endorsed a two-state solution, and his replacement by Benjamin Netanyahu who had opposed it. In addition, when Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was presented with two reasonable peace plans – one by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 and one by then US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014 – he was afraid to accept them, lest Hamas undermine them. For this reason, Hamas must be removed from the Palestinian political equation.
Similarly, Benjamin Netanyahu must be replaced as Israel’s Prime Minister. He has steadfastly opposed a two-state solution and, prior to the October 7th Hamas terror attack on Israel, had been trying to play off Hamas against Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. Thus, he allowed Qatari funding into Gaza to help Hamas stay afloat financially, while he was undermining the credibility of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. This enabled Netanyahu to claim that “There is no Palestinian partner for peace”.
While removing Hamas from its military and political control of Gaza is the task of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and is likely to happen only after further intense military action to force the surrender of the Hamas leadership, Netanyahu’s political demise is likely to come as a result of his errors before the start of the current war. Israel was woefully unprepared for the Hamas attack, and the responsibility for this lies with Netanyahu, who was preoccupied with his trial on multiple corruption charges and with pushing through exceedingly unpopular so-called judicial reforms. These led to mass demonstrations every Saturday night before the war and to threats by IDF reservists not to serve—all of which may have convinced the Hamas leadership that Israel was a vulnerable target.
Netanyahu’s political demise may come about in several ways. First, members of his Likud party, witnessing the precipitous drop of the party in Israeli polls, might defect and join the opposition to call for new elections. Second, Netanyahu may be forced by the exigencies of the war to rescind his promises of extra payments to the ultra-Orthodox and to West Bank settlers. This, in turn, may cause their parties – Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Religious Zionism – to leave the government, thus precipitating new elections. In any case, the political future of Netanyahu is likely to be a limited one, and this bodes well for the possibility of beginning negotiations on a two-state solution, under more moderate Israeli leaders.
The challenge, of course, will be how to get from the conclusion of the war, with the IDF still in control of Gaza, to a genuine two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority in control of both Gaza (from which they were ousted by Hamas in 2007) and the West Bank. Obviously, a transition period will be needed, with a major reconstruction effort undertaken by both the Arab Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the US and its NATO allies. Nonetheless, the opportunity is there to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all, and it is hoped that there will be wise Israeli and Palestinian leaders who will seize the opportunity.
Dr. Robert O. Freedman is Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University where he teaches courses on the Arab-Israeli Conflict and on Russian Foreign Policy. His most recent book is ISRAEL UNDER NETANYAHU (Routledge, 2020)