/ 1 December 2023

Israel-Hamas conflict: Future prospects and diplomatic initiatives

Graphic Tl Hlela Palestine Twitter 1200px
(John McCann/M&G)

In the aftermath of a four-day truce in the Israel-Gaza conflict, which offered a much-needed break for Palestinian civilians and families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas, the focus now shifts to the long-term implications. Two scenarios emerge. The first envisions that the profound humanitarian toll of the war could pave the way for lasting and transformative agreements among key players in the Middle East. 

This often involves what is commonly labelled as a grand bargain, typically following a significant global event where major powers, led by the US, play a central role. On the flip side, this conflict has the potential to exacerbate Israeli extremism, posing a challenge not only to the international community but also to the strategic interests of the US. 

The emergence of extremism in the occupied territories could set off a chain reaction of reprisals, pulling the world into a complex web of escalating tensions. In certain quarters, predominantly in the Western sphere, there exists an expectation that a reversion to the pre-7 October status quo ante is not only plausible but perhaps even probable. This anticipation is rooted in the belief that global fatigue with the ongoing conflict will prompt a fleeting public outcry in the West against Israeli actions, ultimately enabling politicians to revert to their traditional calculations.

However, the entrenched influence of Israel in the domestic politics of both the US and European countries restricts any significant shift in their approach. Despite any empathy in the West for Palestinians enduring occupation, it seems unlikely to translate into meaningful pressure on Israel, irrespective of its actions. 

The prospect of another wave of violence, prompted by Western complacency, does not appear sufficient enough to prompt substantial pressure from the US or Europe on Israel. The intricate domestic political landscape within these nations limits their actions and impedes the necessary boldness required to address Israel more assertively. 

In this unfolding scenario, a pragmatic deduction suggests that Israel is unlikely to acquiesce to international requisites, encompassing the acceptance of a two-state solution, avoiding a reoccupation of Gaza, and renouncing the forced displacement of Palestinians from the northern regions of the territory. 

The Israeli government’s ongoing adherence to continuing war in Gaza reflects an inherent dilemma: it has not outlined an acceptable endgame for its allies, including the US. 

Beyond the stated objective of “eradicating” Hamas from Gaza, there have been suggestions of wanting to relocate the Palestinian population to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula or Europe and the US. Another narrative is gaining currency among certain influential Israelis who propose an alternative solution for Gaza. This entails the relocation of its 2.3 million residents with “humanitarian” assistance from European and American sources. The proposal involves accommodating 20 000 or 50 000 Palestinians in each European countries or the US through mandated quotas.

In Israel, various influential groups are pushing for international intervention to persuade Palestinians to choose “improved lives” beyond the already difficult conditions that were present “before the war” and have only exacerbated since. Their proposal involves hosting displaced Palestinians, portraying this forced displacement as a purportedly “humanitarian” endeavour. 

This self-assuredness, bordering on impudence, stems from a history of imposing realities on the ground and evading accountability. 

As the key ally of Israel, the US needs to remain vigilant against any such endeavours — recent statements from the Biden administration suggest a cognisance of this reality. However, this proposal met swift opposition from Arab allies, leading to the rejection of both the idea of expulsion and Israel’s plans for maintaining indefinite “security responsibility” in Gaza. 

The Biden administration’s alternative, suggesting that the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority take control of the enclave, has also faced resistance from Israel and Hamas. The reality is that, in the absence of Israeli reoccupation, Hamas remains the sole power broker in Gaza, complicating the search for a viable resolution.

American collaboration with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states holds potential sway, especially as they are deeply involved in transitional arrangements and the formulation of the aforementioned “vision”, exploring various options. 

Notably, Saudi Arabia is spearheading an initiative involving Arab and key Islamic nations. 

This collective effort aims to exert pressure on Israel, in conjunction with the US and Europe, to fundamentally revise its strategy rather than merely halting its military offensive in Gaza. Riyadh is choreographing a diplomatic initiative that hinges on a call for the US and Israel’s European allies to persuade Israel to align its approach with the international consensus. 

This consensus entails working towards a two-state solution, cessation of forced displacement, recognition of Israel’s right to live in security and stability, and the normalisation of relations with Arab and Islamic nations. 

Achieving this transformative agenda necessitates a paradigm shift in the mindset, policies and approach of the Israeli leadership. Saudi Arabia is actively collaborating with Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Indonesia and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation through the auspices of a ministerial committee established post an Arab-Islamic summit presided over by Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan.

The forthcoming diplomatic discussions will be pivotal in shaping the vision, settlement parameters, and incentives for Israel, provided it recognizes its strategic interests. Success on the part of the US in securing Israeli commitments would prompt the ministerial committee to seek corresponding pledges from the Palestinian side. 

Persevering with the current approach jeopardises all prospects for a secure future, not just for Israel but for the broader Middle East and the international community. However, the US has, rather obstinately, refrained from putting forth any policy proposals that acknowledge the survival of Hamas. In this deliberate oversight, Washington aligns with a chorus of pundits who persist in advocating “solutions” premised on the destruction of Hamas. 

Yet, with the recent events in Afghanistan fresh in memory, US policymakers should recognize the inherent impossibility of eradicating a resilient, locally rooted resistance movement. 

A more viable approach could involve leveraging the precedent set by the recent hostage deal, showcasing that both Israel and Hamas possess the political will to engage in negotiations. 

Collaborating with mediators such as Qatar and Egypt, the United States has the potential to shift the discourse around Gaza beyond the divisive “with us or against us” rhetoric that characterised America’s war on terror. Instead, the focus could shift towards discussions about a durable, long-term ceasefire. 

Such an arrangement would necessitate engagement with Hamas’s political leadership-in-exile, emphasising the importance of diplomatic channels in resolving the complex dynamics of the region. 

Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan.