The balance sheet

The big plan being bandied about on the Israeli center left is to offer Gaza ‘reconstruction for demilitarization’.

A woman walks in the rubble after Israeli air strikes and shelling in Khuzaa (photo credit: FINBARR O'REILLY / REUTERS)
A woman walks in the rubble after Israeli air strikes and shelling in Khuzaa
(photo credit: FINBARR O'REILLY / REUTERS)
THE GAZA campaign has taken a heavy toll. Tragic loss of life on both sides. Vast destruction. Mass displacement. Serious humanitarian concerns. Strains in Israel’s relations with the US. Searing worldwide criticism of Israel and possible legal steps against its leaders.
In early August, after a month of fighting, Israel redeployed its forces in Gaza without having won a decisive victory. After six Hamas humanitarian cease-fire violations, the government decided to drop plans for a negotiated new arrangement for Gaza through Egyptian auspices. The hope was that staying away from talks in Cairo would pressure Hamas into accepting a deal favorable to Israel or remaining empty-handed.
Commentators in Israel and abroad were not convinced. Many concluded that while Israel had clearly won the war, it had, despite Hamas’s criminal targeting of civilians and callous use of women and children as human shields, lost the diplomatic battles for world opinion and for a new more peaceful Gaza.
On the ruins of Gaza, however, there are opportunities for far-reaching regional change. Its central pillar could be a long-term Israeli-Palestinian accommodation.
But it is unlikely that the parties involved will be able to produce the necessary leadership skills to bring it off.
The regional conditions are propitious.
Hamas is isolated. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, most of the Gulf States, the Palestinian Authority and Israel have a shared interest in containing Islamist extremism. So do Europe and the US.
The big plan being bandied about on the Israeli center left is to offer Gaza “reconstruction for demilitarization” in a dramatic bid to create new peacemaking conditions. The move would be initiated by Israel, led by the US, backed by the Arab League and underpinned by a binding UN Security Council Resolution.
The Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, would be given responsibility for overseeing the reconstruction. Reconstruction funds transferred to the PA would be earmarked for specific projects and closely monitored.
There would be a parallel international monitoring mechanism for demilitarization and prevention of rearmament or new tunnel building. Dual-use materials like cement and fertilizer would be carefully tracked. Egypt would help prevent arms smuggling. The degree of investment in reconstruction would be linked to the degree of demilitarization.
ISRAEL WOULD recognize the joint Fatah-Hamas government of reconciliation and begin negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on an overall Israeli-Palestinian peace in both Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah formally cedes the governing of Gaza to Abbas’s PA. PA officials, not Hamas, would man the border crossing points, with the aim of gradually extending the PA security presence into Gaza itself.
The aim would be to show Gazans a different model: Instead of violence, siege and suffering – would come building, economic growth, jobs, extended fishing rights, offshore gas development and opening Gaza to the world in the form of border crossing points, a seaport and an airport. Not because of Hamas, but despite Hamas.
There would be a similarly generous economic package for the West Bank to underline the efficacy of Abbas’s nonviolent approach. A key player in all this would be Egypt’s new president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, intent on weakening Hamas’s position in Gaza and using the results of the current fighting to build a comprehensive PA-led Israeli-Palestinian peace. To help underpin peace talks with the PA, Israel would accept the Arab League Initiative of 2002 as a basis for negotiation toward full normalization of its ties with the Muslim world.
This highly ambitious version of “reconstruction for demilitarization,” however, has two major stumbling blocks.
For one, recognizing the Fatah-Hamas unity government as a means of negotiating a two-state solution between Israel and all of Palestine runs counter to the current government’s policy of differentiation between the West Bank and Gaza, long held for precisely the opposite reason – as a means of avoiding a two-state deal on the grounds that Abbas could not deliver Gaza.
Therefore, the current Israeli government is unlikely to go for it. And, secondly, even if it does, who would disarm Hamas if the economic package fails to convince its leaders to do so voluntarily? As he wound down the land campaign in early August, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that the favorable new regional alignments could open up new diplomatic opportunities for Israel.
A test of his intentions will be whether or not he changes course and recognizes the Palestinian unity government as a means of increasing PA influence in Gaza.
However, given strong right-wing pressure in both the Likud and the coalition, Netanyahu will probably opt for a less ambitious version of “reconstruction for demilitarization.” The main objective will be to prevent Hamas from rearming or building new tunnels. To this end Israel will support an effective international monitoring mechanism, while retaining the right to attack if the non-rearmament terms are violated. Netanyahu will not object to a long-term phased reconstruction for demilitarization deal; he sees what he calls “economic peace” as a stabilizing influence, a disincentive for war. But given the rightwing pressure and his own independent resolve to retain security control over the West Bank and to have the international community do so as far as possible over Gaza, he is unlikely to make any serious moves toward a two-state solution.
Indeed, the argument in Israel over whether or not to try to topple the Hamas leadership in Gaza touched on the different visions of “reconstruction for demilitarization.”
Some on the center left advocated toppling Hamas to make way for a more moderate leadership willing to demilitarize and move toward a wider accommodation; they also suspected Netanyahu’s more limited war aims were at least partly designed to leave Hamas in power and absolve him of the need to negotiate with an empowered Abbas on a two-state solution.
Whether Israel goes for the ambitious or the smaller reconstruction for demilitarization deal, American backing will be essential.
Therefore Netanyahu’s highly publicized spats with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are regrettable. Indeed, the government’s public trashing of Kerry’s cease-fire efforts in late July seems particularly egregious.
On the understanding that Netanyahu wanted a cease-fire, Kerry travelled to Cairo where he found the Egyptians in no hurry and with no effective levers to press Hamas into ending the shooting. He therefore went on to Paris where he tried to bring in Turkey and Qatar, the two Middle East countries closest to Hamas and the only ones likely to be able to influence the terrorist organization.
According to the Americans, the paper he passed on to Netanyahu from the French capital was not an American proposal – but rather an outline of the terms of a cease-fire that could be had at that time, which Israel could have easily and discreetly rejected.
The characterization ministers leaked to the press of Kerry undermining Israeli interests – calling his paper a “strategic terrorist attack” – was unfair and irresponsible. It constituted a continuation of right-wing efforts to ridicule and discredit Kerry over his effort to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace they see as a threat to Israel’s hold over the West Bank.
This is at the heart of the friction between the two countries. The US sees Israeli- Palestinian accommodation as a key to wider regional stability and as a basis for strengthening the moderate Sunni axis.
In the American view, it could also enable the axis to be gradually extended to include more radical players like Turkey and Qatar, while blocking Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaida and other intractable jihadist groups.
NETANYAHU, HOWEVER, sees long-term Israeli security control over the West Bank as essential. Otherwise, he fears, Israel could find itself facing a Gaza-style rocket and tunnel threat from the West Bank, not to speak of IS or other jihadi groups penetrating from the east. The trouble is an Israel-Palestine accommodation on Netanyahu’s terms is not possible, and this is where he parts company with Washington.
is unlikely to see in the Gaza fray an opportunity for an all-embracing peace deal; his more probable diplomatic goal will be an unwritten alliance with the Sunni moderates enabling continued Israeli security control over the West Bank and erosion of Hamas’s military capabilities in Gaza.
There is also a key difference in the way Israel and the US view Hamas. For Israel there is no difference between Hamas and IS – both are part of the same Caliphate seeking radical Islamism; for the US, Hamas is indeed a terrorist organization – but it is also part of a festering Palestinian problem in need of political resolution.
In early August, a Palestinian delegation led by the PA and with representatives from Hamas and the other militias held ceasefire talks with the Egyptians in Cairo, with the Americans in attendance. If a new arrangement for Gaza acceptable to Israel emerges, it will almost certainly be based on a version of the reconstruction for demilitarization formula and a concomitant weakening of Hamas’s hold on Gaza.
If, however, the Cairo talks fail and no alternative channel emerges, Israel will hope that the drubbing taken by Hamas in Operation Protective Edge creates long-term deterrence. On the face of it, the results of the fighting should produce years of quiet. The Iron Dome system all but rendered Hamas’s rockets useless; its network of cross-border attack tunnels into which Hamas poured most of its aid money and which took years to build was reduced to rubble in weeks; Israel, using a fraction of its power, caused widespread destruction; there was a horrific toll in Palestinian life; Gaza tottered on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. It seems unlikely that Gazans will be ready to go through all that again soon – especially if there is an attractive alternative on offer.
The question is to what extent Israel will be prepared to contribute toward a flourishing Gaza as part of a new peace dynamic in which Egypt and the US play a key role. In the government, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, leader of the center-left Hatnua party, is pushing for a major move along these lines. Netanyahu is more cautious. He will be careful to avoid being drawn into anything he believes could turn out to be a diplomatic honey trap.
His caution though could cost Israel a rare opportunity to establish a more secure place in a tough neighborhood.