A Path Forward for Peace in the Middle East

A Path Forward for Peace in the Middle East

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We live in a time of darkness, surrounded by frightening echoes of the past and, since October 7, horrific barbarism defended by many of those claiming an Orwellian moral high ground. But tragic moments can also be historic turning points. It is entirely possible that the brutal attacks and the Israel invasion of Gaza may in fact unleash events that finally lead to comprehensive Middle Eastern peace. And for enemies of such an outcome in Tehran and elsewhere, October 7 may have been a miscalculation of the highest order, a “catastrophic success” that sealed the defeat of their sinister aims.

Whether overtly or implicitly, many experts believe the attacks were likely launched in part because of the suddenly real prospect of a trilateral agreement among Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States, which would have offered the kingdom an American security guarantee, a strategic disaster for Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s masters in Iran. While any such formal agreement may now be on the backburner, the carnage highlighted both how dangerous Iran and its proxies, including the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Shia militias who regularly launch rockets at American troops, are and how much they fear such an alliance. Indeed, the Saudis and Americans have publicly stated their continued desire for such a deal, now linked to a clear pathway to a Palestinian state. This should not be surprising given that behind closed doors, Israel, the strongest power in the region, is viewed as a strategic ally against the serious threat of Iran and its extremist, nihilist proxies across the region. What leaders in many Arab states say privately is quite different from public statements, a dynamic mostly not understood by the public. They in fact desire for Israel to do what the Egyptians, with their long experience with the Muslim Brotherhood, counseled several years ago: destroy Hamas and its nihilist ideology’s capabilities to its very roots.

Hamas also did what seemed recently unthinkable: they united an Israel being pulled apart internally. It was, after all, fighting among the Jews of Roman times that led to two millennia of exile. Now, the cohesion of Israeli society is beyond question and its single most divisive figure, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems unlikely to survive in office for long after the greatest Israeli intelligence failure ever. Overseas, within days the dark antisemitism of the hard left showed its moral bankruptcy on university campuses, in elite institutions and on the streets, as those claiming to be progressive justified the slaughter of babies, the taking of hostages from thirty countries, and the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields. The unmasking of an antisemitism, cloaked in ethical superiority yet openly calling for genocide, has left young diaspora Jews betrayed, and some have embraced a feeling heretofore unknown: Zionism. A unified, well-led Israel with strong overseas support is a necessary condition for peace.

How would peace break out in the aftermath of a painful but ultimately successful ground incursion into Gaza? Israel left the Gaza Strip almost two decades ago and, followed by a violent coup by Hamas, watched as the terrorist group diverted humanitarian aid to tunnels and offshore bank accounts, deprived its citizens, and barraged Israel with rockets. But once Hamas’s fighters have been largely eliminated, so too may be the existential fear that any future Palestinian state in the West Bank will also become a “Hamastan.” For those who continue to claim that you cannot root out organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad based on terrorist ideologies, they should look at the current state of both al-Qaeda and ISIS, of which the same was said. It is for good reason that Hamas’s approval rating is lower in Gaza than in the West Bank, where they are not in power. Gazans will be fortunate to see them gone.

Following the operation, Israel will once again certainly leave the poison chalice that is Gaza, which the Americans have called to be initially policed and rebuilt by a coalition of Arab states. For peace to be viable, another rebuilding would have to take place within the Palestinian Authority, whose ruling party Fatah has for decades been plagued by corruption and an unwillingness to renounce its public support for terrorists. A leadership vacuum in Gaza provides an opportunity to finally confront cynical obstructionism and give power to new faces and voices at the PA willing to engage in meaningful dialogue with Israel, a message delivered in person by Secretary of State Blinken to President Muhammad Abbas. The true imperative for the Western democracies and moderate Arab states is to counter Iran, which even right now continues to wreak havoc across the region, its Hezbollah proxies firing into the north of Israel, the Houthis in Yemen disrupting international shipping in the Red Sea, and continuous attacks on American and allied forces from Shiite militias. Facilitating and pressuring for the two state solution needed for the grand alliance to come into being is not lost in the halls of power in Washington, Riyadh, and elsewhere.

Optics will matter: Palestinian leaders will have to be empowered who do not have Israeli blood on their hands, willing to renounce the cult of martyrdom destroying their society, but also with ironically enough anti-Israel credentials to have the credibility to negotiate. Such leaders do exist. The close but quiet cooperation with the PA security forces and Israel is well known nor do Fatah officials forget their comrades hurled from Gazan rooftops in 2007 by Hamas. As for the Israelis, polls have consistently shown that they desire a two-state solution if they indeed had a real partner and real security. The Abraham Accords have demonstrated that significant portions of the Arab world can live in friendship with their Jewish neighbors. Remarkably, Hamas’s attacks were denounced by leaders in the UAE, Bahrain, and elsewhere across the region, and the Arab Street has been far more quiet (including Israeli Arabs) than performative marchers in the West.

The outline of an eventual deal that would be palatable to both sides is no secret, and one that has been known to all those involved who sincerely want a two-state solution.  It is a plan that both the Americans and the Saudis have long espoused and so likely to be the basis for deal they hope to use their weight and power to broker.  As Ehud Barak has said, it will be microscopically different from what he proposed and Yasser Arafat rejected at Camp David in 2000. The gist: minor land swaps to align settlement blocks to realities on the ground, a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem and international recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s, the Holy Sites under international supervision, and a demilitarized Palestinian state (a concepr recently endorsed by Egyptian President Sisi) in the West Bank and Gaza with the IDF deployed along the Jordanian border to ensure security.  A symbolic number of Palestinian refugees will be allowed to “return,” the rest compensated monetarily, ending a bizarre, three-generation refugee crisis. The Jews expelled from Arab states in 1948 will get nothing and many Jewish settlers will have to be uprooted, as they were in Gaza.  But Israel will then at long last be recognized by Saudi Arabia and most of the remaining Arab states.  The ones then isolated will be the mullahs in Iran and their proxies.

If such a deal happens, distracting theater will accompany its negotiation, with Arab states calling upon Israel to vacate “occupied” land and Palestinian leaders decrying years of displacement. The Israelis will need to wait a requisite time lest it seem to be rewarding Hamas’s actions and undermine the deterrence power that it is now reasserting. But the substance, not the rhetoric, will be what matters. For those who question the possibility to live in harmony after years of bloody discord, look no further than the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, which ended a conflict as bitter as any and recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. And lest we forget how war itself can be a prelude to peace, almost fifty years to the day before Hamas’s atrocities, Egypt launched the Yom Kippur War. And yet, just a few years later, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat concluded their historic peace treaty which stands to this day.

It is hard to see it now, but the horrors of October 7 may be viewed as the tragic moment that led to peace and sent a war-torn region down the road to finally realize the vision of the prophet Isaiah, that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

A terrible price to have paid, but a prize worth reaching for.

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