gypt, Qatar, and the United States deserve credit for last week’s temporary truce in Gaza. The momentary break gave relief to the embattled Palestinian population, hostages and prisoners were exchanged, and aid flowed in larger if still insufficient volumes.
But now that it’s come and gone, the pause can be seen as what it was – a temporary respite. Only a ceasefire coupled with a legitimate peace plan will prevent this war from becoming yet another battle in an endless war.
The United States must now do the diplomatic heavy lifting required to end the violence and work on the peace. Sadly, Washington’s failure – despite considerable risk and political blowback – to dissuade Israel from pursuing a reckless, maximalist response suggests it will need to be prodded into action by its allies and others in the international community.
In sheer numbers, the toll since 7 October is staggering. Palestinian casualties near 60,000, with 15,500 killed in Gaza and at least 250 more in the West Bank. Israel has suffered at least 1,200 deaths, as well as 5,000 wounded.
Myths about Israel’s security have been punctured. Palestinian hopes of peace and normalcy remain elusive. American prestige and credibility – and President Joe Biden’s domestic political standing – have deteriorated. Hamas has largely usurped Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) as chief negotiators of Palestinian aspirations. Iran and its proxies have a greater ability to shape regional events than prior to 7 October.
Let us be clear that unless and until Biden demands a ceasefire, Israel will not consider agreeing to one. But even that is not enough. He must also produce a binding road map – not to be confused with the failed 2003 plan – for a two-state settlement. Despite being neither a fair nor honest broker, the United States alone holds the power to influence Israeli decision-making. Israel, after all, has received $158 billion in American assistance since its creation in 1948, far more than any other nation.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken returned to the region again this week in hopes of extending the ceasefire. Instead, he was embarrassed and once again looks like an Israeli cheerleader. His time would be better spent working on a peace plan, or at a minimum developing a clear process which will lead to one. Beyond the moral imperative of stopping bloodshed, there are identifiable foreign and domestic reasons for doing so now.
With Gaza taking up so much bandwidth, the Biden Administration is unable to focus on other pressing challenges. With Congress poised to vote on a massive $61 billion Ukraine assistance package, Kyiv has disappeared from the headlines. Coverage of the recent meeting between Presidents Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping was underwhelming. The UN COP28 Climate Change Conference kicked off in Dubai but lacks the fanfare of previous conferences. Closer to home, the US faces an immigration crisis.
Domestic politics is another impetus for American action. Conventional wisdom holds that an American president can’t afford to make a serious push for peace during his first term.
Former president Jimmy Carter made a herculean effort to broker the Camp David Accords in the 1970s, which included two parts: a bilateral Egypt-Israeli peace, and terms – never implemented – addressing Palestinian sovereignty. President George H W Bush pushed for peace after Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Both faced Israeli intransigence, and each had to resort to direct pressure to move the ball forward. Neither Carter nor Bush won re-election.
Carter’s percentage of US Jewish votes fell from 71 per cent in 1976 to 45 per cent in 1980, while Bush’s declined from 35 per cent to 11 per cent from 1988 to 1992. To be clear, both men were bedeviled by weak economies and other issues, but this decline has long been cited as a reason not to openly confront Israel.
The Gaza war has sparked unprecedented worldwide demonstrations in support of the Palestinian people, including in the United States. It is fracturing Biden’s Democratic coalition – alienating Arab and Muslim Americans, progressives, minorities, and younger voters. This also includes many Jewish voters who believe supporting Israel means backing a two-state solution.
Numerous polls illustrate Biden’s growing political woes, including a 19 November NBC poll that showed an all-time low job performance approval of 40 per cent. Among voters aged 18 to 34, just 31 per cent approve, with 70 per cent disapproving, of his handling of the war. Among Democrats, a majority believe the response of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be excessive, and half oppose providing more military aid to Israel. Only 34 per cent of voters approve of his handling of the Israel-Hamas war.
In Congress, an increasing number of Democrats have expressed support for a ceasefire. This includes Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), and Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), who also said additional aid to Israel “must be consistent with our interests and values and used in a manner that adheres to international humanitarian law, the law of armed conflict, and US law.” Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), once a darling of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), was the first to call for a ceasefire.
Ideally, the Biden administration will introduce a peace plan. But if Washington doesn’t act, others must – even if only to prod the Americans forward. The elements of any peace deal are well known and include: the creation of a Palestinian state in both Gaza and the West Bank, under the control of the PA; security guarantees from the US to Israel, with international peacekeepers and monitoring for a specified period; a commitment to non-violence excluding militant groups unless they renounce violence; and international funding for a comprehensive reconstruction and investment plan for Palestine.
Israel will insist on accountability from the Hamas leadership and those implicated in the 7 October attacks. This will require allowing limited operations against militants, albeit within the bounds of international law. There must also be negotiated agreements on Jerusalem, the right of return, and border adjustments – issues which have derailed previous negotiations. Also, like the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, an agreement will likely need to include disarmament and decommissioning mechanisms. Additionally, there must be the incentive of broader Israeli normalisation with the region – including reviving the nascent Israel-Saudi Arabia Peace Agreement.
Washington can ill afford the political consequences of allowing Israel to resume an unrestrained military campaign that seems principally focused on inflicting collective punishment on the Palestinian people. Regional stability requires active diplomacy aimed at solving the problem once and for all. Only in this way will the United States be able to refocus on other global challenges. At home, only peace can help reverse President Biden’s cratering poll numbers and put him in a stronger position heading into next year’s election.
The writer is executive director of the University of Central Florida Office of Global Perspectives & International Initiatives. He is a distinguished visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo for the Fall 2023 semester.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly