Thu 11 Apr 2024 10:52 am - Jerusalem Time

Israel: Cease-Fire, Get Hostages, Leave Gaza, Rethink Everything

By Thomas L. Friedman

Israel today is at a strategic point in its war in Gaza, and there is every indication that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to choose the wrong path — and take the Biden administration along for a very dangerous and troubling ride. It is so dangerous and troubling that Israel’s best option, when all is said and done, might be to leave a rump Hamas leadership in power in Gaza. Yes, you read that right.

To understand why, let’s look back a bit. I argued in October that Israel was making a terrible mistake by rushing headlong into invading Gaza, the way America did in Afghanistan after 9/11. I thought Israel should have focused first on getting back its hostages, delegitimizing Hamas for its murderous and rapacious Oct. 7 rampage, and going after Hamas’s leadership in a targeted way — more Munich, less Dresden. That is, a military response akin to how Israel tracked down the killers of its athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and not how the U.S. turned 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 remove Hamas “once and for all.” In which case, I argued, Israel would need three things — time, legitimacy, and military and other resources from the U.S. The reason: The ambitious goal of wiping out Hamas could not be completed quickly (if at all); the military operation would end up killing innocent civilians, given how Hamas had tunneled under them; and it would leave a security and government vacuum in Gaza that would have to be filled by the non-Hamas Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which would have to be upgraded and transformed to take on that task.

In short, Israel would need to fight this war with the least collateral damage for Palestinian civilians and accompany it with a political horizon for a new relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, built around two nation-states for two indigenous peoples. Doing so would give Israel a chance to say to the world that this was not a war of vengeance or occupation, but a war to eliminate the Palestinian entity that was out to destroy any two-state solution — Hamas — and create the political space for a deal with the Palestinian Authority, which is still committed to a two-state deal. That approach would have won the support, funding and, I think, even peacekeeping troops of moderate Arab states like the U.A.E.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu and his military did not pursue that course. They opted for the worst strategic combination: Militarily they opted for the Dresden approach, which, though it may have ended up killing some 13,000 Hamas fighters, also killed thousands of Palestinian civilians, leaving hundreds of thousands of others injured, displaced or homeless — and delegitimizing, for many around the world, what Israel thought was a just war.

And diplomatically, instead of accompanying this war strategy with 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 expressly ruled out any collaboration with the Palestinian Authority under orders from the Jewish supremacists in his governing coalition.

That is an utterly insane strategy.

It has locked Israel into a politically unwinnable war, and it has ended up isolating America, imperiling our regional and global interests, compromising Israel’s support in the U.S. and fracturing the base of President Biden’s Democratic Party.

And the timing is truly awful. The Biden foreign policy team, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, have just finished working out the draft of a new strategic deal with Saudi Arabia — including a civil nuclear program, advanced arms and much deeper security ties. The deal, a senior Biden administration official told me, could be wrapped up in a matter of weeks — but for one element. It hinges on Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel in return for Israel ending the war in Gaza, getting out of the Strip and agreeing to a defined “pathway” for a two-state outcome — with clear metrics in terms of what both Israel and the Palestinian Authority would have to do and in what time frames.

We are talking about a game-changing deal — precisely the deal that an Iran-backed Hamas launched this war on Oct. 7 to undermine, because it would have isolated Iran and Hamas. But the war in Gaza has to end first and Israel needs a government ready to embark on a two-state pathway.

Which takes us to this fork in the road. My preference is that Israel immediately change course. That is, join with the Biden administration in embracing that pathway to a two-state deal that would open the way for Saudi normalization and also give cover for the Palestinian Authority and moderate Arab states to try to establish non-Hamas governance in Gaza in Israel’s place. And — as the Biden team urged Netanyahu privately — forget entirely about invading Rafah and instead use a targeted approach to take out the rest of the Hamas leadership.

Even if Israel is intent on ignoring the U.S. advice, I pray it doesn’t try to invade Rafah and reject Palestinian Authority involvement in Gaza’s future. Because that would be an invitation for a permanent Israeli occupation of Gaza and a permanent Hamas insurgency. It would bleed Israel economically, militarily and diplomatically in very dangerous ways.

So dangerous that I believe Israel would actually be better off agreeing to Hamas’s demand for a total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and a cease-fire and an all-for-all deal — all Israeli hostages in return for all Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. In other words, if Israel is not going to partner with the Palestinian Authority and moderate Arab states to create different governance in Gaza, and create conditions for normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia, Israel needs to get its hostages back, end the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, get out of Gaza, have a new election and do a deep rethink.

Please, Israel, do not get sucked into Rafah and permanently occupy Gaza. It will be a disaster.

“Friedman, you mean you would let a militarily decimated Hamas and its murderous leader Yahya Sinwar govern Gaza again?”

Yes, for the near term. As I said, this is not my preferred choice. It’s because Netanyahu has left Israel WITH NO OTHER CHOICE. He refuses to have Israeli troops govern Gaza and won’t bring in the Palestinian Authority. That leaves only two options: Gaza becoming a Somali-like gangland on the Mediterranean; or Gaza being held together with some flimsy Hamas governance.

If I were Israel, I’d take a weakened Hamas over Somalia, for two reasons.

I have no illusions that the morning after a cease-fire commences and Sinwar comes out, some will wildly cheer him for the hurt he inflicted on Israel. But the morning after the morning after, Sinwar will face brutal questioning from Gazans: Where’s my house, where’s my job, who gave you the right to expose my children to death and devastation?

It is the best punishment I can imagine for Sinwar. Let him own all of Gaza’s travails that he so recklessly exacerbated — not Israel. Only Palestinians can delegitimize Hamas, and though it won’t be easy, and Hamas will kill anyone to hold power, this time we won’t be talking about just a handful of dissidents.

Amira Hass, Haaretz’s well-informed reporter on Palestinian affairs, recently wrote a story based on phone interviews with Gazans, with this headline: “‘People Are Constantly Cursing Sinwar’: Gazans Opposing Hamas Are Sure They’re the Majority.”

It read: “The donkey cart full of people and mattresses is one of the sights of the war on Gaza and the current siege. ‘More than once, I’ve heard a cart owner urging his donkey on and saying something like, ‘Move it, Yahya Sinwar, move it,’ says Basel (a pseudonym, as I’ve used for everyone in this article). … Yes, Israel bombs and kills, Basel says, but he refuses to absolve Hamas from responsibility for the catastrophe that has befallen the Gazans. ‘People are constantly cursing Sinwar, but this isn’t reflected in the journalists’ reports,’ he says. ‘I know that I speak for a lot of people,’ Basel says. ‘I have the right to speak, if only because I’m one of the millions whose lives Hamas is gambling with for crazy slogans with no basis in reality.’”

For the time, if it happens, when Israel gets out of Gaza and has its hostages back, the Biden team is already talking to Egypt about working closely with the U.S. and Israel to ensure Hamas can never again smuggle in the sorts of arms it did in the past under the Egypt-Gaza border. Israel could say that every ounce of food and medicine that Gazans need will be delivered, as well as the bags of cement for rebuilding from countries that might want to help. But if one ounce is found going to dig new attack tunnels, rebuild rocket factories or restart rocket attacks on Israel, the borders will close. Again, let Sinwar deal with that dilemma: Go back to Hamas’s old ways and starve his people — or keep the cease-fire.

The second reason is that it won’t be just Gazans going after Sinwar and Hamas. Plenty of Palestinians understand that Sinwar cynically launched this war because he was losing influence to both more moderate factions in Hamas and to his archrival, the Fatah political movement, which runs the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. He also feared this possible 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 clearsighted analyses of this war from the start, argued in a recent essay in The Daily Beast, Hamas wanted to provoke a massive Israeli response to Oct. 7 in part to corner Fatah. “A surge of nationalist sentiment and shared outrage at the mass killing and suffering of the 2.2 million Palestinian civilians in Gaza muffled nationalist leaders like President Mahmoud Abbas (also the chairman of the P.L.O.) in publicly acknowledging Hamas’ breathtaking cynicism,” he wrote.

But now, Ibish notes, the gloves are coming off: When Hamas complained about the Palestinian Authority’s decision to appoint a new prime minister, without Hamas’s input, Fatah shot back with a statement noting that Hamas consulted no one before launching “an adventure on Oct. 7 that has led to a nakba that is more severe than the 1948 Nakba.” “Nakba” means catastrophe.

Ibish concluded, “If these accusations are repeated — as they certainly should be on a daily, if not hourly, basis — they could create the permission structure for ordinary Palestinians everywhere, and especially in Gaza, to begin honestly asking themselves why Hamas acted on Oct. 7 without regard to 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 Palestinians themselves discrediting these groups for what they are: mad and murderous proxies of Iran, whose leadership is ready to sacrifice endless Palestinian lives to pursue its aspiration for regional hegemony. If Palestinians cannot or will not do that, they will never get a state.

Just a brief word about Iran. As I feared, Israel has played into its hands beautifully from Tehran’s point of view. By invading Gaza with no morning-after plan, while also occupying the West Bank, Israel is now overstretched militarily, economically and morally — while deflecting attention from the fact that Iran is accelerating its nuclear program and expanding its influence as the biggest occupying power in the Middle East today.

Iran indirectly controls large swaths of five Arab states or territory (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and part of Gaza) using local proxies ready to sell out their own people for Iran’s benefit. Iran has helped to keep each Arab entity war torn or failing. Put me down as opposed to both the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Iranian occupations of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. To decry Israeli settler “colonialism” in the West Bank and ignore Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps “colonialism” in five Arab power centers is utterly dishonest. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards leader who Israel killed in Syria last week was not there on a tourist visa.

President Biden has a plan: Get to a six-week cease-fire and hostage release. After which, as part of the Saudi-normalization package, the president will come out with a bold peace initiative, what Israeli peace process expert Gidi Grinstein has called “more for more” — more security and normalization with Arab states than Israel was ever offered and more Arab and U.S. help for Palestinians to achieve statehood than they’ve ever experienced. Hopefully, such an initiative can induce everyone to make the cease-fire permanent, and further marginalize Hamas and Iran.

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


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