Israel’s devastating air, naval and ground assault of Gaza has destroyed many rockets and their launchers and the maze of underground tunnels, to say nothing of inflicting a terrible loss of life and property. The military threat posed by Hamas has been, for the short and even medium-term, seriously eroded. But what happens after the military campaign is over? Will this latest round of violence bring Israel and the Palestinians any closer to a durable peace? Sadly, as long as Israeli policy remains focused on responding to hostilities versus resolving the conflict, the answer is a resounding no.
Everything Israel does vis-à-vis its neighbors in Gaza and the West Bank should be assessed on its ability to empower Palestinian moderates and erode the popularity of extremists. Israel’s policy mantra should be: empower the political center, marginalize the extremes. Do the current hostilities help Israel accomplish this?
Quite clearly the reverse is true. Israel’s military campaign unifies Palestinian moderates and extremists around the perceived heroism and courage of militants who resist the continued “occupation” of Gaza and attack Israel. Of course Israel has the right to protect its people from rocket attack and from underground tunnels. No one disputes that. But the invasion of Gaza bolstered the image and popularity of extremists when support for Hamas was declining. At the same time, Mahmoud Abbas has been widely scorned if not ridiculed in the West Bank for having nothing to show for his long-term effort to make peace with Israel. In other words, current Israeli policy has enhanced support for extremists while eroded popularity for the political center. This is directly contrary to what Israeli policy should promote, indicating a need to change direction with a bold initiative.
There has been talk of offering a huge carrot to Gaza and its militant leadership: give up violent resistance and accept Israel’s right to exist in exchange for receiving a massive amount of development aid. We understand the sentiment here but the idea that diehard militants will be bought off represents a cynical calculation doomed to fail. A more plausible strategy involves offering assistance to someone Israel can do business with. The time has come to empower Mahmoud Abbas by allowing him to present something tangible to his supporters. Israel should negotiate an enduring peace with him, regardless of his unity pledge with Hamas, and offer massive aid from Israel and the world community to implement a Marshall plan for the West Bank. If a durable peace can be brokered resulting in significant new investment, many new jobs and a rising standard of living, Israel can develop a significant constituency for peace in the West Bank by linking an end of hostilities to economic prosperity.
Peace and prosperity in the West Bank would have a desired political effect in Gaza. As the economic and financial gulf between the West Bank and Gaza widens, Gaza residents, worried about being left behind, would apply increasing pressure on Hamas to change direction or risk being stripped of political power. If Israel is serious about regime change in Gaza, it will pursue a focused policy to connect peace with prosperity in the West Bank. Regime change will be undertaken in Gaza by the residents of Gaza themselves not by Israeli military campaigns. The only effective way to dislodge Hamas is from below.
So important questions remain: Does Israel have the political will to make a deal with Mahmoud Abbas despite Fatah’s unity agreement with Hamas? Could it achieve a durable peace in the West Bank and establish a political and economic wedge between Fatah and Hamas resulting in political pressure on Hamas from its own citizens? At the moment there is no sign of this policy shift, yet it remains Israel’s best chance to undermine Hamas and establish a lasting peace with its Palestinian neighbors.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.