Facing hard truths for both Israel and the Palestinians

Facing hard truths for both Israel and the Palestinians

As Israel’s operation in Gaza continues, some inconvenient truths are emerging. They are hard to talk about now, because our minds keep returning to the horror of Oct. 7, the inhumanity of Hamas, and the growing number of civilian casualties in Gaza. But the sooner Israel and the United States confront these issues, the better the chance that the post-war situation will not simply be a repeat of the past.

However long and hard Israel tries, and however much we want Israel to succeed, it will not be able to “destroy” Hamas. It simply is impossible to destroy a religious/political movement, for most of its adherents do not wear uniforms and do not carry weapons, but are attracted to Hamas’ ideology of religion and resistance. The best Israel can do — and even this is a longshot — is to degrade Hamas’ capabilities, destroy many of its tunnels and weapons depots, and set back their military strategy for a period of time.

According to most estimates — and these are only estimates, as accurate measurement of Palestinian public opinion in Gaza is almost impossible to attain — Hamas enjoys about 30% support among Palestinians, and would thus win about that percentage of the vote were elections held today. Hamas political leaders have recognized this, and thus have called for elections in order to cement their place in Palestinian political life. Since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also likely knows this, it is one of the reasons he is not willing to conduct elections.

Of Hamas supporters, many, but not all, agree with the movement’s Charter that calls for the destruction of the state of Israel. The rest of Hamas’ supporters, as well as all other Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, want Israel’s 56-year occupation to end. And this is where a significant divide exists among Palestinians, namely, what to do to get Israel to end the occupation.

Hamas has proven to be the only effective resistance organization. While its tactics are barbaric, it has found a way to get Israel’s attention. Witness its successes in freeing Palestinian prisoners by trading for Israelis held hostage and putting pressure on Israeli families. Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have asked Israel repeatedly to free prisoners — reflecting an issue that resonates significantly in Palestinian society — but Israel has refused. The lesson that the Palestinian population learns is clear: Hamas kills Israelis, takes them hostage, and brings home Palestinians prisoners. The PA does not.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

The context of this reality only reinforces the underlying dilemma. There is no such thing as a benign occupation, and Israel has proven this since 1967. Israeli actions taken for security reasons have imposed serious burdens on the population, such as fixed checkpoints that leave Palestinian travelers waiting for hours, “flying checkpoints” that appear at random and impede travel, and, more significantly, Israel’s almost daily raids into Area A, that part of the West Bank designated under the Oslo Accords for Palestinian self-governance.

One can assume there is a security reason for the raids, but their constancy challenges Palestinian civilian life. And they undermine the credibility of the U.S.-trained Palestinian Security Force that has been created to try to ensure security in Area A.

These realities on the ground account for why all Palestinians are fed up with the occupation. And they are fed up with a peace process that has provided Israel with time to impose its political will on the territory — more settlements, more radical settlers, and since 2022 an extremist Israeli coalition government under Bibi Netanyahu intent upon creating conditions for annexation, if not for the expulsion of the Palestinian population.

Amazingly and alarmingly, this settler-led Israeli policy has manifested itself even in the midst of the war. Extremist Israeli ministers are withholding funds from the Palestinian Authority. Settlement plans in East Jerusalem — a flashpoint even when there is no active conflict — are accelerating, for example in Kidmat Tzion and Ramot. To make matters worse, last month, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israeli television’s Channel 13 that there are ministers in the current government who want to stimulate a wider war in the West Bank so as to create conditions for the expulsion of Palestinians from the territory.

On top of this are the constant mini-crises on Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in the Old City. After the over-the-top Israeli police interventions in this holy place in 2021 that contributed to the last Israel-Hamas war, there have been fewer confrontations and less violence. But the tinder is there, as evidenced when Israel imposed limits on the number of Palestinian worshippers permitted to enter the area. All of these problems hold a significant risk of escalation into full-scale violence, a Palestinian uprising that will further inflame tensions everywhere.

The meaning of all this is that Israeli credibility in the eyes of almost all Palestinians is so low that they will not support an outcome of the war against Hamas that focuses only on Gaza reconstruction. The Palestinian Authority, already unpopular and not functioning well, will not be in a position to take over governance in Gaza or to provide security once Israel completes its military mission.

The Western Wall (Wailing Wall) and the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)
The Western Wall (Wailing Wall) and the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

There is no reasonable chance of an international or regional force to replace Israel and to provide security. In other words, conditions on the ground before Oct. 7, the consistent pressure of the occupation, and the failure to develop a credible horizon for a settlement of the underlying conflict have created the likelihood of a chaotic reality after the end of the war.

Is there any possibility of affecting this likely outcome? As I have argued consistently since Oct. 7 — and for many years before Oct. 7 — the United States, and the United States alone, can change the equation — not guarantee an outcome and not impose a settlement, but rather pressure and incentivize the parties and regional actors to get serious about peace.

The United States can articulate a political horizon that forces Israelis and Palestinians to start debating peace and then making political choices, either in favor or peace or in favor of prolonged conflict. The United States can define the parameters or terms of reference for negotiations, whenever they resume, so that we don’t face the old ploy of the parties starting all over from the beginning. The United States can press Israel to stop settlements and Palestinians to clamp down on terrorism and terrorist groups.

These ideas may seem pollyannaish, but they are actually the minimum necessary to start the transition from a chronic, protracted, solvable conflict into a pathway for resolving the conflict. It will be hard, will involve tough political choices, and will demand creative, persistent, determined American diplomacy. We have done this in the past. We can do it again now.

Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, is a professor in Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.

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