Comment: Israel, U.S. far apart on vision for a post-war Gaza

Netanyahu rejects a path that gives Palestinians ‘a voice and a vote’ sought by the Biden administration.

By Daniel DePetris / For the Chicago Tribune

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in an unenviable position. Having been caught flat-footed by the worst terrorist attack in Israel’s history, his approval rating remains in the gutter.

Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, stretching into its fifth month, and the terrible, some would say indiscriminate, damage the fighting has done to the 2 million Palestinians who live there have sullied Israel’s international reputation. Hamas’ military brigades have been dealt a blow, but Netanyahu’s insistence on “total victory” sounds as if he genuinely believes the organization is like a conventional army that can be wiped out.

The war is also forcing Netanyahu to engage in a difficult balancing act. On one side is President Biden’s administration, by far Israel’s closest ally. On the other is Netanyahu’s governing coalition, stacked with far-right, ultranationalist ministers who don’t care about the Palestinians one iota, would rather toss the so-called two-state concept into the ash heap of history and wouldn’t mind pushing Palestinians in Gaza across the border into Egypt. Netanyahu can’t satisfy one without disappointing the other, which is why he has stonewalled calls for postwar plans in Gaza.

That is, until last week. After months of prodding from U.S. officials, Netanyahu finally released a rough outline on how he envisions Gaza’s future after the war. The document is less of a plan and more of a wish list of unworkable items meant to ensure that the most unflappable, hardheaded extremists in his Cabinet, such as Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister, don’t bolt from the government. In the contest between the U.S. and the Ben-Gvirs of the world, the Americans have lost.

Even as it provides unconditional support for Israel, the Biden administration has been crystal clear about its own vision for Gaza once the shooting stops. First, the Palestinian Authority, which governs roughly a third of the West Bank and used to rule Gaza until it was thrown out by Hamas in 2007, should return to the enclave. Second, Gaza’s territory shouldn’t be reduced. Third, Gaza shouldn’t be under Israeli reoccupation. And finally, Gaza must eventually be reunified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority, which would ideally result in negotiations leading to the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s vision, however, pretty much takes those U.S. requests and flushes them down the toilet.

His plan would prevent the Palestinian Authority from returning to Gaza after a 17-year hiatus in favor of handing over administrative responsibilities to local Palestinian business, clan or community leaders. Israel’s military would retain freedom of movement throughout Gaza and be in charge of security for the long term. The Egypt-Gaza border would be shut down entirely, and the entire Israel-Gaza border would be padded with a security buffer zone on Gaza’s side of the boundary. No reconstruction would be permitted until Gaza is completely deradicalized.

As far as a Palestinian state is concerned, there isn’t much to talk about. Netanyahu prides himself on being the one man who has obstructed such a state for the better part of a quarter century. The prospects of him waking up one morning and changing his entire political persona are nonexistent. Simply put: The Palestinian state the Americans are aspiring for is not going to happen as long as Netanyahu is sitting in the prime minister’s chair.

U.S. officials greeted the plan with justifiable skepticism. John Kirby, the White House’s national security spokesman, told a news briefing that “the Palestinian people should have a voice and a vote … through a revitalized Palestinian Authority.”

While prefacing that he hadn’t read Netanyahu’s plan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the terms that would be acceptable from a U.S. standpoint: no Israeli reoccupation, no shrinkage of Gaza’s territory and no terrorism emanating from Gaza. Netanyahu will obviously agree on the last item. But the first two are anathema to him and would split his Cabinet, even if he were willing to sign on to them.

On the bright side, there is always the possibility that Netanyahu’s list of demands is just the opening gambit in what could be a long, painful, drawn-out negotiation with the Americans. It’s also possible that Netanyahu could cave on some of the less important items on his list. Such a development wouldn’t be without precedent; there was a time when the Israelis were dead set against allowing any humanitarian relief into Gaza, only to drop the position once it became unsustainable with Israel’s partners in Washington.

Hopefully, this is the case because, as it stands, the Israeli government’s post-Gaza scenario is almost comically inept and not worth the paper it’s written on. It would saddle the Israeli military with a long-term occupation in an area now steaming with resentment after nearly five months of bombing and almost 30,000 Palestinian deaths. Deradicalization is no doubt a worthy, noble goal, but it will be resource-intensive and entails setting up an entirely new social contract with the residents there; people, again, who have no reason to cooperate after the bloodshed they’ve experienced. Good luck trying to find local Palestinian notables who will step up to the plate, particularly when the price of doing so could be death.

The Israelis could also kiss normalization with Saudi Arabia goodbye. As recently as Feb. 6, the Saudi Foreign Ministry stated that no normalization with Israel is possible until “an independent Palestinian state” is established on the 1967 borders and all Israeli forces withdraw from Gaza. Needless to say, Netanyahu’s plans would prevent that Palestinian state from emerging.

The war in Gaza is nothing short of horrific. We could say the same thing about Israel’s long-term outlook after the war is over.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune. ©2024 Chicago Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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