After Israel Defeats Hamas, the United States Should Recognize Palestine
Assuming Israel succeeds in breaking Hamas’ political hold on the Gaza Strip, the postwar priorities for Israel and the United States are likely to revolve around reconstruction of the strip and a renegotiation of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Since taking office in January 2021, the Joseph R. Biden administration has deprioritized final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. President Biden and his team concluded, likely correctly, that there was not much chance of success. They also believed, incorrectly, that the conflict was being successfully “managed” by Israel. Today, however, senior administration officials, including Biden, are now reintroducing the necessity of a two-state solution as the only path to ensuring security for Israel and freedom for Palestinians.
Three years ago, we argued that the closeness of the U.S.-Israeli alliance made Washington a poor mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. We stand by this contention and hope that additional parties will play more than a nominal role in the diplomacy to come. However, given the extremity of the humanitarian and economic crisis in the Gaza Strip, one that is liable to become even worse before the war ends, there is currently no alternative to U.S. leadership. Even if the United States were to eventually relinquish its monopoly on the peace process, as we would like to see happen, it is unlikely Washington will ever be able to completely extricate itself from its ally’s occupation.
What the United States can and should do is pursue a path forward that will empower Palestinians politically and ensure Israel’s legitimate security interests. In order to achieve this difficult balance, policymakers should reject options that either return us to the unsustainable prewar status quo or seek to tie the United States to certain extreme anti-Palestinian plans gaining traction in Israel. Instead, the United States should aim to maximize the political legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority. This requires pushing back against Israeli actions that make the prospect of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state ever more illusory. It also requires the Biden administration to go further by recognizing a Palestinian state.
U.S. Involvement in the Gaza Strip
Washington has been entangled in the struggle for political authority in Gaza since 2006. At the time, the Palestinian Authority governed those areas of the occupied territories that had been put under restricted Palestinian control after the signing of the Oslo Accords. Alongside the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority was and is effectively controlled by Fatah, the party founded by Yasser Arafat. In 2006, Washington pressed the Palestinian Authority to hold a legislative election, only to see Hamas subsequently win a plurality. Alarmed by Hamas’ unwillingness to recognize Israel (as the Palestine Liberation Organization did in 1993), as well as its all-too-well-known commitment to violence, the United States joined Israel in essentially rejecting the electoral results. The unity government Fatah and Hamas subsequently formed in February 2007 proved unstable. But according to confidential documents reviewed by Vanity Fair in 2008, the United States actually helped stoke a hot Fatah-Hamas conflict in Gaza by supporting an armed campaign against Hamas led by Mohammed Dahlan, the former security chief for the Palestinian Authority there. Although it is possible Hamas would have tried to take over Gaza anyway, the George W. Bush administration’s strategy ultimately helped trigger Hamas’ June 2007 seizure of power.
With Hamas entrenched in Gaza, the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations backed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conflict management paradigm, which was even embraced by parts of Israel’s center-left opposition. Israel and the United States appeared content to accept the status quo: intermittent Hamas rocket fire into Israel and a crippling blockade of Gaza enforced by Israel and Egypt. The Israel-Hamas wars of 2009, 2012, 2014, and 2021 all ended in ceasefire agreements that mainly addressed humanitarian and economic concerns on the margins. At the same time, under the Obama administration, Washington pursued final status agreements with the Palestinian Authority that would have effectively excluded Gaza. The Trump administration openly embraced the priorities of the Israeli right, imposing financial sanctions against the Palestinian Authority and cutting funding to the United Nations agency responsible for supporting Palestinian refugees. All the while, billions of dollars from Qatar were flowing straight to Hamas with Netanyahu’s approval.
Before Oct. 7th, conflict management was, in essence, Netanyahu’s strategic concept — one, he believed, would keep Palestinians divided and demoralized. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority would continue to serve as Israel’s security and administrative subcontractor. In Gaza, Netanyahu reasoned, Hamas’ extremism coupled with its aversion to a full-scale military confrontation would foreclose any prospect of a Palestinian state. The bloody failure of this policy will likely prove fatal to Netanyahu’s political career. It should also mark an end for American passivity toward the plight of Palestinians in Gaza.
Bad Ideas to Avoid
While the precise outcome of the current fighting remains uncertain, it seems clear at this point — with Israeli forces penetrating the southern city of Khan Yunis — that Hamas will not return to governing Gaza when the fighting subsides. It is safe to assume that there will be a period, hopefully short, in which the Israeli military directly administers Gaza alongside concurrent operations by international agencies such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The question for American policymakers now is how to prepare for this post-conflict moment, which could arrive in a matter of weeks or months, or as long as a year. At the very least, Washington should reject certain bad ideas that are likely to be proposed in the weeks ahead.
Bringing in Outside Actors with No Legitimacy
Israel has no interest in directly managing the lives of over 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, but it does not seem willing to turn over security responsibility to anyone else, either. Netanyahu is now on record opposing handing control of Gaza to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, which is the only existing Palestinian governing body that maintains relations with Israel. Perhaps Netanyahu won’t be in power when the time comes to make a decision. But opposition to handing over the keys to the Palestinian Authority — which will also be reluctant to govern Gaza without an Israeli military withdrawal — is not likely to go away. One seemingly innovative plan we are likely to confront is the idea of bringing an outside Palestinian actor, such as Mohammed Dahlan, who is currently backed by the United Arab Emirates. Dahlan knows Gaza well, and both U.S. and Israeli officials have spoken admiringly of him in the past. This, however, would be a mistake for the United States to support. It would continue Netanyahu’s counterproductive policy of preventing a two-state solution by undermining the Palestinian Authority, even, or especially, if the body is somehow coerced into endorsing Dahlan’s return. A Palestinian leader almost completely dependent on Israel and its closest ally will lack legitimacy and be too weak to be much more than a conflict manager. If totally subordinating Palestinian political aspirations to Israel’s short-term security interests helped pave the way to Oct. 7th, it makes little sense to return to that blinkered approach when the fighting ends.
Wasting Time on Multinational Fantasies
We have already seen the idea of a “transitionary” multinational force floated. There is nothing inherently wrong with this idea. But conditions in Gaza are unlikely to attract many capable countries to the mission, and their participation should not be treated as a prerequisite for Israeli withdrawal and the restoration of Palestinian rule. Furthermore, the notion that Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, will contribute troops to such an effort is the stuff of fantasy — a recipe for wasting time while an Israeli ground occupation grinds on. The reaction of millions of citizens of Arab states to the current war in Gaza should finally put to bed the always-ridiculous proposition that the Palestinian cause does not affect the calculations of Arab leaders, who cannot ever fully ignore the depth of public opinion on this issue. True, Palestine may no longer deter some leaders from establishing ties with Israel, but there is simply no serious prospect of Arab states helping police Palestinians in Gaza on Israel’s behalf. The operating assumption for the United States should be that following an Israeli withdrawal, Palestinians will ultimately govern Gaza alone. Fortunately, it appears Biden is leaning in this direction. It is important that he does not waver on this principle.
Mass Resettlement of Palestinian Refugees
Despite some eternal optimism, the fact remains that Arab states will not admit hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Gaza, as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made clear to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in October. Perhaps Blinken simply raised this idea to demonstrate to Israel that such an idea was a nonstarter. It should remain a nonstarter. As Jordan’s foreign minister told Brett McGurk, the Biden administration’s Middle East envoy, last month: “We will do whatever it takes to stop the displacement of Gaza residents. We will never allow that to happen; in addition to it being a war crime, it would be a direct threat to our national security.” Given the Palestinian history of displacement and experience of being denied their right to return to their homes, such a scheme will also have few voluntary takers. The memory of what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba holds significant sway.
Reestablishing Gaza Settlements
Israel’s so-called disengagement from the Gaza Strip settlements in 2005 remains an open wound for many factions of the Israeli right. Most notable among them are the religious Zionists represented by Bezaelel Smotrich, the current finance minister who also holds the defense ministry portfolio responsible for settlements. Prior to the attacks on Oct. 7th and Israel’s subsequent ground invasion, there was little possibility of re-establishing Gaza settlements, even after the Knesset in March repealed the legislation that authorized their removal. It would be a grave mistake for the United States to assume that Israel would never allow the return of settlers to Gaza. The settlement movement is arguably the most successful social movement in the history of Israel, and its ability to defy the wishes of the Israeli government and set facts on the ground should not be underestimated. On top of condemning settler violence in the West Bank, which has spiked since Oct. 7th, Washington should make clear that any settlements in Gaza will be met with severe and unprecedented consequences for the U.S.-Israeli relationship. This also underlines the need for returning Gaza to Palestinian control. As already demonstrated in the West Bank, the settler movement is adept at using an Israeli military presence to establish wildcat outposts.
Returning to the “Outside-In” Approach
The Trump-era Abraham Accords “normalized” relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. This strategy, dubbed the “outside-in” approach, contended that Israel should prioritize furthering diplomatic relations with Arab states, which in turn would put pressure on intransigent Palestinians to minimize their demands for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Before Oct. 7th, both U.S. and Israeli leadership anticipated adding Saudi Arabia to the list of Abraham Accords countries. While this has since been put on hold, Israel is likely to attempt a return to the table. The United States should not allow the old process, which marginalized the Palestinians, to reassert itself. Israel was counting on Washington to make concessions to Saudi Arabia on a defense treaty and a civil nuclear program to seal the deal, which gives the administration significant leverage. The United States can premise future negotiations upon the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, a Saudi-led initiative that promises Israel full normalization of relations with the Arab world in return for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders and a “just” resolution for Palestinian refugees. Indeed, given the current shifts in Saudi public opinion on Israel and normalization, abandoning the “outside-in” approach may no longer be a matter of choice.
A Better Vision
Instead of signing off on these doomed approaches, Washington should push for its own proactive agenda. This involves steps to strengthen Palestinian governance, most significantly by granting provisional recognition to a Palestinian state.
Strengthen Relations with Palestinian People and Institutions
The Biden administration has taken some important steps to restore trust with the Palestinian Authority after the turbulent Trump years. Economic and humanitarian aid that had been cut off has been largely restored, including funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. An important statement of intent was made through personnel as well, with Hady Amr being named to a new position of special representative for Palestinian affairs (formerly the deputy assistant secretary for Israeli and Palestinian affairs). Still, the biggest commitment candidate Biden made to improving U.S. ties to the Palestinians has been unfulfilled: neither the Washington office of the General Delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organization to the United States nor the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem that previously served Palestinians has been reopened. The Trump administration’s shuttering of these facilities achieved nothing besides publicly humiliating the Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority. The consulate in Jerusalem is of particular importance, as it symbolized American commitment to a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. Initially, Washington refrained from pushing for the consulate’s reopening to avoid undermining the “government of change” that briefly put Netanyahu in the opposition in 2021. Now that this is no longer a factor, Biden should make good on his commitment.
Explore Palestinian Political Reconciliation
Hamas and Fatah have made multiple unsuccessful attempts at political reconciliation, including in 2007, 2011, 2014, and 2017. The reasons for their failure are manifold. Neither party wanted to share power, and both the United States and Israel opposed including Hamas in a government that receives American aid. So long as Hamas maintains a standing armed force, the prospects for including them as a political party under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization are slim to none. After Oct. 7th, Israelis are understandably unwilling to tolerate the existence, much less legitimation, of an army of 30,000 to 40,000 fighters bent on their destruction. But if the current fighting really does end with the destruction of Hamas’ military power, then the idea of including their political structure in the Palestinian Authority should not be dismissed out of hand. The obstacles to integrating a disarmed Hamas into Palestinian politics are, of course, significant. At a minimum, Hamas would need to be open to working within a body formally committed to the Oslo peace process. Nevertheless, American policymakers should be receptive to this possibility.
The Palestinian Authority has for years faced an extreme legitimacy deficit. Palestinians have not voted for a president since 2005 or a legislature since 2006. Whether Israel likes it or not, Hamas represents a significant portion of Palestinian society, and they cannot be perpetually sidelined. If the Palestinian Authority remains dominated by Fatah, the party of President Mahmoud Abbas, any agreement reached with Israel will lack credibility. The United States is Israel’s closest and most indispensable ally, and only it can persuade Israel to forego the unrealistic, if emotionally satisfying, goal of utterly destroying Hamas.
Recognize a Palestinian State
The chances that the current leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority can reach a final status agreement are slim. Netanyahu’s political career has been built on preventing a Palestinian state while keeping Israel’s growing economy secure. For his part, Abbas lacks the legitimacy required to make the necessary compromises. Palestinian political reunification and a restoration of trust are necessary prerequisites for a successful negotiation toward a two-state solution. The United States can encourage, but it cannot effectively impose, these conditions. However, it can work to discourage extreme measures that would render a two-state solution even more unachievable, such as annexation or partial annexation of occupied territories or the self-dissolution of the Palestinian Authority.
One bold but not outlandish step Washington could take would be to recognize a Palestinian state, as 138 United Nations member states have already done. While the immediate effect would be a mostly-symbolic upgrade in relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, this would have a number of more significant benefits. Recognition would demonstrate American resolve in opposing annexation of occupied territories. Likewise, U.S. recognition of a State of Palestine would allow the Palestinian Authority to eventually reassume control of Gaza without appearing to be a beneficiary of (if not a partner to) Israel’s devastating war. Another potential benefit is increased American credibility in demanding much-needed reforms to the Authority, which has been plagued by endemic corruption, nepotism, and rights abuses. A more representative Palestinian Authority, one that has internal credibility with the Palestinian population, could become, as it was always intended to be, a state in the making. Recognition would not make bilateral talks between Israel and Palestinians unnecessary, as a negotiated solution would still be required. But with the ultimate outcome as regards to statehood no longer up for grabs, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders would have renewed incentive to make a two-state solution work.
Planning for the future administration of the Gaza Strip should begin now if only to head off its descent into anarchy. The military defeat of Hamas will only prove sustainable, and only deliver lasting benefits to the Israeli and Palestinian people alike, if it is replaced by a government with domestic credibility. This, in turn, requires a real political horizon for Palestinians.
It is time to declare conflict management a failed paradigm. As an ally and friend, the United States should be upfront with Israel: as long as millions of Palestinians live under foreign military occupation — including the insertion of Israeli civilian settlements into occupied territory — Israel will never enjoy the security of a normal country. The final review of the events of Oct. 7th is years away, but it’s already apparent that the Israel Defense Force’s delayed response to the Hamas attack is at least partly attributable to forces being moved into the West Bank following settler attacks on Palestinians. A bona fide security interest, securing a border with a hostile entity, was thus sacrificed on the altar of illegal expansionism. Expansionist aspirations continue to threaten Israel’s security, both by creating future Palestinian terrorists and preventing the Jewish state’s political integration in the Middle East, for which there is still genuine if declining appetite in the region.
In formulating its plan for Gaza, the United States should take a decisive turn away from conflict management and finally work toward conflict resolution. Today, a Palestinian who was a young man in 1993 when the Oslo peace process began is now a grandfather approaching the end of his career. After nearly 20 years of failed policy, conditions in both the West Bank and Gaza have only deteriorated, and Israel is no more secure as a result. Indefinitely delaying Palestinian statehood to the point where it becomes almost impossible has only strengthened violent actors like Hamas. Washington can help break this cycle by strengthening the Palestinian Authority and recognizing a Palestinian state.
Abe Silberstein has worked at several nongovernmental organizations based in Israel. His writing has previously appeared in the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, and Ha’aretz.
Yaël Mizrahi-Arnaud is pursuing a Ph.D. in history and Jewish studies at New York University. She previously worked on Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Image: Wikimedia Commons