Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is a senior fellow at INSS and the Miryam Institute. He is the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy, Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change and the new Israel and the Cyber Threat: How the Startup Nation Became a Global Superpower.
Regardless of how the war in Gaza ends, Israel will be a deeply scarred nation that will need years to recover. Fortunately, Israeli society has proven time and time again to be remarkably resilient, with the ability to bounce back from shattering events. Little, however, if anything, compares to what they are now facing.
U.S. President Joe Biden, and other international and Arab leaders, have repeatedly stressed the need for a postwar peace process leading to a two-state solution. Some, like the President, have done so for well-meaning reasons, others for more narrow-minded ones.
On paper, it is easy to lay out the contours of a renewed peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. One can also easily envisage a role for the Saudis, as a means of both promoting renewed peace talks and saving normalization with Israel, whose regional effects would have been transformational. International crises do, at times, produce the conditions necessary for diplomatic breakthroughs. Such was the case after the Yom Kippur War. The current situation, however, is very different.
Hamas is a radical theocratic sub-state actor whose raison d’être is Israel’s destruction. There is simply no scenario in which it becomes a partner for a future peace agreement, as did Anwar Sadat’s Egypt. Even our hopes for a temporary cessation of hostilities proved illusory, as was so tragically and horrifically demonstrated on Oct. 7.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), which lost control of Gaza to Hamas in a bloody civil war in 2007, never succeeded in exerting effective control even over the West Bank. The battle to succeed president Mahmoud Abbas, now 88, began long before the war and one of Hamas’s primary reasons for starting it was to best position itself, politically, as his successor. After its dramatic “victory” in the first days of the war, Hamas very well may end up being even more popular. To most eyes, Gaza will look like anything but a victory when the war ends (indeed, it already is a disaster), but Hamas has long had a perverse logic: The more the Palestinian people suffer, the better, as more people rally behind Hamas’s brand of fundamentalist extremism and the world turns against Israel.
Even assuming optimistically that a new Palestinian leadership emerges, it requires a leap of imagination to believe that it would be willing, or politically capable, of changing the unique and long-standing form of Palestinian rejectionism that led them to repeatedly turn down or simply walk away from dramatic peace proposals. The list includes prime minister Ehud Barak’s proposals at Camp David in 2000, the Clinton Parameters later that year and prime minister Ehud Olmert’s proposals in 2008. These proposals would have given the Palestinians an independent state on essentially all of the West Bank and Gaza, an unlimited return of refugees to the Palestinian state, a division of Jerusalem and its holy places, and a capital in the eastern part of the city.
The PA ostensibly supports the two-state solution, but has yet to accept any peace proposal, or present a single comprehensive one of its own. Hamas rejects any solution in which Israel continues to exist.
It further requires considerable optimism to believe that any government in Israel today will again propose similar terms. A division of Jerusalem might, arguably, have been possible in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the peace process was at its height and there was a sense of hope in the air. After the war, both the left and the right in Israel will have to rethink some of their most deeply cherished beliefs. There is one issue, however, on which they are likely to agree fully: that Israel’s most important objective in any peace agreement, the absolute minimum – ironclad security arrangements that will protect the country and its people – is no longer attainable.
In short, expectations for a revitalized peace process appear to be very premature. They will also have to await the emergence of a more centrist Israeli government, something that is likely, but not assured, in the months after the war.
None of this should be construed to mean that any of the fundamental strategic considerations that existed before the war will have changed, with the exception of security. Both Israelis and Palestinians will still have to live in the same tiny territory, the long-term demographic challenge to Israel’s Jewish and democratic character will remain unchanged, and the need to separate will be as acute as ever.
If Israel successfully achieves its two primary objectives, destroying Hamas as a coherent military force and toppling it as the governing body in Gaza, it will undoubtedly wish to maintain some degree of continuing security control, but not remain fully deployed as an occupying force. Someone else will thus have to take over.
The obvious candidate, the PA, is clearly incapable of doing so on its own. One could imagine an international coalition to provide the PA with the diplomatic auspices and political legitimization necessary to do so. The problem, however, is that remnants of Hamas and other organizations will do their very best to kill the new leaders and topple the government.
An international force will thus be necessary not just to keep the peace, but to enforce it militarily. International forces can be effective in situations in which all sides are truly committed to peace and to their success. When this is not the case, they are typically of little value. Moreover, the list of countries that have both the ability and willingness to send effective forces is likely to be painfully short, or almost non-existent.
For Israel, the Oslo peace process was predicated on three fundamental criteria that the Palestinians have failed at abysmally: effective governance, an end to terrorism, and a willingness to live in peace alongside a Jewish and democratic Israel. Instead, a corrupt dictatorship was established in the West Bank, a radical, genocidal theocracy in Gaza, not to mention waves of never-ending terrorism. Israel’s settlement policy, which grossly undermined Palestinian belief in the feasibility of peace, is also responsible for the failure of the peace process and two-state solution. As the only solution that addresses most of both sides’ national aspirations, its demise would be a historic tragedy.
Palestinian hopes for a fully independent state are likely one of the major casualties of Hamas’s attack, at least for a very long time. For now and the foreseeable future, the most that can realistically be expected – and even this is a tall order – is the idea of civil separation that has been raised in Israel in recent years.
Under this proposal, Israel would cease settlement in those parts of the West Bank that a centrist government would not wish to keep in a final peace agreement, probably over 90 per cent of the land, and existing settlers would be gradually relocated back to Israel proper. The Israel Defence Forces, however, would remain fully deployed throughout the West Bank as necessary, for security purposes. Israel would thereby ensure its future as a predominantly Jewish and democratic state, as well as its security needs, and conditions would be preserved for a possible two-state agreement, should the necessary conditions emerge.