Assuming Israel achieves its articulated objective of destroying Hamas, the fighting in Gaza will inevitably end with Israeli reoccupation. What then? Israel, the Arab World, and the international community will have to address that question.
Media reports suggest that the United States and many Arab states are pressing for the return of the Palestinian Authority, while Israel apparently opposes this and seems to want “something else.” Unfortunately, neither approach addresses the fatal flaw in the Oslo peace process that inexorably led to 7 October – that Palestinian political institutions lack the legitimacy that can only come from genuine democracy. Anyone can tell people what they want to hear but only democratic regimes can tell people what they need to know – and hence sell the hard choices required to make peace.
As such, the best approach is to reorient Palestinian political institutions towards genuine democratic legitimacy. A good start is to actually ask Gazans what they want.
The Gazans should be offered a menu of alternatives from which to choose. One option certainly should be to restore the rule of the Palestinian Authority, which had governed Gaza between 1994 and 2007, when it was violently ejected by Hamas.
Another option, assuming that Cairo agrees, could be for Egypt – which occupied Gaza between 1949 and 1967 – to re-establish its rule there, although this time with the assent of the Gazans. This option is simple and could engender an economic renaissance along the Sinai coast.
But Gazans may not want the Palestinian Authority to return, given its poor record of governance. And they may not want to forfeit their unique identity as Palestinians and simply be absorbed into a much larger Arab polity. They should be offered other alternatives.
One that should be considered is to offer the Gazans the opportunity to establish their own autonomous institutions – a “Gaza Authority” that would function parallel to the Palestinian Authority. Such an approach would engender no real impediment to final status talks with Israel. The citizens of both the Palestinian and Gazan Authorities should together choose through elections the representatives authorized to negotiate on their behalf. Furthermore, any final status agreement should be ratified by referendums held by both Israelis and Palestinians.
If Gaza chooses to establish its own autonomous institutions, it will need help. Countries like Bahrein, Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE can offer to assist with this. So can the United States, which has been developing a new capability within the Army’s Civil Affairs branch that specializes in the restoration of civil governance.
Israel’s Arab community, with the sponsorship of its government, should also consider offering to help. Many of Israel’s Arab citizens have both the skills and experience required. Furthermore, surveys suggest that most Israeli Arabs identify as ethnically Palestinian, are proud to be Israeli, and strongly support the creation of a peaceful Palestinian state alongside Israel. They could clearly play a positive role in the difficult months and years that lie ahead.
Of course, Gazans may choose “none of the above,” essentially signaling that they want Hamas to govern them once again. That too is a choice that should be respected. But it needs to be clear to the people of Gaza that such a choice is in practice a choice of permanent Israeli occupation. The reality is that the United States, Israel, and our Arab allies can only help the people of Gaza if they choose to help themselves.