Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ending the war in Palestine

It will take imagination and cooperation to secure a lasting peace

Artillery Row

The cascade of horrifying news from Gaza over this Christmas should not bury the search for a way forward, once the present government of Israel and the leadership of Hamas realise that neither side can win. Their blood-soaked conflict has created a landscape which means both must go.

Despite the relentless propaganda from both sides, and the promise of war to the bitter end, the state of Israel faces an unparalleled alliance of opposition to this campaign against Hamas — an onslaught which has brought the death of so many Palestinians. The willingness of the Israeli public, or unwillingness, torn asunder by the plight of Israeli hostages now entering their third month of captivity, is one factor. The unpopularity of Bibi Netanyahu’s leadership, with a clear majority of Israelis blaming the government for the start of this nightmare, is another powerful dynamic.

Crucially, now comes the patent disaffection of Israel’s number one ally, the United States, with the human carnage of this war. Over the holiday, the Biden administration stopped talking in code and started making demands of the Israeli Defence Force: “targeted operations … lower-intensity objectives … avoiding civilian casualties at all costs.” In short, time is running out for either side to claim a victory worthy of the name, and the pieces are falling into place for an endgame in Gaza.

Only the brave, or the foolhardy, attempt to diagnose a way forward. Nonetheless, senior figures in the Biden administration, together with lead players in Europe and the Arab world, have used the holiday period to search for common ground. What’s needed is an agenda that confronts the dire shape of leadership, on both the Israeli side and that of a Palestinian people torn apart not just by war but by deep divides of their own.

I warned well before the Hamas invasion, in these pages, of the conflict coming. Since Israel’s invasion of Gaza, I have tried to urge diplomacy, not more deadly conflict. With humility, it’s time to put ideas on the table for that “Day After” in Gaza, recognising that the wider world boasts undoubted influence on all sides. Just consider what influence the United States has on Israel, the number one recipient of US aid. Think of Gaza and Hamas, dependent on Qatari funding. Then there’s the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, in desperate straits economically — currently being bailed out financially by the European Union. The crisis leaves these players, the United States, the Arab world and the European Union, with serious clout to exercise and opportunity accordingly.

First on any agenda has to be the end of Hamas in Gaza, and the Netanyahu government in Israel. Sometimes reality stares us in the face. There is no way those two will ever make peace.

The polls should include the West Bank, alongside Gaza, to produce fresh thinking

The call, therefore, should be for new leadership on both sides, heralded by elections on both sides. The polls should include the West Bank, alongside Gaza, to produce fresh thinking on the Palestinian front. With almost 90 per cent of Palestinians on the West Bank saying they want their ageing, and deeply corrupt leaders, to resign, the door is open to change. Likewise in Israel, where polls suggest 80 per cent believe Netanyahu must take responsibility for the Hamas invasion. The ongoing hostage crisis has created an opposition that brings tens of thousands on to the streets.

Secondly, any process must have the United States recognising a Palestinian state as an absolute prerequisite to the way forward. Some 30 years separate us from the Oslo accords, which enshrined such a two-state solution and was so blessed by Washington, D.C. under the Clinton administration. Formal recognition of Palestinian statehood by the United States never followed. It is time for the superpowers to commit unreservedly to a Palestinian state.

What’s needed is a new alliance of the United States, the European Union and Arab leaders to oversee, and finance, that Day After. Frontline states such as Jordan and Egypt will be essential, but also Saudi Arabia, with its deep pockets, and Qatar, which has been such a valuable intermediary during this conflict.

A peacekeeping operation is an imperative, and it should be led by the Europeans, politically and NATO militarily. The world should be looking at those who have experience of Middle East peace operations, specifically at those who have worked in Lebanon over the years — the Irish, the French, the Spanish, the Italians. The United Nations should not be leading this peacekeeping mission, given Israel’s animosity towards the UN.

On a wider, geopolitical front, China should be invited to send soldiers to the peacekeeping force, given its present role with UN peacekeeping in Southern Lebanon. China’s leadership must be asked, perhaps cajoled, to use its influence with Iran and Iran’s surrogates (Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon) to pre-empt regional conflict. China’s presence at this peace table, in one way or another, is essential.

Finally, the UN should lead the massive humanitarian response. Only the UN has the experience, the local know-how and the staff to oversee recovery in Gaza, where its work has been heroic for decades, encompassing everything from feeding, to housing, to education and health.

In the three months that separate us from the appalling atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7, the wider world has woken up to the tragedy that some of us have watched for decades — in my case since Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the war to drive the Palestinians out of Beirut. Many, especially in the younger generation, have come to understand the situation as two peoples living side by side yet so far apart, both peoples insisting they are right, whilst never accepting that both of them can be wrong, too.

The temptation is to conclude that there can never be an end to this conflict. Yet time and again we have had both parties close to making peace, only for the extremists on either side to seize the cup and fill it with blood. The opportunity is now, as never before in my experience, to insist on peace and to shout out loud: “enough”. Enough, as the greatest Israeli warrior turned peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin once declared, “enough of blood and tears”.

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