‘A peace exit’ for Israel?

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 30 Nov 2023

Next year might see Israel face overdue commitments regarding a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

 A peace exit  for Israel


The advice that Western officials have been privately sharing with their Israeli counterparts behind closed doors over the past couple of weeks is now coming out into the open: Israel needs to put a cap on its war on Gaza.

This week, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin called for “state and non-state actors to avoid expanding the current conflict.” According to the Website of the US Department of Defence, the statement came during a call between Austin and his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant.

According to informed diplomatic sources, the carefully worded statement is only part of what Austin and other US officials have been advising Israel during the past two weeks.

In the words of one, “while it may still talk and act in support of Israel, the US administration has certainly shifted the position it adopted in the earlier days of the war, which was about unconditional support to Israel and tolerance for all Israel has been doing.”

This shift, the same Washington-based source explained, is a function of the “huge and maybe unprecedented criticism” that US President Joe Biden himself is facing within the ranks of his own party and at the level of public opinion both in the US and across the world.

However, the sources agree that the carefully pronounced shift in the US position has been prompted by something bigger than the deaths of the Palestinians in the war. They argue that what is at stake are the political interests of the US and the electoral interests of the Democratic Party and not just of Biden who is counting down for re-election later this year.

Last week, Biden said that the US would put sanctions on armed Israeli settlers. However, this statement did not cause any change in political choices on the Israeli war in Gaza, the second since he took office.

According to one source who spoke in Cairo, the US is now faced with its highest-ever unpopularity in the region, starting with criticism of the double-standards that Washington has applied in the case of Ukraine and the case of Gaza.

Today, there are accusations against the US of openly supporting “Israeli war crimes” against civilians in Gaza. “This situation is a direct threat to US political, and for that matter military, interests in the region,” the source said.

According to a source who works at a US facility in the region, security has been doubled and tripled around all US facilities since the beginning of the war. “This is a clear moment of anti-US sentiments – if only to judge by the criticism that is coming the way of US foreign policy decisions from within the US State Department,” he said.

The US concern is not just about political criticism and security interests. It is also about the growing international push for a shift in the management of the Arab-Israeli struggle.

“There is a considerable shift now from the mode of operation that has been applied since the failure of [the 2007 US-sponsored Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in] Annapolis,” the Washington-based source said.

He added that this shift cannot be overlooked because it is considerable even if it is “slowly brewing” in some of Israel’s closest allies in Europe, particularly Germany, and Israel’s allies in the Arab world, particularly the UAE.

This week, Israel said it would summon the Belgian and Spanish ambassadors to Tel Aviv following remarks by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his Belgian counterpart Alexander de Croo on the Israeli war on Gaza.

Earlier in the day during a joint press conference at the Egyptian side of the Rafah Crossing, the two European leaders had criticised Israel for the suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Sánchez also called for EU recognition of a Palestinian state, saying Spain might do so on its own if the EU hesitated.

The change had earlier been expressed in Cairo, a key player in the management of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi late last week said that talks on the need to negotiate a two-state solution had been exhausted and now is the time for the world to recognise a Palestinian state.

Over the past two years, since Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas first proposed the idea of the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, Cairo has been cautious on the issue and has been favouring a negotiated settlement with Israel.

“I am sure that Israeli officials have not missed the change in the language,” commented an Egyptian diplomatic source.

However, for Biden, as for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the biggest challenge and the most-hard-to-overlook pressure is coming from within Israel itself.

First, there is growing criticism of the failure of the Israeli government to live up to its promise to get back the Israeli hostages taken by Hamas on 7 October.

Critics, including some columnists in the Israeli press, have been saying that Netanyahu’s military operation against Gaza has been anything but a success, not just because he has failed to get the hostages back home and has had to negotiate a deal with Hamas on a prisoner swap, but also because he has failed to eliminate the military capacity of Hamas.

Worse still, Israeli critics have been accusing Netanyahu and Gallant of lying on the volume of casualties during the war on Gaza. Officially, Israel says that under 400 of its soldiers have been killed since 7 October. Critics in the Israeli press claim the number is much higher, however. There is also a considerable discrepancy in the number of Israeli soldiers who have been injured during the war, according to the same critics.

“Once the war comes to an end, Netanyahu will have to release all the figures, and there will have to be an investigation on what has really happened since the intelligence failure that allowed for such a big Hamas attack on 7 October,” said a Cairo-based European source.

He added that the issue is not just about the figures, but also about public confidence in the Israeli government and military leadership, which has certainly been seriously compromised.

Prior to the war, Netanyahu had to deal with demonstrations against plans to reform the Israeli judicial system. Since the war started, he has had to deal with protests by the family members of the hostages and the growing anti-war movement in Israel.

This week, he had to deal with new protests against the budget. He also has to consider the growing movement, especially in the US, of Jews against the war, who have been demonstrating against the war on Gaza under the banner of “not in our name.”

He has to worry about calls for a “one-state solution” – a bi-national state for Palestinians and Jews – and “one land for all” – a Palestinian-Israeli confederation.

“The word apartheid has been so much used in the past few weeks to describe Israeli policies against the Palestinians. Netanyahu is coming under a lot of pressure, along with the entire Israeli government,” said the same Cairo-based European source.

“Israel needs an exit.”

The sources agree that re-starting negotiations with the Palestinians is the exit that any Israeli government must pursue. “Short of a political miracle, Netanyahu is gone; it is over for him,” said the Washington-based source.

“Whoever is coming next will have to face the Palestinian question that Israeli officials thought had been thrown out of the window for good.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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