Where is the leadership in Palestine and Israel?

It is in the interest of both camps that they find unifying figures on the other side with whom they can work

An Israeli soldier jumps from a tank near the Israel-Gaza border on Thursday. A more astute Israeli leadership would rethink its war strategy and avoid compounding the numerous mistakes already made. Reuters
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Most Palestinians and Israelis want to live in peace and with security for themselves and their families. But events this week served to highlight the absence of effective leadership that could forge a new path forward.

Earlier this week, International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan, while seeking arrest warrants for three leading Hamas figures for alleged war crimes, also sought warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on charges that include using starvation as a weapon of war. A more astute Israeli leadership would rethink its war strategy and avoid compounding the numerous mistakes already made.

In addition to the serious reputational damage incurred by the accusations of war crimes, Israel’s leaders endured a further diplomatic reversal on the international stage as three European countries – Ireland, Spain and Norway – on Wednesday said they would recognise Palestine as a state, despite Israeli claims that this amounted to rewarding Hamas for its campaign of violence.

Even within Israel’s political elite, leading figures are struggling to maintain a united front. The timing and significance of the ICC war crimes accusations against Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gallant somewhat overshadowed the news that the Israeli defence chief has publicly expressed frustration with his Prime Minister and fellow war cabinet member over a lack of so-called day-after planning for the Gaza Strip. This confluence of events should make it abundantly clear to Israeli society that the current strategy of its leaders is not working and is singularly failing to achieve any of the government’s stated aims – freeing Israeli hostages, ending Hamas as a threat and restoring Israeli security.

Similarly, the Palestinians are also suffering from a debilitating lack of leadership, something highlighted in The National’s interview this week with Arab Barghouti. He is the son of Marwan Barghouti, who despite being branded a terrorist in Israel and serving time for killing five Israelis – crimes that he denies – is regarded as one of the few people capable of bringing about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The elder Barghouti, who joined the Fatah organisation in 1974 and was sentenced to jail for the first time in 1978, has spent decades in Israeli custody. From his jail cell, he has built up a reputation for being a capable and astute political leader, managing to command widespread support and loyalty among Palestinian society – even among rival political and paramilitary factions. There is even speculation that he could be the unifying candidate to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian Authority president one day.

Instead of regarding Barghouti and others like him as a threat – or leaving him languishing in solitary confinement – more clear-eyed members of Israel’s political and military establishment could see him as one part of the equation in ending this conflict. This is not to promote or single out one individual but since the death of Yasser Arafat, Palestinians have lacked a unifying figure. As much as Mr Arafat was disliked by Israel’s leadership and public, there was a recognition that a central figure was required with whom to negotiate. Barghouti’s convictions and history as a wanted man – he was once a leader of the Tanzim, an armed Fatah faction, and played a prominent role during the Second Intifada – may be similarly unpalatable to most Israelis. Nevertheless, it ensures that he is not perceived as being remote or disconnected from the grim realities of Palestinian struggle.

In the years since Mr Arafat’s death, although Palestinian factions have continued to fragment, the Palestinian Authority has its failings, and militant groups have brought destruction on to the heads of the Palestinians, resistance to Israel’s occupation has not waned. Instead, it has fractured into a collection of vigorous but unco-ordinated forces that Israel is struggling to contain, locking it into a political and strategic dead end.

Both Israelis and Palestinians need better leadership to get out of this conflict. It is in the self-interest of both camps that they find leaders on the other side with whom they can do business.

Published: May 24, 2024, 3:00 AM
Updated: May 26, 2024, 9:15 AM