Two states for two peoples
For Israelis and Palestinians now is the time for wiser men and women to step forward
In 1989 Francis Fukuyama pronounced the end of history and he came to regret it. A few months ago, Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser, said at an Atlantic Monthly conference: “the Middle East is quieter than it has been in decades.” To be fair, he was talking about Iraq, Yemen, and Iran. But what a horrifying difference a couple of months can make as we have since witnessed in Israel and Gaza.
The October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel resulted in 1,200 dead Israelis and 240 hostages being taken. In response, Israel launched attacks on Hamas positions in Gaza and its military entered the enclave, killing nearly 15,000 people over some 50 days, before a temporary ceasefire was announced.
Prior to the October 7 attacks, Israel was already in crisis. The country had just experienced 39 weeks of massive protests against its far-right wing government. For the first time in Israel’s history, army reservists were refusing to serve; sitting judges were on the streets in their robes protesting; and Israelis from the right, the left and the centre, both secular and some religious, hi-tech CEOs, and union members, all were demanding an end to the government’s proposals on judicial and religious reforms.
In the West Bank, settlements were expanding faster than ever before, and new illegal outposts were being constructed. Settler violence against Palestinians was rampant, including what people on both sides of the Green Line called a pogrom in the Palestinian town of Hawara. Over 100 Palestinians had been killed by a combination of Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers and settlers since the beginning of 2023, while over 30 Israelis were murdered in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and in parts of the West Bank in terrorist incidents.
Ironically though, it was eerily quiet in Gaza where the Netanyahu government was under the impression that by granting work permits to 20,000 Gazans, and by allowing Qatar to deliver millions of dollars per month to Hamas, the Gaza Strip and Hamas were under control.
Prior to the November 2022 election that brought Netanyahu and company to power, Israel had a broad coalition government that included politicians from the right, the centre, the left and even Israeli Arabs. It was far from perfect, but it brought together disparate elements of Israeli society rather than exploit their divisions. Given its multi-party character, it avoided radical or controversial policy proposals. It passed a budget that provided much needed funding for health, education, and the Israeli Arab sector. And it tentatively held out an olive branch to those Palestinians who were ready to talk peace.
In November 2022, Israel elected a very different coalition, one that included Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud party and others who hoped to use a majority in the Knesset to pursue a radical right-wing nationalist and religious agenda. Netanyahu’s goal, as it has been since he was first indicted for three criminal charges, was to guarantee himself a “get out of jail” card. His coalition partners’ objective was to remove the major obstacle to their religious and expansionist intentions – the power of Israel’s Supreme Court.
So, what brought hundreds of thousands of Israeli protestors onto the streets of almost every city in Israel for 39 straight weeks?
First, there were the government’s own ministers and their policies. Itamar Ben Gvir, the Minister of National Security, had a history of criminal convictions for racism and terrorism. He had called repeatedly for the expulsion of Arab citizens of Israel. Bezalel Smotrich, the Minister of Finance with added responsibilities for the West Bank is the leader of a far-right Religious Zionist party that advocates for full Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank and a ban on Israeli Arab political parties. He opposes the rights of the LGBTQ community. Aryeh Dery is the leader of an orthodox religious party called Shas. Netanyahu tried to appoint him as Minister of Health, Minister of Interior and Vice-Prime Minister. The Supreme Court barred Dery from assuming those positions based on his three prior convictions for tax fraud and a promise he had made to the Court not to run for elected office again if could escape jail time.
Second, the protestors opposed specific reforms that the coalition was trying to expedite through the Knesset. These included political control over appointments of judges to Israeli courts and a parliamentary override of Supreme Court decisions that would have left Israel as a tyranny of the majority.
Had these reforms passed, with a one seat majority vote, there would have been no other institution in the country able to protect the rights of the LGBTQ community, Israeli Arabs, workers, refugees, or any other minority group. Recall that Israel has no constitution, no Charter or Bill of Rights and no bicameral legislature, i.e., no sober second chamber to review and possibly oppose legislation.
And the reforms didn’t stop with the Courts. The government wanted to equate the status and the salaries of orthodox religious students with those of soldiers and exempt the former from military service. These measures would have further polarized the country with secular Israelis sending their children to the army to defend the country, while they subsidized a growing orthodox community whose young men spend their lives studying the Torah.
Some of the most extreme reforms were aimed directly at the Israeli Arab sector and included banning the Palestine flag within the Green Line, imposing the death penalty on Israeli Arabs convicted of terrorism and deporting them if convicted of the ill-defined crime of “disloyalty”. These provisions would not have applied to Jewish Israelis.
Missing for the most part from the protests was any attention to the treatment of Israeli Arabs in Israel or of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as the organizers wanted to minimize the fissures between the various groups of protesters.
Turning to the events of October 7, the massacre perpetrated by Hamas terrorists that day, and it was a horrific massacre, resulted in the largest number of Jewish civilians killed in one day since the Holocaust. This alone is key to understanding the almost universal support for a decisive and no holds barred response to what happened that exists in Israel today. And it is in part why seemingly rationale arguments for a more cautious and strategic way forward were rejected.
October 7 has been compared by the media to 9/11 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. There are of course similarities, but it was also different: it was the first attack on pre-1967 Israeli soil. It represented so massive an intelligence and military failure that it shook Israelis to the core, broke their contract with the state, the IDF and the Mossad, and made them question whether they can ever again be secure in the region, in their country and in their homes.
Israel’s stated war objectives, to eliminate the Hamas political and military leadership, also raised comparisons with the failed US efforts in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The difference, however, is that those wars didn’t take place on American soil. Israelis will tell you that they have nowhere else to go. For them, what happened on October 7 was existential.
Suffice it to say, the attack was also extremely well planned. Some 2,200 terrorists entered southern Israel and Hamas fired some 3,000 rockets in one day. It took Hamas a month to fire that many rockets during the last Hamas-Israeli conflict. The ease and success of the mission startled even Hamas.
So why did Hamas act and why then? First, the 1988 Hamas Charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the elimination of Jews from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. While Hamas amended the Charter in 2017 and softened some of the language, its determination to remove Israel from “Palestine” did not change. It has controlled Gaza with an iron fist since 2007 when it violently ousted the Palestinian Authority from the Gaza Strip. And if its intensions were not clear enough, a senior Hamas leader told the New York Times soon after October 7 that “Israel can expect a second, third and fourth attack until it is eliminated from the map. He added that “We must annihilate the country.”
There is also much speculation about why Hamas attacked when it did. It was, for example, 50 years plus a day from the start of the Yom Kippur War and on a holiday when soldiers spent the day with families and friends. Contrary to previously agreed protocols between Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians, certain Israeli coalition ministers had also been praying on the grounds of the Al Aqsa Mosque – shades of Ariel Sharon’s provocation in advance of the Second Intifada.
A key factor seems to have been that the IDF and Israel’s intelligence agencies had taken their eyes off of Gaza. Three military units were shifted to the West Bank to quell violence there – violence that was provoked by the coalition’s polices of settlement expansion and threats of annexation. Indeed, southern Israel along the Gaza border was woefully unprepared and far too reliant on technological solutions such as smart fences, sensors, drones, and remote-controlled machine guns.
Then, there was the Israel/US/Saudi agreement that was being negotiated and that would have specifically targeted Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. And, as with the Abraham Accords before it, the agreement was unlikely to provide much in the way of support for the Palestinian cause.
Indeed, Netanyahu appeared this year before the UN General Assembly and held up a map depicting an Israel that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. Moreover, he frequently boasted that Israel could now gain recognition from key Arab states without addressing Palestinian demands for a state of its own. The agreement he entered into with his right-wing coalition partners actually called for the annexation of the West Bank. It was therefore not surprising that Hamas leaders noted that their actions had finally put the Palestinian question back on the front pages.
After weeks of bombing and clearing much of northern Gaza, the IDF has now encircled Gaza City and the tunnels where they believed Hamas military and political leaders had been hiding. As a result, thousands of Palestinians have been killed and many injured. The vast majority are innocent civilians including upwards of 4,000 children. Those that have survived have been largely starved of food, water, medicines, and fuel. In addition, Hamas continues to use the civilian population as human shields, and hospitals and schools, as safe havens for its fighters. Indeed, the leader of Hamas in Gaza explained to the New York Times why ordinary Gazans were not being protected in their tunnels: “The tunnels are for us. UNRWA is supposed to take care of the civilians.”
Clearly, Israel has chosen, as most militaries do, to minimize the casualties to its own forces, almost irrespective of the collateral damage its operations cause. But whatever Israel’s rights and fears are, these do not, in my view, justify the siege and collective punishment that Israel initially imposed; nor the trickle of humanitarian supplies that it has permitted to enter Gaza up to now; nor the massive number of deaths and injuries of innocent Palestinian men, women and children. At a very minimum, a humanitarian pause should have been agreed to earlier on; one that would have allowed for the delivery of water, food, medicines, and other aid to those in need and to permit as many hostages and foreign nationals as possible to leave.
Israel should also realize that its actions will further radicalize Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and Muslims worldwide. It must realize that eliminating an ideology is far more difficult than killing Hamas’ leaders and destroying its infrastructure if that is possible.
Israel must also make clear that suggestions by some Israeli ministers to rid Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank, to drop a nuclear bomb on Gaza or to suggest that all Gazans were responsible for Hamas’ actions on October 7, are abhorrent and that those who mouth them should be held accountable. There is, of course, much debate over whether a cease fire should be continued or re-introduced with many international institutions, including the UN, and most NGOs demanding it. If Israel is going to continue to refuse such a move, and it likely will do so, as long as it can, it is incumbent on it to significantly reduce the number of civilian deaths and injuries it is causing going forward.
While the Occupation, the threats of annexation, and the failure of Israel for 15 years to even contemplate a horizon for peace cannot justify the horrific attacks of October 7, they do help explain why Israel quickly loses international and media sympathy, when their right to self-defence inevitably leads to the death and destruction we are witnessing today. The failure to address the Occupation, the covert support for Hamas aimed at dividing and conquering the Palestinians, and the day-to-day treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, especially under governments led by Netanyahu, mean that Israel is not perceived as coming to the table with clean hands. Context and root causes cannot justify terror, but they, Israel’s bravado, and its insensitive advocacy help to explain why sympathy and understanding for Israel’s situation is often short lived.
Looking beyond the war, Netanyahu’s time in office will likely be short-lived as well. The 39 weeks of protests prior to the war combined with a majority view that he bears direct responsibility for this national trauma, should mean that he will be forced to resign, either by his Likud colleagues or by even more massive protests. He and his coalition partners are way down in the polls. His radical reform agenda is, I believe, now off the table. Whether a new Likud leader capable of holding the current coalition together can be found, or a new and better grouping will unite to lead the country, or whether Israel will move to new elections remains unclear.
It is highly unlikely that Israel will want to re-occupy Gaza. Initially it will want to control the security situation in the Strip and be able to re-enter if there are signs of a resurgent Hamas. Hopefully, a new Israeli government will work with the US to install an interim, perhaps Gulf State led force and eventually a Palestinian governance mechanism. Reconstruction and the delivery of humanitarian aid will be the first priorities.
For the West Bank, the best-case scenario would see the provision of aid and training leading eventually to free and fair elections followed over time with elections in Gaza. If Salam Fayyad, the best finance and prime minister that the Palestinian Authority ever had, can be convinced to return, it would hasten the process. Hamas would not be allowed to participate in the elections. This will all take time and patience.
Perhaps the one glimmer of hope flowing from this horrific time for all concerned is that the importance of a two-state solution going forward is now back on the table. President Biden, Justin Trudeau, former Israeli PMs, Naftali Bennet, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert, among many others, are all saying that now is the time to give this option a chance.
The key question in the medium term is whether October 7 will move the country further right and closer to the abyss, or whether Israelis will finally realize that a permanent separation from Palestinians is a far better solution than a continuing Occupation.
Four years after the Yom Kippur War, Anwar Sadat spoke in Israel’s parliament. The historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn took place after the first Intifada. No one believed that Apartheid would end in South Africa when it did. No one saw the Berlin Wall falling when it did. No one thought the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland could make peace after 400 years of fighting.
I continue to believe that two states for two peoples is the only solution for Israelis and Palestinians. The six final status issues to be resolved are well known and can be achieved with strong leadership backed by political will and the strength to reject efforts by extremists on both sides to thwart peace. And I hope that the horrific crisis that we are witnessing today may be the impetus for wiser men and women in Israel and Palestine to finally realize this.
To avoid these repeated cycles of violence, real efforts must be made to create a political horizon. The most important signal that Israel could send now would be to unequivocally stop settlement expansion and begin to dismantle the settlement outposts that its own Supreme Court has declared illegal. On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas should unequivocally denounce Hamas’ attack on October 7, reaffirm his support for a two-state solution, and pledge to move toward elections.