Israel Must Not Let Netanyahu Reject the Biden Peace Plan

The fatherly embrace of Israel by President Biden in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas atrocities of October 7 has gradually given way to irritation and frustration. Washington no longer conceals its objections, as it undertakes the unprecedented step of parachuting humanitarian aid into an area captured by an ally. On both the conduct of the Gaza war—Israel’s stingy approach to humanitarian assistance included—and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to discuss the war’s political objective and desired outcome (the “morning after”), the gap between the Biden Administration and Netanyahu's government has never been wider or more visible.

Early American warnings, based on lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, to design the “morning after” so that it informs the conduct of the war in order to clearly indicate that the war is with Hamas, not with the Palestinian people, and to tend to the needs of non-combatants, were all rejected by the Israeli government. Mounting pressure yielded partial Israeli accommodations, but the tragic event last Thursday, when over 100 Gaza civilians died, as, desperate for food, they stormed an aid convoy, triggered the American decision to provide aid unilaterally.

Disagreements over the conduct of the war even extend to the other humanitarian issue, the one most Israelis, and by his own admission and conduct, President Biden too, consider the highest priority: bringing the 134 hostages back. Anyone who visited Washington over the past week could not have missed the dismay expressed by administration officials at what has become a growing suspicion that decisions by Netanyahu on when to negotiate, at what pace, what to offer and what offers to reject may not be clean of political calculations.

More broadly, the Biden Administration’s emerging regional strategy offers Israel a unique opportunity for turning the trauma of Hamas brutality of October 7, 2023 and the ensuing war into a three-way win: an exit from Gaza; progress in the broader Israeli-Palestinian arena; and integration into a potent regional coalition.

Read More: Netanyahu Must Do a Deal to Free Hostages Like My Uncle

Yet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects that offer. Not only does he not provide the Israeli public nor its armed forces with a clue as to how he wishes the war to end, his sloganeering and machismo in the form of “a total victory” or “destroy Hamas,” which he repeated recently on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” remain meaningless, if not reckless, substitutes for policy directives. Moreover, his "plan" released week before last spells an open-ended occupation of the Gaza Strip and offers Gazans no hope and no alternative to armed resistance.

For Israel, the “morning after” options are limited. None is risk-free.

An Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza is commonly assumed to be ruled out—for good reason. The ensuing vacuum would see not only a Hamas resurgence but also other terrorists from across the region occupying the Strip, harassing its long-suffering Palestinian residents as well as neighboring Egypt and Israel. We’ve been there before. Twice in recent decades, Israel opted for unilateral withdrawals: first, in 2000, from Lebanon, when a negotiated option was not available. Second in 2005, from Gaza, when unilateralism was a choice.

Unlike the negotiated peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which incorporated robust security arrangements and have proven resilient for decades, the two unilateral withdrawals saw the emergence of potent terror organizations: Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. Armed to the teeth, both ended up being state-like adversaries, brutal to boot.

The second option of a prolonged Israeli occupation of the Strip means that no third party will agree to contribute to Gaza rehabilitation and governance, leaving Israel to “enjoy Gaza.” A bloody occupation there might trigger the West Bank sliding into a Gaza-like situation. And public pressure will likely ensue on governments in Egypt and Jordan to freeze relations with Israel, as well as on signatories to the Abraham Accords. Israel’s normalization with Saudi Arabia will join the archive of lost opportunities.

The third option, embracing the American offer, seems a no-brainer, especially since it reflects a U.S.-forged consensus among a powerful group of Arab countries that includes Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and possibly others. Dubbed the “Contact Group” by Washington, all have learned that the price of ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an agitated domestic public, undermined stability, a strengthened Iran (and its violent proxies), and the threat of a broader conflagration.

Indeed, October 7 marks the moment when the two-state solution turned from lip service to a policy directive in numerous capitals—Washington included. For that potentially transformative moment to not go the way of past lost opportunities, this newly created fragile momentum calls for Jerusalem to say “yes,” the U.S. and its Arab partners to stay the course, and Palestinian leadership, too, to rise to the occasion.

Washington and its Arab partners realize that, in the midst of these traumatic events since October 7, Israelis and Palestinians are in no mood to contemplate a peace agreement any time soon. Likewise, they recognize that the Palestinian Authority, undermined by successive Netanyahu governments and despised by its constituents for its ineptitude and corruption, is not up to the task of governing Gaza. This realization is at the root of an important characteristic of the emerging Biden plan: gradualism. This pertains to the Palestinian Authority, where its updated acronym— RPA (Revitalized Palestinian Authority)—indicates a process of substantial internal reforms before it is gradually entrusted with managing the Strip. This also applies to Gaza, where an interim, third-party governance is under discussion among the U.S., PA and the Arab Contact Group. And this is the case for the broader vision, in which Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the end game of a two-state solution is deferred, but all involved are expected to commit to it now, and conduct themselves in a manner that brings it about.

The one exception to gradualism offers Israel a major bonus: integration into a U.S.-led regional coalition, including normalized relations with Saudi Arabia (as well as other Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries). Designed to contribute to the prosperity of all while constituting a potent security check on Iran’s meddling, it will materialize once Israel says “yes” to the two prerequisites: PA role in Gaza—initially symbolic and, as it is revitalized, substantive; and a credible, irreversible, time-bound path leading to a future two-state solution.

The Biden approach gives Israel an alternative to an open-ended occupation of Gaza and hope to Palestinians who need an alternative to the Hamas ideology and the perpetual conflict it brings.

It would seem to be politically suicidal for Netanyahu to stand up to an American president admired by Israelis for his unwavering support during an unprecedented hour of need, and who came over while war was raging and provided Israelis with the comforting father figure they didn’t have at home.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu, captive of the very extremists he handpicked for his coalition, seems determined to fight the vision Biden presents—whatever the cost to Israel’s security and other strategic interests. Catering to a shrinking political base (successive polls indicate his party has lost half of the support it enjoyed just over a year ago, his coalition has shrunk by one third, while an overwhelming majority wants him gone), he bets his political future on resisting the Biden plan and the president himself. We must never underestimate the political skill of Israel’s ultimate verbal acrobat and architect of chaos that keep him in power. Indeed, he has already turned the Biden-regional offer into an imagined threat to “dictate”—rather than negotiate in the future—a two-state solution.

Hamas brutality on October 7, the unknown fate of well over 130 Israeli hostage for over 150 days, and the horrors of war as experienced by Gazans, all accentuate the need for Israel to embark on an alternative course. The twin promise of an Israeli-Palestinian arena turning away from violence and toward a peaceful future however tortuous the road, and of Israel’s integration into a more stable region, while challenging, is real. Friends of Israel and the broad regional and international coalition that has embraced the Biden approach must communicate to Israelis the potency of this promise. They need to spell out their ideas to the Israeli public and refute Netanyahu’s distortions. It is up to Israelis to bring about a change in Jerusalem or blame no one else but themselves for the tragic consequences should this historic opportunity be wasted.

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