Wed 10 Apr 2024 1:36 pm - Jerusalem Time

Israel: Cease fire, return the hostages, leave Gaza, and rethink everything

Israel today stands at a strategic point in its war on Gaza, and there is every indication that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will choose the wrong path and take the Biden administration on a very dangerous and disturbing journey. It is so dangerous and troubling that, after all is said and done, Israel's best option may be to leave a remnant of Hamas's leadership in power in Gaza. Yes, you read that correctly.

To understand why, let's look back a little. I claimed last October that Israel was making a grave mistake by recklessly rushing into Gaza, as America did in Afghanistan after 9/11. I thought Israel should have focused first on recovering its hostages, delegitimizing Hamas for its murderous and greedy rampage on October 7, and going after the Hamas leadership in a targeted way — more Munich, less Dresden. That is, a military response is similar to the way Israel tracked down the killers of its athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics, and not the way the United States turned the city of Dresden into a pile of rubble in World War II.

But I understood that many Israelis felt they had a moral and strategic right and necessity to go into Gaza and eliminate Hamas “once and for all.” In this case, as I said, Israel will need three things: time, legitimacy, and military and other resources from the United States. The reason: the ambitious goal of eliminating Hamas cannot be completed quickly (if at all); The military operation will end with the killing of innocent civilians, given how Hamas dug tunnels under them; It will leave a security and governmental vacuum in Gaza that must be filled by the non-Hamas Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which must be developed and transformed to undertake this task.

In short, Israel will need to fight this war with minimal collateral damage to Palestinian civilians, and be accompanied by a political horizon for a new relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, built on two nation-states for two indigenous peoples. Doing so would give Israel an opportunity to tell the world that this was not a war of revenge or occupation, but rather a war to eliminate the Palestinian entity that was seeking to destroy any two-state solution – Hamas – and create political space for Israel. A deal with the Palestinian Authority, which remains committed to the two-state agreement. This approach would have been supported and funded, I believe, even by the peacekeeping forces of moderate Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates.

It is unfortunate that Netanyahu and his army did not follow this path. They chose the worst strategic combination: militarily, they chose the Dresden approach, which, although it may have ended up killing some 13,000 Hamas fighters, also killed thousands of Palestinian civilians, leaving hundreds of thousands wounded, displaced and homeless - and, as a result, For many around the world, it delegitimized what Israel thought was a just war. On the diplomatic front, instead of linking this war strategy to an initiative that would buy Israel at least some time, legitimacy and resources to dismantle Hamas, Netanyahu refused to offer any political horizon or exit strategy and explicitly ruled out any cooperation with the Palestinian Authority on the orders of Jewish fanatics in his ruling coalition.

This is an absolutely crazy strategy.

Israel entered into a politically unwinnable war that ended up isolating America, endangering our regional and global interests, undermining support for Israel in the United States, and breaking President Biden's Democratic Party base.

And the timing is really terrible. Biden's foreign policy team, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, has just finished drafting a new strategic agreement with Saudi Arabia — including a civilian nuclear program, advanced weapons, and much deeper security ties. A senior Biden administration official told me that the deal could be completed within weeks — but it stops at one element. It depends on Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel in exchange for Israel ending the war in Gaza, exiting the Strip and agreeing to a specific “path” to achieve a two-state solution – with clear metrics regarding what both Israel and the West Bank do. It will depend on what Israel and the Palestinian Authority will do and within what time frames.

We are talking about a game-changing deal here – precisely the deal that Iran-backed Hamas launched this war on October 7 to undermine, because it would have isolated Iran and Hamas. But the war in Gaza must end first, and Israel needs a government ready to embark on the path to a two-state solution.

Which takes us to this crossroads. I would prefer that Israel change course immediately. That is, join the Biden administration in adopting this path toward a two-state agreement that would open the way to Saudi normalization and also give cover for the Palestinian Authority and moderate Arab states to try to establish non-Hamas rule in Gaza in Israel. place. And — as the Biden team has privately urged Netanyahu — to completely forget about the Rafah invasion and instead use a targeted approach to eliminate the rest of Hamas’ leadership.

Even if Israel is determined to ignore American advice, I pray that it will not attempt to invade Rafah and reject the Palestinian Authority's interference in Gaza's future. Because that would be a call for a permanent Israeli occupation of Gaza and a permanent Hamas rebellion. It would bleed Israel economically, militarily, and diplomatically in very dangerous ways. So dangerous that I think Israel would actually be better off agreeing to Hamas's demand for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, a ceasefire, and a comprehensive deal - all Israeli hostages in exchange for all Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. In other words, if Israel is not willing to partner with the Palestinian Authority and moderate Arab states to create a different governance in Gaza, and create conditions for the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia, then Israel needs to get its hostages back, and end the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Get out of Gaza, hold new elections and rethink deeply.

Please, Israelis, do not be drawn into Rafah and occupy Gaza permanently. It will be a disaster.

“Friedman, do you mean that you will allow the militarily defeated Hamas and its murderous leader, Yahya Sinwar, to rule Gaza again?”

Yes, in the near term. As I said, this is not my preferred option. This is because Netanyahu did not leave Israel any other choice. He refuses to let Israeli forces rule Gaza, and will not bring in the Palestinian Authority. This leaves only two options: for Gaza to turn into a gangland similar to Somalia on the Mediterranean; Or Gaza held together under the weak Hamas government.

If I were Israel, I would prefer weak Hamas over Somalia, for two reasons.

I have no illusions that the morning after the ceasefire begins and Sinwar leaves, some will cheer him vociferously for the harm he has done to Israel. But the next morning, Sinwar would face brutal interrogation from Gazans: Where is my home, where is my job, who gave you the right to expose my children to death and destruction?

It is the best punishment I can imagine for Sinwar. Let him bear all of Gaza's troubles that he recklessly exacerbated - not Israel. Only the Palestinians can delegitimize Hamas, and although it will not be easy, and Hamas will kill anyone who tries to gain power, this time we are not talking about just a handful of dissidents.

Amira Hass, a Haaretz reporter familiar with Palestinian affairs, recently wrote a story based on phone interviews with Gazans, titled: “‘People constantly curse Sinwar’: Gazans who oppose Hamas are certain they are the majority.”

It read: “The donkey-drawn cart full of people and mattresses is one of the scenes of the war on Gaza and the current siege. “More than once, I heard a cart owner urging his donkey and saying something like: Move, Yahya Al-Sinwar, move,” says Basil (a pseudonym, as I used it for everyone in this article). ... Yes, Israel bombs and kills, Basil says, but he refuses to absolve Hamas of responsibility for the disaster that befell the residents of Gaza. “People constantly curse Sinwar, but this is not reflected in journalists’ reports,” Basil says. “I know I speak on behalf of a lot of people.” “I have the right to speak, even because I am one of the millions whose lives Hamas is gambling with for crazy slogans that have no basis in reality.”

Right now, if that happens, when Israel exits Gaza and gets its hostages back, the Biden team is already talking with Egypt about working closely with the United States and Israel to ensure that Hamas cannot smuggle the types of weapons it has previously smuggled on the Egypt-Gaza border. Israel can say that every ounce of food and medicine needed by Gazans, as well as bags of cement for rebuilding, will be delivered from countries that might want to help. But if a single ounce is found earmarked for digging new attack tunnels, rebuilding missile factories, or resuming missile attacks on Israel, the border will be closed. Once again, let Sinwar deal with this dilemma: either he will return to the old Hamas ways and starve his people — or maintain the ceasefire.

The second reason is that the residents of Gaza will not limit themselves to pursuing Sinwar and Hamas. Many Palestinians realize that Sinwar launched this war cynically because he was losing influence with the more moderate factions of Hamas and with his arch-rival, the Fatah political movement, which runs the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. He was also afraid of this potential deal between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinians.

As Hussein Ibish, an expert at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, who has provided some of the most articulate analyzes of this war from the beginning, said in a recent article in the Daily Beast, Hamas wanted to provoke a broad Israeli response to this war. October 7 partly to besiege Fatah. “The wave of nationalist sentiment and shared outrage over the mass killing and suffering of 2.2 million Palestinian civilians in Gaza has silenced national leaders such as President Mahmoud Abbas (who is also head of the Palestine Liberation Organization) in publicly acknowledging Hamas’s astonishing cynicism,” he wrote.

But now, as Ibish points out, the gloves have been off: when Hamas complained about the Palestinian Authority's decision to appoint a new prime minister, without Hamas' input, Fatah responded with a statement noting that Hamas had not consulted anyone before launching an "adventure in October." 7. This led to a catastrophe more severe than the 1948 catastrophe. “Nakba” means disaster.

Ibish concluded by saying: “If these accusations are repeated – as they certainly should be on a daily, if not hourly basis – they could create a structure of permission for ordinary Palestinians everywhere, especially in Gaza, to start asking themselves honestly why Hamas is behaving the way it is.” On October 7, without considering the impact on the people of Gaza or making any preparations whatsoever for them.” This dynamic is the only way to marginalize Hamas and Islamic Jihad - by the Palestinians themselves discrediting these groups for what they are: crazy and murderous agents of Iran, whose leadership stops sacrificing lives. The Palestinians have an endless desire to achieve their ambition of achieving regional hegemony, and if the Palestinians cannot or do not want to do this, they will never achieve a state.

Just a brief word about Iran. As I feared, Israel played its hand beautifully from Tehran's perspective. By invading Gaza without a plan for the next day, while also occupying the West Bank, Israel is now militarily, economically and morally exhausted - while distracting from the fact that Iran is accelerating its nuclear program and expanding its influence as the world's largest occupying power. In the Middle East today, Iran indirectly controls large swaths of five Arab countries or territories (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and part of Gaza) using local proxies willing to sell their people to Iran. Iran has helped keep every Arab entity in torn or failed wars. By positioning myself as opposed to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Iranian occupation of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Denouncing Israeli settler “colonialism” in the West Bank and ignoring the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ “colonization” in five Arab power centers is completely dishonest. The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who was killed by Israel in Syria last week was not there on a tourist visa.

President Biden has a plan: reach a six-week ceasefire and release the hostages. And then, as part of the Saudi normalization package, the president will come up with a bold peace initiative, what Israeli peace process expert Gidi Greenstein described as “more for more” - More Security And normalization with Arab countries is more than what was ever offered to Israel. And more Arab and American aid to the Palestinians to achieve a state they have never experienced before. We hope that such an initiative can urge everyone to make the ceasefire permanent, and further marginalize Hamas and Iran.

I have read all the articles about how the two-state solution is now impossible. I think they are 95 percent right. But I will focus on the 5% chance that they are wrong, and the possibility that courageous leadership can make them wrong. Because the alternative is a 100% certain war forever, with bigger and more accurate weapons that will destroy both societies


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