A New U.S. Strategy for the Aftermath of the Gaza War

Israel and Hamas engaged in one of the longest wars in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict this summer. The fundamental problem, which caused the war and all its destruction, is that Hamas is a terrorist organization whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, and praises "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," and claims among many other fiendish accusations that Jews started World Wars I and II.

The Bush administration erred grievously in allowing Hamas to run candidates in the 2006 Palestinian elections, even though it continued to maintain arms of its own and refused to recognize the existence of Israel, renounce violence, and accept previous agreements with Israel reached by the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. The Obama administration continued the error when it abided by the status quo, even though the arms buildup of Hamas in the intervening years had resulted in the first Gaza War on the eve of President Obama's taking office.

The outcome is that the world has all but forgotten the extremist Islamist nature of Hamas, its rejection of the two-state solution, and its building rockets and tunnels rather than houses and factories. Israeli communities in the south of Israel have been dealing with the threat of rocket attacks consistently for 14 years while Hamas continues its fundamental disregard for the safety of its own people. Rarely has a combatant in any war so effectively risked the lives of its populace by placing weapons in or near homes, mosques, and schools. The desperation of Hamas to re-establish its role in Palestinian and regional politics pushed Hamas to engage with Israel prematurely. Therefore, its tunnels were revealed before it could deliver a devious surprise attack on Israelis along their mutual border, which it hoped would result in significant serious casualties and a huge political and psychological blow to Israel.

With an indefinite ceasefire now agreed upon, there is an urgent need for a new strategy that will be aimed at ending the Hamas stranglehold on Gaza, substantially increase the role of the Palestinian Authority there, and enhance the prospects for progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Here are eleven ways to develop that strategy:

  1. A New Gaza Policy Must Include the West Bank. The horrid events of the last six months (the breakdown of the Kerry Initiative, the kidnappings, the Gaza War) mean that the parties must devise a new policy toward Gaza. And no new policy toward Gaza can evolve without addressing the fundamental issues arising in the West Bank. Announcing new land appropriations at this delicate time, even in areas that will ultimately remain part of Israel in any political settlement and even if they can be interpreted as legal under international law, is downright self-defeating. It threatens any viable policy to undermine Palestinian extremists in the West Bank and Gaza. Without positive gestures on settlements in the West Bank, it will be almost impossible to gain the international and regional support to create a fundamental change in policy that will save Israeli lives in the future.
  2. Boost Abbas. It has been widely recognized outside Gaza and the West Bank that the first step in a new policy must be the resurrection of Mohammed Abbas as the leader of both areas, even though the conflict has harmed his standing internally. Indeed, despite the weak unity agreement that was the last straw in the breakdown of the peace process in April, Hamas was planning a possible coup d'etat in the West Bank until it was discovered and thwarted by Israel. Assuming that Israel is not prepared to endure the huge cost of destroying Hamas, if Abbas is to play a new role he will require a host of economic and political incentives. That also means that the U.S. and Israel must reassess recent policy. It is not a concession to emerge with a new policy after a war, even if there are some inherent benefits to the other side. It is not a failing to change strategy and tactics, even if it means discarding deeply held beliefs and principles. That means that Israel's settlement policy must also be reassessed. Allowing the right wing in the coalition to use the expansion of settlements as its political toy is a sure way to undermine any kind of rational policy toward the Palestinians in the post Gaza War period, including the enhancement of Mahmoud Abbas' position.
  3. U.S. as a Broker of Interim Deals. In keeping with a reassessment of past policies, the first step should be to bring back the U.S. as a player in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but on a new basis. The comprehensive accord -- sought so assiduously by the Kerry Initiative -- was and remains premature, and will not work with the cautious current leaders of Israel and Palestine. Instead, interim deals that improve the quality of life of Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank will alter the dangerous economic and psychological conditions that currently engulf the Palestinian territories. The dire circumstances in Gaza are well-known, but the dire impact on the West Bank is less clear to most outsiders. They must be addressed, and they can be in a manner in which they see frequent genuine changes around them.
  4. Limited Border Opening. This conclusion means that new opportunities must emerge for Gazans and West Bankers to begin a new process of exports of such harmless items as fruits and vegetables, and non-lethal factory items as well. The rebuilding of Gaza itself could result in an economic boom if such materials as cement and lumber are not used to enhance Hamas' fighting capacity. No group would be more effective in this exercise than the American-trained Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, who have proven to be capable and reliable.
  5. Give the PA Greater Latitude in Areas B and C. As odd as it may seem, this is also the time to make moves in the West Bank that will allow the Palestinian Authority more opportunity for autonomy in Areas B and C. Israel's concessions should be gradual, controlled, and subject to reversal if terror attacks emerge. Such moves would demonstrate that a new direction toward growing the basis for an eventual Palestinian state can be attained and unlike unhelpful Israeli expansion, would demonstrate that a new era and new policy has arrived.
  6. Demilitarization With Hamas' Cooperation. The most difficult task of a new policy is the demilitarization of Hamas and its kindred groups. Without demilitarization, no policy toward Gaza rehabilitation and reconstruction will succeed. Any re-introduction of any kind of weaponry (including tunnels) into the Gaza Strip cannot be allowed, and that prevention will have to involve Palestinian, Israeli, Egyptian, and international monitors. These personnel should be specifically approved by the Israeli government so that it can be assured it is not going to confront yet another international peacekeeping failure. On paper at least, the incentive for Hamas to cooperate would be the enhanced popularity and position it would attain by the "new Gaza" that could emerge.
  7. Demilitarization Without Hamas' Cooperation. If Hamas is not prepared to liaise with any demilitarization protocol, then the proposals for both a multinational force and/or individual parties (such as Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority security forces) would have to be dramatically strengthened so they can be used to patrol weapons imports on the surface and underground. Alternatively, a mechanism such as a multinational force might simply take over Gaza with the involvement or cooperation of West Bank Palestinian security forces and perhaps Egyptian functionaries and monitors, and others approved by Israel. The highly effective Multinational Force in the Sinai composed of several countries could prove to be a model for the handling of Gaza demilitarization. Israel has never criticized this force, and might well have more confidence if a Sinai-type arrangement was established in Gaza even though there are profound differences between enforcing a peace treaty and supervising the demilitarization of Hamas and similar groups in Gaza.
  8. Reorganizing Gaza. The net objective of all of these efforts should be to create a new Gaza with heavy PA engagement, with multilateral influence, and with Israel having evidence that the situation on the ground will be stabilized. With this aim in mind the role of the UN and its UNRWA organization devoted to assisting refugees should be either reconstituted or, at best, dissolved in favor of another institution so that never again will UN facilities be used for the storing of rockets to be used against Israel.
  9. Israeli-Palestinian Committees. A new process should allow for constant discussions in Israeli-Palestinian committees, perhaps including the US and even Egypt, to assure that progress toward demilitarization and rehabilitation is occurring in Gaza, Hamas is not rearming, and life in the West Bank is improving. On a broader scale, these committees could deal with security and economic matters, promoting demilitarization, greater trade and economic growth and interchange for the Palestinians, and enhancing Israeli security. The comparatively short-lived twelve Israeli-Palestinian committees established while Ehud Olmert was Prime Minister in 2008 under the leadership of Tzipi Livni and Abu Ala were surprisingly successful and could be the model for these activities. Similarly, the committees proposed here could also deal with more fundamental matters (temporary borders, new security mechanisms, tests of the ability of the Palestinian Authority to govern itself without threatening Israel, tests of the ability of Israel to contain and even stop settlement expansion, tests of Palestinian willingness to stop incitement against Israel in textbooks and media, etc.)
  10. Avoiding Confidence Diminishing Efforts. The Israelis have been widely and appropriately criticized for continuing to expand settlements. Of at least equal disruption are the current steps and possible future steps by the Palestinians to expand their claims to statehood at the United Nations by joining agencies, especially the ICC, which will inevitably lead to diplomatic disarray and impede progress to any new process as described above. If the US is even to consider a Kerry Initiative II that will address the outcome of the Gaza War, it will require restraint on both sides and that commitment would have to be made at the outset.
  11. The Saudi Peace Initiative. Of course, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to gain these commitments by either side if there is no common depiction of the content of the end game of provisional steps. Fortunately, one exists: This would be the perfect time for Israel to frame a response to the Saudi Peace Initiative (as opposed to the less palatable version voted by the Arab League in March 2002). If other Arab states responded with a degree of interest, secret, private, or more public discussions could ensue regarding implementation and in keeping with the provisos enumerated above.Prime Minister Netanyahu has frequently referenced regional opportunities publicly, but a necessary first step would be responding to the Saudi Peace Initiative and its implications for dealing with the Palestinian issue. The Palestinians for their part could contribute to this Initiative in the context of embarking on a new process with Israel in the aftermath of the Gaza War.

In a news conference on August 20, Prime Minister Netanyahu said "I hope [Palestinian President] Abbas will have a significant part in the new diplomatic horizon. I expect to start talks with a Palestinian government which can abandon the path of terror." Those talks should be conducted with American engagement, but they should deal with the new conditions that have emerged since the Gaza War. Step by step, committee by committee, this new process could lead to a new era, despite the widespread disillusionment on all sides today.