Encountering peace: Southern Israelis, Gazans have little choice

The period of time between each flare-up is shortening and the damage, death, and destruction are increasing

A GAZA CITY resident searches for his belongings under the rubble of a building that was destroyed during air strikes by Israel. (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS)
A GAZA CITY resident searches for his belongings under the rubble of a building that was destroyed during air strikes by Israel.
It is true that the Israeli prime minister’s strategic plan is to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. A large part of that strategy aims to keep a weak Hamas government in control of Gaza. This has been his policy for years. Netanyahu is not different from previous leaders of Israel in that no government of Israel has ever made a formal decision to support the two-state solution. No government of Israel has ever made a formal decision to destroy Hamas either.
Though Israel has designated Hamas a terrorist organization, yet since it took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has engaged in policies that have strengthened the organization, and since Netanyahu was elected in 2009, he has also engaged in policies aimed at weakening Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. While it is known that this resolves nothing and leads to continued rounds of warfare, in Netanyahu’s eyes, in the interest of preventing the formal birth of a Palestinian state, Israel can pay that price – and apparently so can Hamas.
The people living in the South and the people living in Gaza have little choice and are not asked what they think should be done. The choices on policy options are quite complex and really do demand the development of a strategic outlook for the next years. Currently, in the absence of any strategic outlook, both from Israel and from Hamas, we are in a mode of operation of trying to manage an unmanageable conflict. The result is the periodic flare-ups of violence and warfare.
The period of time between each flare-up is shortening and the damage, death, and destruction are increasing. How much longer can both sides afford to not engage in a serious in-depth analysis of their strategic options and then make their best efforts to develop a strategic course that will significantly change the situation on the ground?
Israel has a military option that is possible but extremely costly. Israel could re-occupy Gaza. The military cost would be high in loss of human life and in money. But the main problem with this option is the day after. The amount of time required to stay in Gaza – to collect weapons, kill and pursue Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders, while at the same time managing the daily lives of two million people – would result in a daily bloodshed of both Israelis and Palestinians.
There is also no clear exit strategy for this option. The international community would be strongly against Israel and Israel’s relations with both Jordan and Egypt would be threatened along with any achievements Israel has made with other Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. The price is simply too high to pursue this option. 
Hamas has a military option to continue its war against Israel. It could continue to extract a high price from Israel and to bring great suffering to the Israeli people, but Hamas would clearly suffer more. The disproportionate ability of Israel to hurt Gaza more than Gaza can hurt Israel is so outstanding that other than extracting some pain to the Israeli people, continued warfare initiated by Hamas is unlikely to have dramatic results – certainly less dramatic than other existing options.
THE NON-POLITICAL humanitarian option involves engaging in policies that would loosen the siege on Gaza, allowing goods and people to leave Gaza, expand the list of goods and raw materials allowed to enter Gaza, including building materials, allowing Palestinian laborers to work in Israel, allowing students from Gaza to leave to universities in the West Bank and beyond, etc. Under this scenario, the international community would be more willing to invest resources toward developing Gaza’s destroyed infrastructure, including electricity production, water desalination, sewage treatment, etc.
Hamas would continue to control Gaza, and international support would be more than it is today, but still limited, unless Hamas changes its policies and is willing to cease its military actions against Israel. This option is not really possible and will not be accepted by Israel as long as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and two living Israeli civilians remain in Gaza as hostages of Hamas. Israel may agree with Egypt to advance policies that would loosen the siege, but I seriously doubt that they will be implemented until there is another deal made between Israel and Hamas on this issue. Even then, I doubt if Netanyahu will change his grand strategy of preventing the emergence of a Palestinian state, by ensuring that Gaza remains under Hamas rule and keeping Hamas in its very anti-Israel positions.
The most productive option would be to implement the policies of advancing the loosening of the siege and renewing negotiations with the PA on permanent status agreements. This would also involve removing most of the obstacles which significantly block real economic development of the Palestinian economy. It would mean also returning the tax monies collected by Israel on behalf of the PA, even if they use part of the money in supporting the families of Palestinians who have killed Israelis. It means understanding that Israel has a real interest in a peaceful Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. But there is little chance that Netanyahu will adopt anything close to this option.
So what remains before us are policies that wither away at the ability of the Palestinian Authority to govern in the West Bank, and policies that keep Hamas in power in Gaza and will ensure repeated rounds of warfare between Gaza and Israel. Each side will claim victory after each round, while in reality, both sides are the losers. As long as each side believes the other side lost more, they will continue to delude themselves that real victory is actually possible without ever sitting down at the table and trying to negotiate a way out of this mess.

The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.