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Foreign Policy
Foreign Policy
Steven A. Cook

This War Won’t Solve the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Last weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel, Jordan (to meet with Arab foreign ministers), Ramallah (located in the West Bank), Iraq, and Turkey. With the war between Israel and Hamas now entering its sixth week, U.S. diplomacy has kicked into high gear. As Blinken works to secure humanitarian relief for Gazans caught in the crossfire, he has been signaling where he and the White House would like things to go once the fighting stops: a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority (PA) that would administer the West Bank and Gaza and a temporary international force to help provide security in the latter.

These ideas are probably the only ones that satisfy U.S. political, diplomatic, and geo-strategic concerns as well as those of some Arab governments. Yet they are likely to fail.

The Biden administration is embarking on a path that it studiously avoided during its first three years—and for good reason. It is now going to discover that, despite its efforts, when the war between Israel and Hamas ends, the region will look more like a version of the status quo that existed on Oct. 6 than a new Middle East.

As Blinken crisscrossed the Middle East, he seemed of the mind that this war is a paradigm-shifting event. This is a misplaced hope, however. No doubt there is a place for U.S. diplomacy in the conflict, but the secretary of state is approaching it with a set of assumptions—about the likely effects of the war on Israeli and Palestinian politics, the interests of regional actors, and Washington’s influence—that are defective.

It is not a bad assumption that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s days are numbered. He presided over the single greatest security failure in Israel’s history, which undermined the entire logic of his long tenure as the country’s leader. Netanyahu told Israelis that he was uniquely capable of providing them with the security and normalcy that they so desperately craved. It would be an extraordinary demonstration of political skills for him to survive this crisis.

But his likely political demise does not portend the resurrection of the Israeli peace camp. Even before Hamas murdered around 1,400 Israelis on Oct. 7, the standard-bearers of the two-state solution had become marginal political actors. Israel’s left-wing Meretz party, which commanded as many as 12 (out of 120) seats in the Knesset in the mid-1990s and most recently was a member of Naftali Bennett’s anti-Netanyahu government coalition in 2021, failed to win a single mandate in the Israeli parliament in the November 2022 elections—a loss of six seats. The Labor Party—the party of Israel’s founders and builders—sits in the Knesset with a mere four seats.

Elections will not happen until after hostilities in Gaza come to an end. But it seems likely that after Hamas wrought so much death and destruction on Israel, Israelis will again rebuff those peddling a peaceful coexistence with Palestinians. A postwar government could very well end up being a Netanyahu-less center-right-right coalition.

During the second week of the war, polls showed that Benny Gantz—the former defense minister and leader of National Unity alliance—enjoyed broad political support. He is a centrist only by Israeli standards, however; he ran to Netanyahu’s right on Gaza in previous election cycles and remains coy about Palestinian statehood. All of this suggests that if Blinken and his advisors believe they can resurrect the two-state solution, then they misapprehend Israeli politics.

Central to the U.S. day-after approach is the rehabilitation of the Palestinian Authority for it to take responsibility for the Gaza Strip once again. It is not at all clear what the goal of revitalizing the PA means in practice, though. Pouring money and guns into PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s coffers has helped him build a corrupt national security state.

Perhaps Blinken intends for there to be new elections in the Palestinian territories. Yet Abbas could lose, which is why the PA has not held parliamentary elections since 2006, when his faction—Fatah—lost to Hamas.

Even if Abbas could overcome the PA’s corruption, dysfunction, and lack of legitimacy with U.S. help, it is unlikely that he would want to be the U.S.-Israeli proconsul in Gaza. After all, that is at the heart of Hamas’s critique of the Palestinian Authority: that it advances Israeli—and by extension U.S.—interests at the expense of Palestinian rights. On this, the Hamas leadership is not wrong.

Presumably, the United States will enlist the so-called international community to help the Palestinian Authority get on its feet. This is not a bad thought, but Washington needs willing partners—and no leader in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, or Africa has raised their hand to help with either providing security in Gaza after the war or helping to reenergize the PA. It is almost certain that there will be a conference in Geneva or Istanbul, where countries will pledge billions of dollars for the reconstruction of Gaza—most of which will never arrive.

But don’t expect foreign troops to materialize to keep peace. The Europeans will resist out of fear, the Egyptians will balk because they do not want to be responsible for Gaza, and the rest of the Arab world lacks the capacity for such an important mission. One can imagine that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might dramatically offer Turkish troops, claiming historic responsibility and Muslim solidarity, but the Israelis will never agree to Erdogan’s aggrandizement at their expense.

Let’s play a thought experiment: Suspend reality and suppose that the United States can renovate the PA, European and Arab countries step up with peacekeeping forces for Gaza, and the Israelis produce a moderate centrist coalition. This would be good news, but the bases of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians would remain. Israelis will still not want to share Jerusalem, they won’t accept Palestinian refugees in their midst, and they will not agree to live within the boundaries set on June 4, 1967, at the end of that year’s Arab-Israeli War. For their part, the Palestinians will not give up a capital in Jerusalem, cannot forsake the refugee issue, and must have a territorially contiguous and fully sovereign state.

There is nothing about the war in Gaza that will encourage Israelis and Palestinians to alter these positions. The world always expects the two parties to walk right up to the abyss and pull back, but instead they always join hands and jump.

The appetite for destruction that has played out in Israel and Gaza over the past month reflects the fact that the underlying conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is not yet ripe for resolution. And there is little reason to believe that when the current round of fighting is over, the situation will be any more propitious for diplomacy. Hamas needs to not lose, and even if it does, it will have burnished its resistance credentials to the extent that the cost of the conflict will be worth it for the group’s leaders.

The Israelis are bloodied, but not enough for them to seek a different path. This is especially true as long as the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah sits on the sidelines and takes shots at Israel without triggering a full-scale war.

In addition, Israel’s relations with Arab states remain mostly intact. The Jordanians have recalled their ambassador and told the Israelis not to send one back to Amman until after the fighting has stopped, but King Abdallah has not severed relations. The lower house of the Bahraini parliament issued a statement suspending relations that did not actually suspend relations. The head of the foreign affairs and defense committee of the United Arab Emirates’ Federal National Council said: “From the United Arab Emirates perspective, the Abraham Accords are there to stay.” Saudi Arabian Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman, who also happens to be the crown prince’s brother, reportedly indicated in Washington last week that the kingdom remains interested in normalization with Israel.

Breaking ties or putting potential ties on ice might get Israel’s attention, but Arab leaders don’t seem willing to take that step.

Taken together, all of this suggests that after all the death and destruction, and all of Blinken’s shuttling, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end up no closer—or, more likely, even farther away—from a settlement than before Oct. 7. The only difference will be whatever security regime Israel devises for the Gaza Strip—a territory that Hamas cannot be allowed to continue governing, but which no international power is willing to take responsibility of.

It is true that the Israel-Hamas war seems cataclysmic, but it is not a paradigm-shifting event like Egyptian-Israeli peace, the end of the Cold War, or the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It is a local conflict—the stakes of which have been magnified many times because of passionate partisans on both sides, far away from the bloodshed.

It will remain as it was before: unresolvable, no matter how much mileage Blinken clocks between Washington and Middle Eastern capitals.

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