Regional reaction to the Gaza-Israel conflict reveals a potential sea-change in the geopolitics of the Middle East. Perhaps an opportunity can be seized in a historic pivot toward peace.
No longer are we witnessing a polar alignment of Arabs against Jews, as in the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973. Organizations such as Hamas, ISIS, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Al Qaeda have changed that. Moderate Arab nations do not support Hamas because the spread of extremism threatens them just as it threatens Israel. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and other moderate Arab states know they have far less to fear from Israel than from Islamic fundamentalism.
There is expanded common ground between Israel and many of its neighbors. Egypt and Saudi Arabia oppose the Muslim Brotherhood and its branches, such as Hamas. A recent Egyptian cease-fire initiative in Gaza was supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan and accepted by Israel, but rejected outright by Hamas.
Like Israel, Egypt shares a border with Gaza–and like Israel Egypt has seen fit to close that border. Neither wants to be infiltrated by terrorists, or facilitate Hamas’ efforts to smuggle more rockets from Syria and Iran. The terror tunnels, constructed with concrete that should have been used for hospitals and schools, would be no more welcome under Egyptian soil than Israeli.
In many ways the moderate Arab nations have less in common with Hamas than with the citizens of Israel. Indeed, well over a million Arabs live as citizens within Israel proper. Most are Muslim, and they are vital members of Israel’s society and economy. These Arabs work in Israel, vote in Israeli elections, and a number presently serve in the Israeli legislature. Two Arabs have served on Israel’s Supreme Court; a current justice has now served for over 10 years.
Jews and Arabs can get on quite well, and prosper together, when extremism is removed from the equation. The West Bank, under the leadership of the more moderate Fatah Palestinians, has prospered even as Gaza’s economy has rotted under the yoke of extremism and corruption.
Might we be witnessing the beginnings of a transformation in Middle East politics? If so it would not be the first time in recent history. A momentous sea-change took hold in 1979 as a result of bold and courageous leadership: Egyptian Prime Minister Anwar Sadat offered peace and recognition of Israel’s right to exist, in exchange for return of the Sinai Peninsula. A genuine opportunity of “land for peace” was at hand and Israel readily embraced it, removing its settlers and permanently withdrawing from this “occupied” territory. Although Sadat was soon after assassinated by Egyptian extremists, the peace between Egypt and Israel has held ever since, 35 years and counting.
In 1994 Jordan and Israel agreed to a milestone peace accord. It too has been durable, and held ever since.
Unfortunately, the success of Israel’s peace accords with Egypt and Jordan has not, to date, been duplicated with the Palestinians.
The Palestinians rejected the opportunity for statehood that accompanied the UN Partition (which Israel accepted) in 1947. They declined another opportunity for statehood in the talks initiated at Camp David in 2000, between President Clinton, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Could the changing landscape open the door to renewed opportunities? Those Palestinians who recognize Israel’s right to exist (as Egypt and Jordan have), and agree to a sustainable and genuine peace (as Egypt and Jordan have), may yet have an independent state and enhance stability in the region.
Unfortunately for the Fatah Palestinians of the West Bank, this cannot happen while Hamas is in the picture. Hamas’ very charter–that document which defines its purpose and its goals–explicitly calls for the obliteration of Israel, and explicitly rejects peace negotiations or any “solution” to the conflict other than jihad. None of this changed when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and the “occupation” ended. In fact, the Israeli withdrawal was rewarded with increased rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.
Hamas’ unwavering commitment to terror and hatred is so alien to American culture that it is difficult for us to grasp. But if American readers want to begin to understand it, Google the Hamas Charter and have a look for yourself. Then watch YouTube videos of US network television coverage of Palestinians celebrating in the streets on September 11, 2001, as thousands of American civilians were dying. Such extremists are a small minority in the West Bank. But in Gaza this is the mindset that drives the agenda.
How to achieve peace, then, with Hamas? It’s simple, really: when all Jews are obliterated or gone from Israel, Hamas will stop attacking them. This leaves Israel with two options: face extermination, or fight back. This “choice” is not difficult for the descendants of six million holocaust victims; their conviction to defend themselves is galvanized by the lesson of history.
But even as moderate Arab nations disassociate from Hamas, the Fatah Palestinians embrace Hamas in a “unity government.” This undermines Fatah’s credibility and sabotages any plan for a peaceful two state solution. Are not the ways of Hamas anathema to most West Bank Palestinians? Fatah and Hamas have fought each other in the recent past. Now it is their partnership that informs the civilized world of the implausibility, if not impossibility, of a peaceful Palestinian state.
That can change, if Fatah follows the leadership of the moderate Arab states and severs its futile and ruinous partnership with Hamas.
Sadat, a leader who faced tremendous pressure to bow to extremism, courageously rejected it and endowed his people with an enduring gift of peace. And, let us not forget that Israel, as Sadat’s partner in peace, withdrew its troops and dismantled its settlements in the occupied Sinai. If a like opportunity were to arise for a secure and durable peace with a newly-formed moderate Fatah-Palestinian state in the West Bank, it would be in Israel’s best interests to dismantle West Bank settlements in a plan similar to that offered in 2000 following Camp David. Trade, economic development, and opportunity would flourish.
What of Gaza? When the terrorists who rule Gaza are gone, when there are no more smuggled rockets fired from Palestinian hospitals into Israeli neighborhoods, when concrete is used to construct schools instead of terror tunnels, and when the people of Gaza are prepared to oust Hamas, lay down their arms, and recognize Israel’s right to exist in peace, Gaza too can enjoy the fruits of peace and prosperity. Until, then, Fatah should not wait for them. It cannot be Hamas’ hostage any longer.