The two-state solution: has its time finally arrived?

From the official Israeli perspective, the war in Gaza has one aim - the elimination of Hamas.

So far, it's not going particularly well. 

That is not surprising. Despite the IDF being well-equipped and well-funded, a ground war is Gaza was never going to be a walk in the park. 

Also, for reasons I previously explained in my post of 25th October entitled "How do you solve a problem like Hamas?", a war with a terror organisation is seldom won through conventional military means. As I pointed out in the early days of the war, "any 'solution' achieved purely through the use of force is likely to be counter-productive: kill one terrorist and three more will rise up in their place... Extremist ideologies cannot simply be countered through the use of military force." It was also obvious to me back then that "actions against innocent civilians that cause disproportionate human suffering will only strengthen Hamas", that "a worsening of tensions is in no-one’s interests other than Hamas" and that the Israeli offensive was "counter-productive". I added that "the danger is that Israel gives Hamas everything it wants. The death toll in Gaza is already helping them win the PR war, while establishing them – and not the PLO or Fatah – as the "true" Palestinian resistance."

Everything I said would happen is happening. That is not because I am some kind of expert in international relations, but because it should be patently obvious to anyone. As I also said on this blog - as early as 8th October - "Hamas must be resisted. But how Israel 'defends itself'  matters - it cannot be given carte blanche to use these attacks to punish Palestinians." It was not hard to foresee the consequences of military interventions that would inevitably hurt Palestinians living in Gaza far more than they would hurt Hamas.

An editorial

Why am I revisiting this today? I was reading the Jewish Telegraph this morning - always something worth reading, I should add - when I came across an editorial column arguing that Prince William's recent calls for a ceasefire were unhelpful. The editor, Paul Harris, made some very timely remarks about the Prince of Wales' role and why perhaps it is not useful for senior Royals to wander into the political sphere. But he also had this to say:

"[William], like Israelis and onlookers throughout the world, must also be saddened by the deaths of innocent Gazans, which are the direct fault of Hamas, and not of Israel, as so many are trying to suggest. Of course, it is Israel’s action in the terror enclave that has led to such massive loss of life, but the terrorists of Hamas have embedded themselves in densely populated areas, in schools and in hospitals, in the cynical knowledge — and with no thought for the obvious result of Israeli action on those sites — that world opinion will be on their side as Israel is cast as the aggressor...

"...Israel cannot leave the job part complete. Had Hamas immediately released the hostages rather than taunting Israel from the outset as if they were trophies, the military response might well have been less intense, albeit no less comprehensive in its mission to eliminate Hamas. Only Israel can decide when its operation in Gaza should end, and however unpleasant some of the concomitant results appear, this is a war and no leader from any other country, or indeed royals, watching from afar, has the right to dictate to the Jewish state. It merely plays into the hands of those whose intentions towards Israel and Jews are anything but benign."

My response to the four principal points

Mr Harris raises some points that I think are important to address. While I agree with him that Israel had every right to look to eliminate the threat of Hamas - indeed, I would go so far as to say they have a responsibility to - I am not so sure I can defend the strategy to date.

Firstly, to say that the deaths of innocent Gazans are solely the fault of Hamas is too simplistic. Yes, Hamas bear responsibility. But so too does the misguided Israeli strategy, which was always likely to prove self-defeating. There were various possible approaches that Israel could have taken towards Hamas, and it needs to own its own actions. Acting in anger and outrage, Israel responded exactly as Hamas wanted it to.

Secondly, Mr Harris is absolutely right when he observes that "Hamas have embedded themselves in densely populated areas, in schools and in hospitals", that Hamas had no thought for the impact of Israeli action on those sites or that world opinion would shift against Israel as it is "cast as the aggressor". But all that was foreseeable. I said as much in my piece dated 8th October. The Israeli government should also have been able to see that, as should the editor of the Jewish Telegraph. No doubt Hamas understood this only too well. And so the question has to be asked: why did Israel commit itself to a course of action that would inevitably play directly into Hamas's hands?  All this could have been avoidable had Israel considered alternative possibilities. Israel knew the nature of Hamas before 7th October and knew full well that the terrorists had "embedded themselves"; despite this, it pressed ahead with actions that would inevitably be construed by the outside world as having "no thought for the obvious result". Again, Israel must take some responsibility. 

Thirdly, Mr Harris talks about completing the job. He has already explained why Israel is losing the PR war and why military means alone are proving difficult. What he seems to imply here is that more of the same will eventually result in the desired outcome. I would counter by suggesting Israel will never be able to "complete" the impossible task through military means and that the only guaranteed outcome from continuing the approach ad infinitum will be the loss of more civilian lives. The sooner Israel realises it cannot win this war, at least by following its current strategy, the better. Nothing will be achieved by seeking to "complete" the destruction of Gaza: it certainly won't achieve the destruction of Hamas. 

Israel would be best advised to rethink its strategy rather than refusing to alter course. If Israel is serious about removing the threat from Hamas then it needs to radically change direction. That, of course, is anathema to Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud, but to many Israelis and Jews - who, like Mr Harris, are saddened by the destruction in Gaza - considering an altogether different approach to Hamas may not only seem sensible but necessary.

Mr Harris's final point is that only Israel can decide when its military operations should end. Of course he is correct. However, I reject the implication - and apologies to Mr Harris if I'm misreading him - that non-Israelis have no right to argue against actions that are self-defeating, futile and causing unnecessary human suffering while strengthening their supposed target. Yes, Israel must make its own decisions but cautioning Israel on the wisdom of actions that are already failing is not "dictating to the ||Jewish state". An a non-Israeli I would ask the Israeli government to consider the effectiveness of its current strategy and to act in ways that serve the interests of all who live within the State of Israel.  

The wider issue

There is a wider issue here. Understandably, Mr Harris is thinking in terms of how Israel defeats Hamas. I'm afraid I find that way of thinking too narrow - we should be thinking more in terms of how the international community can defeat the threat of Hamas. The military destruction of an entire terrorist group, especially one that is as well-funded and well-resourced as Hamas, is unrealistic. I suggested on 25th October that there were possibilities for isolating Hamas that could involve other nations, particularly in the Arab world. However, no-one is going to ally themselves with Israel's current assault on Gaza.

Isolating Hamas is the best course of action. It is quite clear that Netanyahu's government either fails to grasp this or has no idea how to achieve it. Only yesterday, The Guardian reported that "Israeli officials have said they want to use local administrators without links to either Hamas or the Palestinian Authority to run Gaza, and will set up small scale trials of the scheme as soon as 'the right people step up to the plate'." That anyone thinks that would work, or be acceptable to Palestinian people, is laughable. One way to isolate Hamas is the emergence of another voice for Palestinian self-expression, which must necessarily come from within Palestine. This must happen in collaboration with Arab states, who may be uncomfortable with the growing power of Hamas on their doorsteps but feel unable to be seen openly supporting Israel. The question is how this can be achieved so long as those Palestinians who may have once had little truck with Hamas are understandably reluctant to be perceived as collaborators with Israel. 

Israel's government seems determined to act in counter-productive fashion. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has called for tight restrictions on Muslim prayers including limiting the numbers of worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan - the implication being that Israel is now at war with Islam. This proposal has been denounced by the Spirit of Galilee, an Israeli Jewish group that advocates religious pluralism and peaceful co-existence. In a statement the group has said: "The Muslim citizens of Israel are not enemies. We are all neighbors and partners. In the name of the spirit of Israeli unity, in the name of the basic human values ​​of respect and solidarity, of 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' a doctrine at the foundation of the faith of all religions." Aside from the religious objections, it is stunning that Mr Ben-Gvir fails to appreciate the security implications of his proposal. 

Hamas will never be defeated so long as Benjamin Netanyahu is literally calling the shots. No Palestinian group will be willing to enter discussions with him; in any case Mr Netanyahu is reluctant to acknowledge any Palestinian group. It is this approach that has actually empowered Hamas and continues to do so.

The two-state solution

There has been a lot of call for ceasefires, which will inevitably change little. What is more encouraging has been the re-emergence of discussions around a two-state solution. In recent years it seemed like there was little chance of this ever materialising in the near future, not least because the Israeli Prime Minister and his party are implacably opposed. Israel, naturally, refuses to countenance the idea while Hamas wants nothing other than the obliteration of Israel. But these intransigent, uncompromising perspectives are proving an obstacle to what most people want to see: a lasting peace. US President Joe Biden has been most vocal in calls for a resurrection of the two-state solution, but he is far from alone: many EU states, Arab leaders, Australia, Canada and even China support it. In the UK, the Liberal Democrats are committed to the two-state solution. Why? Because it is becoming apparent that the status quo is inviable and that no other "solution" is going to work.

There are obvious challenges to the two state solution, not least Prime Minister Netanyahu and the fact that Israel's offensive in Gaza has had the unfortunate effect of increasing support for Hamas in the West Bank. This has resulted in PA President Mahmood Abbas refusing to condemn Hamas's atrocities outright, which in turn has led to further mistrust between Palestinians and Israelis. Israel's plans for a post-Hamas Gaza, unsurprisingly look like a blueprint for endless occupation, meaning few Palestinians have any faith in being allowed to build a viable free state. 

But there is hope. While Hamas's stock has increased in the West Bank this is not true in Gaza. The fact that Netanyahu is so opposed to PA involvement in Gaza means that, for the first time in many years, Palestinians see PA/Fatah oversight as a realistic alternative to Hamas rule.  Also, the survival of the Netanyahu government is by no means assured and, in the aftermath of protests, there is a tantalising possibility of a new, altogether more moderate and pragmatic, government taking control. The likes of Benny Gantz, a former general and IDF chief who is now an opposition leader serving within the emergency war cabinet, may well be among the voices of reason in the coming months putting pressure on the incumbent Prime Minister. A realist and the most popular politicians in Israel at the moment, Gantz understands the importance of continued US support for IDF funding and that Israel cannot "defend itself" or "stand alone" indefinitely. He is a key figure in what will happen next and, while not commanding a majority in the Knesset, could well create major problems for Netanyahu if he reaches the point where he can no longer serve in cabinet. Next week's municipal elections may give the outside world a clearer idea of Israeli citizens' views and levels of support for Likud and opposition parties and could spell the beginning of the end for Netanyahu.

Netanyahu's persistent rejection of the two-state solution has been guided by the need to shore up his right-wing coalition. But the political landscape is changing and Israel needs the US more than ever as it becomes more internationally isolated. The master of survival, Netanyahu will need to reach some kind of understanding with the US if he is to continue in office. 

The question of what happens in Gaza is central. Netanyahu's plan is a non-starter. Arab neighbours are not going to invest in the rebuilding of Gaza without guarantees of some kind of process by which Palestinian independence can be obtained. Israel cannot afford to rebuild while leaving a decimated Gaza in ruins will only guarantee Hamas' continued rule. With nowhere else to go, could Benjamin Netanyahu finally be persuaded it is in his own interests to pursue peace? 

The end goal

So, how can Hamas be defeated? The most obvious way is through a peace process with the end goal a two-state solution. Paul Harris asserts that Israel must be allowed to complete the job, but which job is he referring to? If it is the destruction of Gaza, then no - Israel must be actively discouraged from further counter-productive actions. But if, as I understand, Mr Harris means the weakening and eventual elimination of the threat from Hamas, then I agree. Israel must pursue this - but it would be better advised to achieve this through means that are likely to prove effective.

With or without Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel must finally realise that Hamas can only be eliminated not through an unending and brutal military conflict but a route to peace. This should not only establish the basis for a Palestinian state, but should also normalise relationships between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and potentially other Arab states. More calls for a two-state solution from the international community, including potentially a UN resolution that builds on Resolution 181 and Resolution 242, could be far more effective than calls for ceasefires in bringing Israel to the realisation that it must change course.

Waiting for the war to burn itself out, at such a time when one or both sides are militarily exhausted, is not desirable not least because it could take several years to reach that point. What is needed is the spirit of cooperation, openness and acceptance embodied by the Spirit of Galilee. So far neither side is willing to make the necessary compromises but political realities - and the costs of continued military failure - may yet see a change of approach from the Israeli government, and possibly even a change of government. 

As Mr Harris states in his editorial, Hamas has behaved as anyone could have predicted. Hamas is Hamas, created for the sole purpose of eliminating Israel and hardly interested in either a two-state solution of multilateral peace talks. He is also right in that Israel is now being cast as the aggressor, which only serves the terrorist group. It didn't have to be this way and there is still a chance of turning the situation around and working towards an enduring peace, if only Israel comes to understand that its current strategy is doomed to failure. 

Israel has a choice to make - to work towards peace, which will undermine and sideline Hamas, or to continue on the path towards self-destruction. The two-state solution is arguably the best weapon for ridding the region of Hamas. The road to peace is difficult but with no viable alternative options, perhaps the two-state solution's time has finally arrived?