Reversing the chaos in Israel and Gaza depends on how well America can use its leverage

From saving Palestinians from expulsion to preventing a hot war in Lebanon, there is a lot on the line

The USS Gerald Ford has been deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean. AP
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Israel is unlikely to emerge victorious in the war in Gaza, and Hamas is equally unlikely to surpass the psychological victory it achieved on October 7. The US may manage to navigate a way out of the crisis without becoming directly involved, perhaps through a new plan to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that involves Arab and European participation, and implicit understandings with Iran.

People (mainly in the US and Europe) who are uncritically supportive of Israel will not understand those (mainly in the Arab and Islamic worlds, but also in the West) who contextualise Hamas's shock attack within the history of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and siege of the Gaza Strip. Both sides denounce each other without trying to understand or listen to the opposing viewpoint. But it is important also to note the astonishment felt by everyone about what Hamas has done by carrying out such a complex and daring operation. Indeed, most of the world did not anticipate such a failure in Israel's intelligence capabilities and performance.

The Israeli response, led by the devastating bombardment of Gaza and the forced displacement of civilians, has eroded some of the initial sympathy felt in the West. Now, the world is divided between those who support Israel's bid to crush Hamas at any cost and those warning against the folly of this and the political and military costs, not just the exorbitant human cost.

Any resolution will ultimately depend on Iran's final decision regarding Hamas's call to Tehran and its allies to activate all "resistance fronts", starting with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. But at the time of writing, Iran has moved cautiously in the diplomatic arena to avoid slipping off the tightrope. Six days on from Hamas's operation, it remained off the battlefield and advised Hezbollah to exercise prudence.

Iran's priority is its nuclear programme. Tehran may not want to jump into the fire with Israel when it is reported to be six months away from getting that programme to a level where it can deliver a bomb. It will also have read the message sent by the US in the form of the deployment of the USS Gerald Ford aircraft carrier to the region: that Washington would be prepared to resort to force, potentially targeting nuclear facilities, if Tehran miscalculated. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has openly denied involvement in Hamas's operations, indicating American deterrence is still working.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden’s administration has, it seems, also worked to address the other side of this challenge by trying to convince Israel to scale back its plans for a ground invasion of Gaza, work with Egypt to secure a safe passage for civilians from Gaza, pressure Hamas through Qatar's leverage and engage with Arab and European leaders to formulate an alternative peace plan. The latter would likely start with freezing this crisis in its tracks and moving towards new negotiations under US sponsorship.

Washington’s anxiety over getting dragged into participating in a military conflict because of decisions made by Israel or Iran is evident. Then there is the unavoidable humanitarian catastrophe resulting from an Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. Indeed, the US has a heavy burden on its shoulders. It may succeed in leveraging its military, political, and diplomatic weight in Israel, a country it has committed itself time and again to defending.

Washington’s anxiety over getting dragged into a military conflict because of decisions made by Israel or Iran is evident

The Biden administration, moreover, was working for a qualitative shift in Arab-Israeli relations. But what it missed and is paying the price for today is that this qualitative shift is impossible if it ignores the Palestinians and their rights. Hamas's achievement is that it has awakened everyone involved and managed to undermine the assumption that the Palestinian issue had been settled among Arab governments, in the Arab and Muslim streets and on the international stage.

A forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza would be in line with a broader policy held by the most extremist camp in Israel of advocating for the expulsion of all Palestinians – even those in the West Bank and Israel proper. This camp believes Palestinians, even those with Israeli citizenship, pose a permanent demographic challenge. From this perspective, the epic proportions of Hamas's attack may ultimately serve extremist Israeli goals more than Palestinian aspirations, by providing the pretext needed for forced displacement.

That displacement would also put Egypt in a predicament. Cairo will be aware that some in Israel advocate for the resettlement of Gazan refugees in Sinai. Yet closing the border to Palestinian civilians to thwart the Israeli strategy is not an easy option, as its humanitarian cost is high and would unfold under the world's watchful eyes. Egypt is caught between a rock and a hard place, and President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, like Mr Biden, has a presidential election to worry about.

If the Biden administration wishes to seize the diplomatic and political initiatives, it must have the courage to compel its ally, Israel, to adopt a new approach towards the Palestinians.

And the Palestinians themselves, particularly the Palestinian Authority (PA), are now under more scrutiny than ever. If the PA continues in its stagnation and obsolete methods, it will miss a historic opportunity inadvertently provided by Hamas. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must rejuvenate himself and surround himself with younger advisers instead of dwelling on the past and the methods of rejection and boycotting negotiations with Israel. This is an opportunity for him to tell the youth of Hamas, not just the youth of his own party Fatah, that now is the opportune time to engage together in a new peace process with Israel, with Arab participation and perhaps later with Iranian blessing.

The Israelis, for their part, must find a way to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and open an opportunity for a realistic and honest review of the miseries brought about by religious and political extremism on them and others. It is time for the Israeli people to hold themselves and their leaders accountable and to seize this bitter moment to create a pathway to justice for the Palestinians, freeing themselves from the siege mentality and living in peace with their neighbours – if they change their ways.

Published: October 14, 2023, 8:30 AM
Updated: October 15, 2023, 10:08 AM