Israel's next step should be a no-brainer, but it requires a radical shift in thinking

With a little pressure from friends and partners, it might just opt for lasting peace over continued conflict with the Palestinians

A pro-Palestinian rally in Paris last week. AP
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Even as a four-day truce in the Israel-Gaza war provides much-needed respite to Palestinian civilians living in the Strip and the families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas for more than a month, the question of what this means for the long term is being contemplated.

There are two scenarios. One is that the harrowing humanitarian toll of the war will usher in enduring and transformative settlements among most or all players in the Middle East. Commonly referred to as a “grand bargain”, this scenario usually follows a monumental event in which major global powers, led by the US, play a central role.

Alternatively, this conflict might further fuel Israeli extremism that would not only defy the international community but also challenge the interests of the US. This could then give rise to extremism in the occupied territories, propelling the world into a vortex of reprisal.

There are those, particularly in the West, who believe that a return to the pre-October 7 status quo ante is possible – perhaps even probable – as the world wearies of the war. They anticipate that the public outcry in the West towards Israeli actions will be short-lived, allowing politicians to revert to their conventional calculations.

A western participant in the recently held Manama Dialogue in Bahrain told me that neither the US nor the European countries can alter their approach to Israel due to the latter’s considerable influence in their domestic politics. He said that any empathy in the West towards the Palestinian people living under occupation will, therefore, not translate into substantial pressure on Israel, regardless of its actions.

He went a step further, stating that even the threat and fear of another wave of violence in response to western complacency will not induce the US or Europe to exert substantial pressure on Israel. According to him, the political landscape within these countries constrains their actions and hinders the courage required to make the necessary leap in dealing with Israel.

In such a scenario, it is logical to conclude that Israel will not yield to international demands, which include accepting the two-state solution, refraining from reoccupying Gaza, and abandoning the forced displacement of Palestinians from the territory’s north.

The process of shaping the vision, settlement parameters, and the nature of incentives for Israel will unfold during discussions at these diplomatic stops if Israel recognises its strategic interests

A sentiment that has gained traction among some influential Israelis today, including former officials, is that the solution for Gaza lies in the relocation of its 2.3 million residents with European and American “humanitarian” assistance, including their accommodation of 20,000 or 50,000 Palestinians each through imposed quotas on these countries.

One Israeli politician, Danny Danon, has urged the international community to “assist Palestinians in having a better life” than the one that was “already bad” before the war and that has become “worse” after, by agreeing to host them.

In essence, they are framing this forced displacement as a “humanitarian” initiative towards Palestinians. This confidence, perhaps even audacity, on their part comes from being accustomed to imposing facts on the ground and escaping accountability.

As Israel’s ally, the US should be mindful of any such attempts – and recent remarks made by the Biden administration suggest that is indeed the case.

What Washington will also do well to take seriously is a warning that Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa recently issued. Pointing out that the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the US invasion of Iraq led to the creation of Al Qaeda and ISIS, respectively, Prince Salman argued that accepting the current dire situation for Palestinians would only “create conditions for the spread of violence worldwide”.

At a time when every step the US makes is being scrutinised, it’s important to not overlook its efforts to ensure that the Israel-Gaza war does not expand to Lebanon and Iran.

Amos Hochstein, US Special Presidential Co-ordinator, has been explicit about the importance of containing the war. “At this moment, we cannot afford to escalate this conflict into another front,” he told me last week. “The Lebanese people cannot risk entering a war. [They] have the right to live in peace within their borders with Israel.”

Mr Hochstein also emphasised that this might be the opportune moment “to think about a vision for a conflict-free region – at least with as fewer conflicts as we hope”.

This is where American co-operation with GCC member states across fields could have an impact, as the latter remain engaged either in the transitional arrangements or in formulating the aforementioned “vision” and studying the options available.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, is leading an initiative by Arab and key Islamic nations, aimed at pressuring Israel, alongside the US and Europe, to revise its strategy fundamentally, and not just halt its military offensive in Gaza.

Behind the scenes, Riyadh is orchestrating a diplomatic effort based on a demand that the US and Israel’s allies in Europe persuade it to adopt an approach that aligns with the international consensus – which includes working towards the two-state solution, ending forced displacement, recognition of Israel’s right to live in security and stability, and normalisation of relations with Arab and Islamic nations. Achieving this requires a paradigm shift in the mindset, policy and approach of the Israeli leadership.

Saudi Arabia is collaborating with Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Indonesia and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation within the framework of a ministerial committee established following an Arab-Islamic summit presided over by Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan.

The committee has become a pivotal mechanism for conveying Arab and Islamic stands to major global players. The committee’s engagements began with a visit to China, followed by Russia, the UK and France, with the crucial focal point being the US.

The process of shaping the vision, settlement parameters, and the nature of incentives for Israel will unfold during discussions at these diplomatic stops if Israel recognises its strategic interests. Should the US succeed in securing Israeli commitments, the ministerial committee would be ready to ensure corresponding commitments from the Palestinian side, which is in dire need of a fresh, dynamic and pragmatic leadership.

The contours of the roadmap for the day after are contingent on an Israeli decision. Persistence in the current approach risks undermining all prospects for a secure future, not only for Israel but for the Middle East and the international community.

Israel’s best interests necessitate decisive action from the West, including applying substantial pressure. An imminent opportunity exists, and it would be imprudent not to capitalise on it.

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Published: November 26, 2023, 2:00 PM