The End of the Tunnel: Breaking the Gaza Impass
As Israel is showered with rockets and its southern towns are threatened with assault tunnels, the war in Gaza escalates by the day. A premature ceasefire, however, may be only the prelude for a more devastating round in one year or so. How can we use the current crisis to produce a better reality for Israel and Palestine? Political Owl with a bold proposal to break the impass.
This Article was also published in Compress
On July 17, IDF troops opened the heavy gates of Gaza, clearing the way for armour and infantry forces. This land operation, the second of its kind since the Israeli disengagement from the Strip in 2006, has relatively limited ends: to block the assault tunnels and to destroy rocket depots in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the operation is causing vast suffering in Gaza, with heartbreaking pictures of dead and wounded men, women and children. Most Israeli citizens feel that the IDF must obliterate the rockets and the assault tunnels, each and every one of which is designed to perpetrate a mass massacre in Israeli towns and villages. A volatile “ceasefire” (such as in 2012) may provide a temporary relief for both sides, but in all probability it will ensure another round of death and destruction in two years or less. We and the Palestinians are both trapped in a bloody, vicious cycle, a Middle-Eastern version of “catch 22”. How do we get out of this cycle, for the benefit of both sides? This is the most important question we face at the moment.
In my opinion, In order to reach an enduring settlement in Gaza, Israel should take advantage of Hamas’ own demands: “Do you want to lift the siege, build a nautical port and an airport and have prisoners released? We are ready to comply, as long as you give us something in return.” The Israeli Prime Minister should declare that Israel is ready to lift the siege, release the prisoners arrested in Operation “Brother’s Keeper” (June 2014) and allow generous international assistance for Gaza’s reconstruction, in return for full demilitarization of the strip from rockets and assault tunnels, supervised by Cairo, Ramallah and Washington. The lifting of the siege must be gradual, simultaneously with the disarmament process, but, I believe that Israel must declare this initiative as clearly, simply and publicly as possible. Thus, even the Palestinians and their allies in the international community may understand there is a hope, a light at the end of the tunnel. They must trust that Israel is ready to lift the siege completely as long as its security is ensured. It is important to emphasize, that the aforementioned plan does not include ideological demands from Hamas, that are unreasonable. The Gaza government will not be forced to recognize Israel, nor prior agreements or even the Palestinian authority in Ramallah. They will only be forced to disarm themselves from their rockets (an ineffective weapon, good for nothing but terrorizing civilians). Such a bold solution, which will probably require intense military pressure on Hamas, is already supported by leading experts in Israel and abroad, including Yuval Diskin, the moderate, creative and thoughtful former head of Shin Bet (General Security Service).
However, in order to leverage Operation Protective Edge to a durable political solution, Israel has to launch an equally dramatic initiative in the West Bank. The truly difficult question is “how”? How could we avoid another round of futile negotiations with the Palestinian Authority? As it is well-known, the Palestinians are highly skeptical about negotiations with Netanyahu and his government, and rightly so. The last round failed not only due to differences in essence, but also because the Israeli side refused to submit maps and wasted time in lengthy squabbling on agendas, time tables and other minute technical details. The Palestinians, not without justice, came to believe that such negotiations were merely an Israeli maneuver to drag time and divert attention from further settlement buildup. Therefore, the new initiative proposed here is designed to break the impasse, surprise the other side and spare us a new round of futile talks.
The first steps have to be initiated by Israel, again – as simply, clearly and dramatically as possible. Prime Minister Netanyahu has to declare his willingness to immediately recognize a Palestinian State with “temporary” or “controversial” borders. Only then can we negotiate the rest of the problems at hand. At the same time, Israel shall submit the Palestinian side a map with Israel’s vision for its future borders. Further buildup in the settlements would be put on hold as long as the talks are going on, in return for Palestinian refrain from hostile moves, such as approaching the International Court in Hague.
Mahmoud Abbas has to be invited, as the president of the State of Palestine, to speak in the Knesset as a formal guest. This visit’s choreography must be based on the historic visit of the late Egyptian President Anwar A-Sadat. That visit, as we all remember, was made prior to the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, but its importance in paving the way and creating the atmosphere for the talks is undeniable. Only the optimistic atmosphere created by the visit allowed both sides, Israel and Egypt, to make considerable concessions contrary to their own professed ideology. Emotions are a very important currency in the Middle East. Such an initiative, based on prompt recognition of Palestinian independence, may leverage the Gaza crisis to solve our long-term problems by creating future horizons for a two-state solution. In addition, it may convince the Palestinians that their time is not wasted, that they achieved something grand before negotiations have even begun.
Such an initiative, simultaneously with a disarmament settlement in Gaza, presumes an Israeli coalition of a different sort, certainly without Naftali Bennet and his hardline Jewish Home Party. It may require a bold political move, similar to the establishment of Kadima during the tenure of the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, or at least an ad-hoc coalition with the Labor Party. Netanyahu will not go for such an initiative willingly. Only strong pressure by the centrist parties in the coalition may create adequate conditions for its commencement. In any case, the initiative proposed above may serve as a purpose, goal and guiding vision for moderates in Israel. Only such a vision, a light at the end of the tunnel, may save us from the hell of reoccurring violence and leverage the Gaza disaster to a durable political solution.