Lack of clarity on Gaza

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 21 May 2024

Recent developments suggest that steps are being taken to prepare the ground for the post-war transition in Gaza, even if no clear announcement has yet been made, writes Hussein Haridy


The Rafah operation by the Israeli army is still ongoing, but according to press reports the Israeli government could put off a major military operation in the city if there are promising prospects for the release of the hostages.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan paid a visit to Israel on 19 May during which he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior officials. The day before, he had met Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed bin Salman and discussed bilateral and regional questions, including the war in Gaza and ongoing efforts to achieve “lasting peace and security” in the Middle East, according to a readout of the meeting by the White House on 18 May.

The talks Sullivan had in Israel dealt primarily with negotiations to release the Israeli hostages in Gaza, the humanitarian crisis, and the “enduring defeat” of Hamas through military pressure and a “political plan.”

Sullivan arrived in the Middle East in the wake of the regular Arab Summit that was held last week in Manama in Bahrain. The final communiqué of this summit endorsed the idea of deploying an international peacekeeping force in Gaza once the war is over. This endorsement coincides with US proposals to send troops from Arab countries, for example Egypt and the UAE, to keep the peace and provide security for the population of the Gaza Strip.

The summit endorsement came as a surprise because of widespread doubts in Arab capitals about the feasibility of such a concept without the agreement of all the Palestinian organisations. Hamas has previously threatened to target any foreign troops in Gaza that would give cover to Israeli control over security matters in the Strip.

Moreover, Netanyahu has repeatedly said that the Israeli army will ensure security in Gaza.

A second recent development came in the following remarks by Israeli Minister of Defence Yaov Gallant: “I call on Prime Minister Netanyahu to make a decision and declare that Israel will not establish civilian control over the Gaza Strip, that Israel will not establish military governance in the Gaza Strip, and that a governing alternative to Hamas in… Gaza will be advanced immediately.”

He urged Netanyahu to put “national priorities above all other considerations”.

However, the most serious dissension within the Israeli War Cabinet came in the form of a televised speech by Benny Gantz, a former minister of defence, member of the War Cabinet, and leader of the centrist National Unity Party, during which he demanded the adoption of a six-point plan and threatened the withdrawal of his party from the ruling coalition if the Israeli government does not accept his plan by 8 June.

The proposed plan includes the setting up of an international civilian governance mechanism in Gaza by the US, the Europeans, and the Arab countries, in addition to the Palestinians. Other elements include the release of the hostages, the defeat of Hamas, steps towards normalisation with Saudi Arabia, and the adoption of a framework for expanding Israel’s military service regulations to draft more Haredim Jews.

In reaction to the Gantz ultimatum, Netanyahu’s Office said in a statement that “the conditions set by Benny Gantz are washed-up words whose meaning is clear: the end of the war and a defeat for Israel.”

Commenting on the remarks by Gallant and Gantz’s televised speech, Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer wrote in the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz on 19 May that “Gantz and Gallant have now… told the Israeli public that their prime minister is prepared to continue dragging the country deeper and deeper into Gaza without any visible plan for ending the war.”

“They have both hinted that he is doing so for political reasons under pressure from the far right. Netanyahu’s War Cabinet has now voted no confidence in him. In any normal political forum, this would be the end.”

However, also in reply to Gantz’s speech, the extreme-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called on the country’s War Cabinet to order a “permanent military presence in all of the Gaza Strip.” He also called for the reoccupation of southern Lebanon if Hizbullah does not withdraw from the border area with Israel.

Taking the three developments together, it would seem that there have been joint understandings, made through US contacts, with some Arab governments about certain steps to be taken in an agreed framework, with support from members of the Israeli War Cabinet, to prepare the ground for a post-war transition in Gaza linked to a possible normalisation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel coupled with “irreversible steps” towards the much-heralded two-state solution.

The Sullivan mission to Saudi Arabia and Israel last week was part of an attempt by the Biden administration to elaborate such a comprehensive plan. However, the chances of its success remain in doubt.


The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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